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The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, unfortunately, it does not.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, at that meeting, as has been said, people who know how such things work and who have worked with such people appeared deeply worried. They simply could not understand how the Home Secretary in a Labour government—a new Labour government—could propose such a policy. They were not representatives of political parties; they were professional people from all sides of the spectrum. It was hugely impressive, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will agree with me. I was moved, and I thought that the meeting was significant.

The meeting was about schools, but there was also a massive thumbs-down for large accommodation centres. There was no question about that among those 86 people. On the other hand, the public at large feels rather comforted by the idea, and that is the problem with which we must deal. I shall support my noble friend's amendment, if there is a Division; the 86 people at the meeting would have supported it. I do not know who else will support the amendment, but I hope that other noble Lords will.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I shall add a sceptical note to the general unanimity surrounding the amendment. I heard what my noble friend, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, said. The first thing that we want is that the people in the centres should not stay there long. We must create centres that can minimise the time that people spend in them.

The facilities for processing applications should be the best, and that raises the question of economy of size. If we have people in accommodation designed for groups of 250, the number of translators and immigration officers that we need will treble. We need the same number of such people in a centre, whether there are 250 or 750 people in it. We might need one or two more, but not three times as many.

People talk as if 750 were a fantastically large number. Citizens of this country would consider a council estate of 750 residents to be a small one. I have great respect for the people who are agitating, and I do not want to be a heartless beast. We want to be nice to asylum seekers, and, if it were left to me, I would admit everybody, without any bar. That is another story. Many people listening to our debate might think that no one had ever lived on a council estate of 750 people.

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That number—750—is also just about the right size for a five-form secondary school. Sometimes, schools can be too small. If there are 250 people, half of whom are schoolchildren, and those 120 young people are distributed between six or seven forms and, perhaps, between one or two schools, their chances of getting beaten up in the playground are higher than if there were more of them. People can find solidarity in numbers. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, is shaking her head; she does not believe that. I was brought up in a crowded household, so I do not think that that is a bad thing.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I was shaking my head—I apologise for doing so from a sedentary position—simply because most people who are familiar with pre-school and primary education will agree that 250 is already a substantial-sized school. A much larger one is indeed likely to have extensive bullying.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I had the experience in Islington of having to amalgamate schools which were too small. I feel that if there are only one or two children of asylum seekers in a school rather than 10, they are likely to get beaten up.

There are arguments on either side about economies of size. It is not obvious to me that the arguments are all one way. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, who is not in his place, referred to group dynamics and how our group dynamics are much better than those in another place. But, on paper, our size has always been larger than the other place. We have always numbered around 750—the magic number. The House of Lords has 750 Members.

I hope that people do not suddenly decide that small is beautiful all the time and therefore we must go with a policy of small is beautiful. It is paradoxical that if you go to a small rural community, it is bad to have such a policy there. In such an area they want economies of size; they want to have the asylum centres located in large, over-crowded urban areas. That is fine because those lovely rural people are too precious to suffer any inconvenience.

Perhaps we should have the 250-size centres in rural areas—or maybe even only 100-size centres—but we have to make certain that, wherever we locate them, we do not antagonise citizens living ordinary lives and incite dislike of asylum seekers. We must expedite the processing of applications so that their stay in these centres is as short as possible. We should keep that consideration in mind.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Corbett, have both appealed from the Government Benches for legal advice from the earliest possible stage—the Minister knows that I am also concerned about that—so that we get the best possible quality of first decision and avoid multiple appeals and judicial reviews. I hope that he will explain to the House how he sees legal advice working in these accommodation centres. Will there be resident

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advisers or will the people in the centres be given proper travel expenses to enable them to get to qualified legal advice?

I support the amendments. I consider both to be necessary. A limit of 250 people will be far more manageable and give far better protection to unaccompanied women and children. We all know that the centre at Sangatte in France was far too large and almost totally unmanageable. Proposed subsection (2B) in Amendment No. 13 will give flexibility to the Secretary of State to adjust the maximum number in the light of experience.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendment. I declare a family interest. In the 1930s my father was involved in helping children from the Spanish Civil War and children from Germany to settle in this country.

