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Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords—

Earl Russell: I know that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, has reservations on this point, which I am sure he will state and to which I shall listen with interest.

The situation gives rise to a question that will emerge during discussions on later amendments; namely, how far asylum seekers in these centres are envisaged as being able to come and go during the day. As we all know—and, indeed, as most of us in this Chamber have said many times—bus services in particularly remote areas leave a great deal to be desired. If there is a flood of, say, 100 people trying to board one local bus, a number of whom will be going to collect benefits, many will not be able to do so. Again, such a situation could give rise to resentment.

We need to know that all those questions would have been considered in relation to the particular centre concerned before a decision was made to build

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the centre in that location. There are many more such questions and I could continue for quite some time, but Report is the wrong stage of a Bill to do so. However, turning to Amendment No. 13, we welcome the suggested limit at such centres of 250 people, proposed by my honourable friend Mr Hughes in another place.

We believe that the group dynamics of any collection of people are heavily influenced by its size. Incidentally, that is one reason why this House functions very much more harmoniously than is sometimes the case in another place. The other place has grown beyond the group dynamics in which real friendship across the community is possible. This House has not done so; and we gain very considerably as a result. With a size of 250, it is possible for people to know each other and to make friends across communities—not, as happens in much larger gatherings, to huddle together in tiny little groups of their own sort of people, which tends to have a divisive effect within centres.

Fights between, say, Kurds and Algerians in refugee centres have by no means been unknown. Such situations would be much less likely to arise in a smaller centre. The group dynamics of a small centre will be very much happier than those of a large centre. The point is difficult to quantify. The figure of 250 people is not sacred: but the avoidance of massive units is important. The Government make arguments of economy of scale. I remember the latter being made in favour of the first comprehensive schools. At that time comprehensives were built to accommodate 2,000 pupils. Such schools have not been the most successful of our comprehensives. It is a mistake that Whitehall is capable of making too often. I hope that it will not make it this time.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will take very seriously the feeling behind the amendment. First, in terms of the numbers at present being considered, it seems to me that there is a danger of inadvertently creating a hell-hole of a social ghetto. I say that as someone who, for much of his life, has had the privilege of working professionally with humanitarian agencies. I have seen at first hand what can happen when large numbers of insecure people are herded together. I have seen the psychological complications that can follow. I hope therefore that the issue of numbers will be taken seriously by my noble friend. It is terribly important that he explains to the House why the experience of other countries, to which the noble Baroness referred, has been rejected in favour of larger centres.

The other point I want to raise relates to what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said about the social dynamics. People in the centres are people; we must remember that. The implications of living among 749 other people in an institutionalised environment of institutionalised uncertainty are fairly horrific. The more that can be done to humanise such an unfortunate experience—most of us accept that, even if necessary, it is an unfortunate experience—the better.

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I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would agree that it is not simply a case of ensuring that people in the centres are able to move freely in the community outside and in the real world; the ease of access for people from outside to the centres is also important in establishing relationships and in trying to humanise a little more the position of those who find themselves there. For all those reasons, I hope that my noble friend will not simply reject the amendment out of hand.

I was also present at last night's meeting; it was a telling experience. Those who attended were not just, dare I say, bleeding-heart liberals; they were people involved every day in practical work among those who are in social difficulties and in positions of social deprivation. They speak with the experience of practical engagement. Many of them give their lives—almost literally. When people speak, I wish it could be remembered that such people are giving their lives to work of that kind. Their voices need to be heard. From that standpoint, I hope that my noble friend will treat the points that have been made extremely seriously.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Anelay and ask the Minister whether he will be good enough to spell out clearly and in detail the current position with regard to the siting and building of the early attendance centres intended by the Government. In Committee, the Government confirmed that the building and siting of attendance centres would be subject to the normal planning laws. How many applications for the building of attendance centres have been submitted by the Government: three or four? More particularly, in those applications presumably some indication was given of the size of the centres and of the number of people they would house. Can the Minister tell us the intended number for each attendance centre?

Secondly, is it correct that all three applications—in England, at least—have been rejected by the local planning authorities? If that is the case, what were the main grounds for their rejection? Was one of the grounds, as has been suggested, that all the applications related to rural areas and that the size of the centres—we are talking about attendance centres for 750 people—was likely to smother the surrounding small rural villages?

