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The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and to support many of the speeches made by other Members of the House. Yesterday's meeting was a revealing occasion and helped many of us to take a view on some of the details of the discussion before the House. If we need to have accommodation centres, their size is vital. The small size promoted by the amendment will provide flexibility as to where they are placed, which will have ramifications elsewhere in our discussions this evening. I agree with everything that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has said about the dynamics of size.
I detect a certain slippage. It should be noted that we are now talking about accommodation centres and not detention centres. I was slightly amused by the expression "the satisfaction of the Secretary of State". Perhaps I may revert to 16th century prose, which I know will delight the noble Earl: there appears to be a movable feast. I support the amendment and hope that the Minister will give it an accepting hearing.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate used the word "slippage" and noted that such centres are now called accommodation centres. "Accommodation" is perhaps a compromise word. It is important to remember that there is a presumption of liberty for immigration detainees. That is enshrined in earlier immigration Acts. Therefore, it is vital that, in considering the location and size of new accommodation centres, we consider how easy it will be for the residents therein to come and go.
My locus for speaking in this debate is that some 10 years ago I was Minister responsible for immigration at the Home Office. In that time I visited three centres. I am not sure whether we called them "accommodation centres" or "detention centres".
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, my noble friend reminds me. One was a large centre close to Heathrow, the second was a smaller centre at Ham Common, just outside Richmond and the third was a ship in an east coast harbour. My officials in the immigration and nationality department were rather alarmed when I said that I intended to visit the ship. I believe that they thought I might receive a rather hostile reception. When I walked up the gangplank I was absolutely delighted to be greeted by a loud cheer. However, those on board were watching a Test match and Pakistan had just taken another English wicket! I learned that of the three centresI am a nautical manthe happiest place was the ship. It was the smallest and there was always something going on. By comparison the large centre close to Heathrow was by far the most inhumane, to use the word that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, used. Therefore, in approaching this problem it is essential that we realise that in the future rich countries like ourselves, France and Germany, will be judged by how we managed to deal with this growing problem of asylum seekers and by how much humanity we showed.
Of great importance to me is that there is fear in relation to this issue. One has seen that recently between Dover and Calais. But our solutions are simply not to pander to that fear. I believe therefore, as other noble Lords have said, immigration detainees or immigration applicants for asylum should not be isolated in rural areas. That would be totally counterproductive. It would ensure that they do not learn anything about the country into which some of them will eventually be granted indefinite leave to remain.
What we want is an atmosphere under which some asylum seekers, who are here for weeks or months, will have opportunities to learn about the habits, the ways and the slang of the country in which they may be spending the rest of their lives. Ideally they will have an opportunity to visit cafes, supermarkets, bars and the local football ground in order to get a feeling of what Britain is like.
On that basis the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Anelay is along the right lines. I support her amendments. I might question the figure of 250. I think that perhaps that is a little small but it is very much a step in the right direction.
My last point is to pick up where I startedon a ship. I hope that the Government will consider very carefully the question of using what is called, I think rather tactfully, "moored coastal accommodation". Its great advantage as the Immigration Advisory Service, among others, has said to me, is that its size can be accommodated to the harbour where the boat is to be moored; for example, one obviously can have a larger boat in Felixstowe than in Oban. The construction thereinwhether large rooms, small rooms and big or small gangwayscan be exactly suited to the required circumstances.
FurthermoreI have to say thisfloating coastal accommodation is very cheap to build. One figure mentioned is that the cost of it could well be as low as £5 per head per day. I suspect that that is a great deal less than the grand and large accommodation centres currently proposed by the Government. They are so grand and so large that in my judgment they will never get built. I believe that the cost of them will be too great and they will get permanently postponed. As an alternative I seriously suggest looking at something simpler, more flexible and cheaper to build. In that context, moored coastal accommodation would do very well.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I believe that it would be useful if the House reminded itself of the purpose of the Bill. There are great demands outside these walls that the Governmentany government, but it happens to be this one this daydeals effectively and efficiently with demand for asylum. There is no question about that. There are great dangers for any government in not doing that.
There are newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, that lose no opportunity to stir up animosity and suspicion against those claiming asylum quite properly under the 1951 convention. We are all proud, are we not, to say that this country has a great tradition of giving asylum to those who are in fear of their lives and have to flee their homes and countries. That is true. But, at the same time, as the Second Chamber of Parliament we also have a responsibility to ensure that the arrangements deal effectively, efficiently and fairly with claims for asylum.
Your Lordships will remember that I have been battering the Government Front Bench about the lack of proper arrangements within the European Union to deal with asylum applications in the first safe country
I return to my starting point: we are debating this issue because the public are not satisfied that the present systems dealing with asylum applications are adequate for the job and the pressures placed on them. That is why accommodation centres are suggested. What are they about?
Earl Russell: My Lords, if we are to be fair to the Daily Mailand I think we should beI do not believe it has any a priori commitment to defending arrangements which it knows will not work. I do not see why it should not listen to our debate just as well as anyone else does.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. He has more hope about those who own and edit the Daily Mail than I have. It loses no opportunity to fan up concerns, which even border on the hatred of those who give up their homes and lives to come here and seek sanctuary under that 1951 convention. So I shall not give them that, although the noble Earl might. He is probably more generous of spirit than I am in that regard.
I was saying that the whole purpose of these accommodation centres is to keep people in one place so that their claim for asylum can be dealt with as expeditiously as possible. There are lessons to be learned from this and perhaps my noble friend the Minister will be able to tell us about the matter. There are experiences from Oakington. I say from memory that about 78 of the Immigration Advisory Service's staff are at the Oakington centre every day of the week, and every week, to help those who are there to understand how to make their claims. They assist them in making their claims and take them right through the process. Also they give them advice on the back of their professionalism and experience as to the merit of their claim for asylum.
At Oakington legal advice is provided on site. It is easily accessible and in languages which those claiming asylum speak. There are some lessons to be learned there. I do not believe that anyone in your Lordships' House would disagree with that. The essential point about trying more effectively and efficiently to deal with asylum applications is having relevant professional legal advice easily available to those making asylum claims.
That must be the overriding argument for accommodation centres. They are not to lock people in. The Government have made clear in these proposals that they are not detention centres; they are accommodation centres. Quite properly, there are residential requirements imposed on those using them because if there are a whole range of services, including legal advice, one would want to make sure that the people are on site for the provision of that legal advice.
I turn to the question of size. It is perverse. One can take a view. No one knows the ideal size. I have to say that to your Lordships. I do not think that anyone will quarrel with me about that. One can take a view that 750 is too many or 250 is about the right size. I do not know the answer. Neither do the Government. What they say in the proposal is, "Let's try this on a trial basis". I have to say to the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite: if these centres are set up with a maximum capacity of 750 people, I doubt that there will be many days of the year when 750 are in them. That is not the intention. The intention is that the people will be there for a matter of weeks. We can argue whether it is 10, 12 or 14 weeks.
Again, I say to your Lordships that one of the purposes of the Bill is to make this whole asylum system much more efficient. That means not throwing fairness out of the window; it means cutting down on the time that it takes to deal with asylum applications. That must be in everyone's interest. I do not think that anyone can argue about that. Nothing is to be gained by asylum applicants or anyone else by spinning out that process.
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