My principal concern about the Government's proposals is the concentration of very unhappy people in narrow, isolated environments and its consequences for the children. I support the amendment because it reduces the number. Even at that number, I am still very concerned about what is proposed, but it will be less harmful for the children. I attended the meeting last night. A very important theme of the meeting—and again at lunch today with child refugees—is that these children have been traumatised. They have lost their culture, their homes, their language. They arrive and are put into centres with many other people who have also been traumatised, who have also lost their homes, their lives, their language. Can it be healthy for that to continue for six months?

I know that there are other priorities—many noble Lords have referred to the need to process claims more quickly and so on—but, looked at from the point of view of the children, I am afraid that I cannot see any way that a size as great as 750 would be in their best interests, even if there were all kinds of services there to support them. That seems unfeasible in remote and isolated areas, especially if one is talking about teachers moving there, even for a short time, to support them.

I understand that there is no expectation of a great acceleration in the processing of claims in the near future. If that is the case, we must bear in mind that quite a few of these children will be in these centres for up to six months. I strongly support the amendment.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I wonder whether I am one of the few Members of the House who has been involved in setting up centres for refugees. I did so some years ago when I was head of the Refugee Council at the time when my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis was chairman of that organisation. The occasion for setting up the centres—we called them "reception centres"—was when, under a Home Office scheme, the Government took 4,000 Bosnians from the Serb concentration camps and we had to find accommodation for them very quickly.

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I am bound to say that local opposition did exist. There was some surprising local opposition, even to the setting up of very small reception centres, because some local councils did not like them. I do not want to be party political, but Wandsworth Council did not come out of it very well. On the other hand, in some parts of the country there was local support. I remember that we set up a centre in Newcastle, where the local community was incredibly supportive and that gave the Bosnians a very good start in that area.

I fear that there is likely to be some local opposition, which may be disguised as opposition to the size but is actually based upon prejudice against having people from other countries, who are seeking safety here, living in their midst. So let us not be too naive and say that all opposition is simply based upon objective criteria of size or other reasons.

Having said that, we need to be careful about size. I am supportive of the idea of accommodation centres because it is important to provide facilities for people who have arrived here, who have nowhere to go and who need to be stabilised in their lives after the trauma of their experiences. We should not forget that some of them will have had appalling experiences on their way to safety. These are people fleeing from persecution, from fear of torture and imprisonment, perhaps even from fear of death.

It is right that we should provide them with a stable context in which they can begin to rebuild their lives while decisions are made as to their entitlement to stay in this country—that is, whether they qualify under the 1951 Geneva Convention. Accommodation centres per se are useful—and, indeed, for some, essential—bases when people arrive here. They provide advantages in that people can be supported in such centres.

I worry about the size. I am not saying that any one size is good, but I would urge upon the Government flexibility. Let us not be dogmatic and say, "There will be three large centres"; and then, "There will be more large centres in the country because that is all we can do". Let us be flexible and say, "Let us try some smaller ones".

I remember that the Refugee Council tried to set up a reception centre in Hammersmith. We found a building with accommodation for about 120 people. Of course, in those days the Home Office would not provide money for it and we simply could not get the resources together to set it up. But we went through all the details of how it should be done—the support, the accommodation, the schools and so on. The Bosnian scheme was Home Office backed, so we had more support for that. Even so the difficulties were enormous.

So, from my experience, I urge flexibility upon the Home Office. I urge it not to be stuck with one particular model. Let us be flexible. Above all, let us seek local support. It made such a difference to those of us working with refugees, but, more importantly, to the refugees themselves. In Newcastle, there was enthusiastic support from doctors, social workers,

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local councils and schools. All were keen to help because they felt that it was their duty and responsibility. It makes such a difference to people to be in a sympathetic environment rather than to have the sense that they are surrounded by those who are not keen on their being there or do not want them. Let us opt for local support, flexibility and centres that are not so large.

We should also remember that support in the camp—that is a slip of the tongue; I mean the accommodation centre—is important. In addition, refugee community organisations will want to give support to people from their own communities and will need access. Support from their own communities in terms of language, culture, religion and so on is both valuable and stabilising. Legal advice given by the Immigration Advisory Service, the Refugee Legal Centre and other organisations is important. If the centres are inaccessible, that kind of advice cannot so easily be forthcoming.

I appeal to my noble friend—whom I know to be sensitive to these issues and to have an understanding of them—to show flexibility and understanding for the difficulties that may arise if we simply set up large centres in remote areas where support is not forthcoming and where a sympathetic local environment will not exist.

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