What effect has that now had on the Government's overall programme for building attendance centres? Presumably the Government intend to appeal the refusal of the planning authorities. Have those appeals yet been made and have inspectors yet been appointed? When do the Government hope that the appeals will take place, and when do they expect to hear the result of the appeals? What effect has the refusal of all three applications had on the Government's timetable in this whole area?

If it is intended that those three applications should relate merely to the first of many attendance centres that will be required, should not the fact that the Government have so far been faced with a blanket refusal on each occasion make them question whether

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they are asking to build the centres in the right areas and of the right size? Or perhaps they should question the basis of the policy that they have been following.

I believe that we need to know the answer to those questions. It seems to me that the powerful arguments made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about the advantages of smaller centres over those proposed by the Government are borne out by the apparent unwillingness of those living in the community to accept attendance centres of the size being suggested.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am a former chairman of the Refugee Council. Like many noble Lords, I am deeply perturbed by the situation which some people—my friends—are prepared to embrace. Quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the possibility of people going in and out of the detention centres, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, asked a number of highly relevant questions.

But I am concerned about people who cannot get out and who must stay inside all the time. Are they expected always to behave as we would like them to do? They will be very frustrated. I am concerned that as many as 750 people should be herded together in the way the Government contend. I do not really care whether or not planning appeals are successful because I do not believe that the Government should have picked upon such an idea. I am deeply concerned that a government which I support have even touched the idea.

It is not long since my grandparents were refugees. They had many difficulties with which to contend but they never had to contend with such a proposal. I believe that the idea is wholly wrong not only from the point of view of people who regard themselves as Socialists, Liberals or liberal Conservatives; in my view, it is wholly wrong that people should be exposed to this type of difficulty.

Asylum seekers are not criminals. Some may even be regarded as future citizens of this country. Some have done their best to get here, to rescue themselves and their children. Some may have behaved ignobly, but whatever their reasons I do not believe that anyone should presuppose that they are guilty and that they should be treated like serfs. What is worse is that they are confined to a situation in which they are exposed to rural circumstances only, which makes it virtually impossible for them to receive the kind of advice, concern and treatment to which they are entitled.

If a Division is called on this point, regretfully I shall have to vote against the Government because I believe that the point of view that is being expressed by them is wholly wrong.

5 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, it is difficult to follow that moving speech by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. It was passionate and from the heart. I support the amendment, especially as it applies to children and their education. One of the most

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important principles that any democracy should have at the very top of its agenda is attention to the needs of the most vulnerable and dependent in society—children.

This amendment firmly underlines that principle by seeking to incorporate on the face of the Bill that the needs of asylum seekers should dictate where the proposed accommodation centres be located. Many noble Lords have already mentioned the "No school apartheid" meeting yesterday. That briefing could not have failed to impress on anyone present the deep concern about the Government's plans to segregate asylum seekers in accommodation centres, some of which are very large and often in remote areas, even for those with children.

Whether it was teachers, parents or asylum seekers themselves who spoke yesterday, the point was made again and again that becoming part of a local school community is beneficial not only to the children concerned, who by definition are often traumatised, and to their parents, but also to the children who already attend the school who learn about other countries, the lives of people living in other countries and their suffering. As one youngster put it, she was the one who had profited because she had gained knowledge from someone who had recently joined the school so that she was able to write a play about the experiences. There was also a robust denial from everyone in the room of the media assertion that local schools were being swamped by an influx of asylum-seeking children.

No one denies that the substantially increasing numbers of asylum seekers coming into this country is causing problems, nor that those who attempt to come to the UK illegally should not be swiftly returned. Equally, this country has always had, and indeed needed, immigrants, asylum seekers or whatever one calls them. We also have considerable cause to be grateful for the skills, hard work and varied talents that they have brought with them.

Above all, a nation and a government that set considerable store by their commitment to human rights, and not least stress in the Adoption and Children Bill currently before your Lordships' House, that the overarching principle to be followed will be the child's welfare, should surely be more than willing to welcome, as well as accept, Amendment No. 12 so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay.

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