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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister three or four questions. I remind the House that the debate is not about whether we need accommodation centres; it is about the size and location of the centres.

First, during the debate on 9th July the Minister said that the proposed opening date for the first pilot centre is autumn 2003. Is that still realistic given the present situation?

Secondly, as I understand it, these are all pilot schemes based in rural areas. The Refugee Council suggested smaller pilot centres based within the community. Is it not possible, even at this late stage, to examine the possibility of setting up such centres so that proper comparisons can be made about the effectiveness of how the centres will operate; namely, whether it is right and proper to locate them in local community areas or, as the Minister suggests, in rural areas?

Thirdly, has the Minister seen the report, Parallel Universe, published today by the Refugee Council and the Transport and General Workers' Union, effectively advocating community-based centres? It is not simply a matter of economy in terms of larger centres; it has to do with the large amount of support that people can receive within their own communities. If we look at the successes of many of the refugee organisations in this country and the refugees who have settled here, we see that support is more likely to be forthcoming from their own people than from statutory and voluntary bodies.

Finally, in relation to large centres, has the Minister taken the trouble to examine the outcome of centres in Europe, where the results are better with smaller

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centres, better services and more integration into the community? I hope that the Minister will give consideration to my remarks.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this important debate, building on the considerable discussions that we had on the issues raised in Committee. I am grateful for the comments from both Opposition Front Benches. If I am not stretching them too far, the concern relates not to the principle of accommodation centres but to their execution and how the practice meets good principles.

I begin by reminding noble Lords of the present situation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, said, approximately 80,000 applications for asylum are made each year. That includes both individuals and families. Of those, some 37,000 people applied in the past year for accommodation support from the state. There are currently some 50,000 households accommodated in NASS-supported accommodation in the United Kingdom. That is the current situation. Historically, a high proportion of asylum seekers have been concentrated in London and the South East for reasons that the House will know. The dispersal policy was an attempt to try to ensure that while their cases were being considered people were not all concentrated simply in London and the South East.

Without going into great detail, the consequence of dispersal has been that a number of areas have played a very full part in providing support to asylum seekers, but those have been predominantly inner-city areas. That has not been without its problems. So the origin of the policy of moving towards experiment—a pilot on accommodation centres—was the recognition that we start with a significant problem and that the current situation is not perfect.

The Government have developed four essential principles that they are seeking to fulfil through the pilot on accommodation centres. First, we are trying to ensure that we provide a proper and appropriate level of support to people who have applied to the state for support while their application is considered.

Secondly, we are seeking significantly to improve the speed of consideration of asylum cases. I totally agree with all noble Lords who have spoken about the importance of trying to accelerate the proper processing and the fair consideration of asylum claims. It is in the interest neither of asylum seekers nor of the Government that this is tardy, bureaucratic or a paper chase.

The third principle is to see whether we can spread the responsibility of coping with the numbers seeking asylum fairly around the country rather than simply concentrating the responsibility in inner-city areas.

The fourth principle is to improve contact management. By "contact management" I mean, for example, not allowing people to disappear or to claim multiple benefits as has happened in some cases and to stamp out any forms of abuse.

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Therefore, we want to trial a system which addresses head-on the costs and social consequences arising from the presence of asylum seekers associated with the existing dispersal arrangements. No one is saying that the existing arrangements are dreadful, but anyone with common sense who has looked at the reality of the situation knows that there are some significant problems, both for those communities that are coping with large numbers of newcomers—who are often welcomed but not always—and, secondly, for the asylum seekers themselves moving into strange areas or into schools where they do not necessarily know people but are given accommodation, and who are often in isolation. So we do not start from a perfect position. It would be dishonest to claim that we do.

Those are the four principles that underpin the Government's view of how we should take accommodation centres forward to see whether they can contribute to better meeting those four objectives, which I hope the House broadly supports as a matter of common sense and decency. We want the accommodation centres to offer a supportive environment, and hope that the residents will, therefore, receive healthcare and education, be able to take part in purposeful activities, have access to legal advice and interpretation, and be able to observe their religion.

I go further. The way in which we have currently developed the principle of accommodation centres, albeit on a large scale, seems to me to provide a high level of support and facilities. If there are examples of them being bettered anywhere else in continental Europe, in terms of the facilities and the range of support provided, I should be pleased to see them. We shall argue later about location, but given the principle and the scale of support to be provided in the proposed centres, I believe that they have every chance of being substantially better than is happening in many dispersal areas. It seems a right and proper goal in itself that we should seek to go further in terms of support rather than backwards.

I turn to the debate on integration. I emphasise that we are talking about people who have applied to us for asylum and whose cases have not yet been considered. I shall not go into the detailed figures—that always causes a slight spat. But I think it is accepted that the vast majority of people are not accepted as refugees under the 1951 convention when the full appeal process has been heard. We are talking about people prior to the final determination of their case. When they have been granted asylum or the right to remain in Britain, they ought to be integrated into society. The issue is how to handle them properly, fairly and efficiently, and give them the support they have asked for prior to that decision being made, which we hope will be done quickly.

I shall talk about the numbers. The concern, as you would guess, about the Government's putting on the face of the Bill something as arithmetically precise as 250, even though there might be an escape clause that could or could not be challengeable, is that it gives us no flexibility as regards what we are seeking to do, which is to see how in practice we can fulfil the

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objectives of providing better support, faster processing, better contact management and less burden on local areas or local services. The Government have listened to the debates in Committee and to the representations made by people in this House to me and other Ministers over the summer. I shall try to illustrate that in the hope that it will signal that we are being neither doctrinal nor dogmatic but that we think the four principles advanced are right and proper. We talked to NGOs and the Refugee Council at official level in July. The principles have been welcomed by us, and, I hope, by them.

The first option we are considering is an accommodation centre that focuses on a series of hostels with a maximum total size of 600 residents and where each individual hostel might have about 50 or 100 people. We are keen to explore and debate further with the Refugee Council the pros and cons of such an option. The second option involves one complex dealing with around 250 people. This option would involve limiting the number of languages spoken in the centre and concentrating on one, two or three key languages rather than having the full range. Such an option might, for example, be restricted to single males, given that that group constitutes by far the largest category of applicants for refugee status. Indeed, that was one of the proposals put to us from the Opposition Benches, and we are pleased to explore the option and to take it forward.

Thirdly, we were urged to look at not ruling out a family-only accommodation centre; nor would we do so. We are happy to consider that and to think about how it might be developed either in the first phase of pilots or in subsequent ones. The issue seems therefore about how best we provide the support that people request, while their asylum claim is being considered, in ways that meet those principles.

6 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Obviously what he is saying is, in many ways, encouraging, especially the idea of establishing groups of small hostels and other pilot schemes for small centres. Will the resources for that be made available, given that small centres could involve additional costs beyond those of large accommodation centres?

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