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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords:

I quote this statement from the Children's Consortium, partly because I recognise that, to some, it may be a challenging assertion. But it is a fundamental principle behind this amendment. I join the right reverend Prelate in urging the Government to reconsider their policy on education in these centres.

The Bill as a whole is, understandably, designed to deter migrants within the category of asylum seekers and to protect our own citizens. But this clause separates out all young asylum seekers once they have entered the country. They are all, or nearly all, bona fide applicants in these accommodation centres and about half of them will in any case remain here.

The Government's main objections to this amendment last time were about length of stay and content. They have repeated them today. In an ideal world, they say, the children will remain only a matter of weeks. Yet, without going into the details again, we

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know that the average initial decision takes about seven months at present. Enough has been said about targets, but the present reality is that the Government's argument is wishful thinking. We are talking about months, not weeks and the children will need to be in school.

Separate education cannot be right. No group of children should suffer on the grounds of their immigration status or anything else. In any case, as the right reverend Prelate said, the full range of education is inaccessible in an accommodation centre. How can the Government ensure that the national curriculum is taught in all its aspects, even in the larger centres, when there are only a handful of children in each year group? Nor can child protection and other legislation have the statutory force that they would have in mainstream schools.

There are undoubtedly problems of integration, as there are in any school, not least because of language ability. But the evidence is that far from disrupting schools children of asylum seekers are well received and bring benefits to mainstream schools. Recent interviews conducted by Save the Children with over 700 asylum-seeking children in Glasgow show that school is the highlight of their lives. Schools and teachers were most frequently cited by them as,

    "the best thing about the UK".

Mainstream education is the ideal starting-point to enable refugee children, all of whom will have experienced dislocation, if not trauma, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and many others, to start afresh. It would also have a lasting impact on their future integration into the community.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 34 and 35. It looks as if the Government are in some difficulty as regards their provisions for children with special educational needs. I am advised that these clauses are highly restrictive. Children with severe disabilities will be covered by statements from LEAs providing them with places in special schools. But how do the Government intend to assess the special educational needs of children in accommodation centres when the LEAs have no duty to make an assessment?

Clause 34 specifically prevents local authorities allowing other SEN children to attend mainstream schools. It is hard to see how the education provider in accommodation centres can possibly provide the necessary support within these centres without offending against the principles that we all understand—the efficient education of other children and the efficient use of resources, as listed under subsection (7)(b) and (c) of the clause.

I return to my original point; namely, that children seeking asylum belong to our society and cannot be excluded from it. While their cases are considered, they must be given the opportunities that our own children enjoy and which international law demands.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, before we go any further, I should like the House to contemplate the confusion that has arisen as a result of the earlier

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discussion about the size of accommodation centres. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, gave us to understand that these large centres represent only half of what is planned. One has become a little sceptical about whether or not they will happen. However, in response to the Liberal Democrat amendment, the noble Lord very encouragingly told us that there would be all sorts of smaller centres.

At last night's meeting with those very well-informed people, all the points just outlined by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, were made. They are all true; indeed, I agree with every one of them. But the discussion thus far is assuming that we are talking about dispersed families in small centres—that is, anywhere where there is a local school. However, the big centres about which we are talking are quite different. The one that I understood was to be established in Scotland but whose future is now in doubt would be miles from any school. I was just trying to imagine what would happen to the children. Nursery school children, small children and primary school children would have to be bussed to school, but they would not all be able to attend just one school because many of the local schools would be quite small.

I am sure that the Minister who is to reply to the debate will very likely make those points. But, rather strangely, this Bill does not allow children from accommodation centres to attend local schools. That is what is wrong. As a result, it has evoked a debate in the Church, among noble Lords, and among all the people whom we met last night regarding the rights and wrongs of segregated education. I do not believe that it is about that; it is about what is the right thing for educating children in these centres of whatever kind.

It seems to me that the Government's great mistake is to have forbidden these children to attend state schools under the provisions of the Bill. They will find themselves in a jam if they create small centres and the Bill forbids attendance in mainstream schools. So they must reconsider that provision. The part of this group of amendments that addresses the point must be pursued.

The people whose request for asylum is refused are very often dealt with very quickly. I am not sure how long the process takes. Although we are not supposed to discuss the figures too much because it causes anxiety, I believe that over three-quarters of people are refused. As I said, the decision is made very quickly. If a non-English-speaking child of, say, seven arrives at an accommodation centre and subsequently attends a local school, he will begin to make friends and start to talk in English—by Jove, children learn quickly in school. He would enjoy the experience hugely; but, no sooner had he made friends, he would have to return home. Is that kind? I am not sure.

I have doubts about this provision, partly on the grounds that I believe the Bill has got the whole process muddled up. If we are talking about smaller centres, the Government should not be forbidding children to attend local schools. However, if they are

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talking about big centres, are they right to suppose that it would be better for these children just to learn English with the help of some good teachers? I do not know why we are talking in terms of the whole national curriculum for a period of just a few weeks. That seems ridiculous.

The policy that the Government are enunciating here confirms to me that the whole issue has a presentational element to it. They want to comfort people who think that the school might be swamped and they want to suggest something that can be done neatly in big centres. However, that does not add up. I suggest to the Minister that she should certainly consider whether or not to continue with the clauses that the right reverend Prelate seeks to remove from the Bill. I am not so sure about the first amendment. Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether she is just talking about big centres, or all centres. If the noble Baroness changes her policy, does she accept that local schools must be available? A number of questions have been raised and I shall listen very carefully to the reply to them.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, it is right that your Lordships' House should focus upon children. The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right: we are not talking about the appendages of adults; we are talking about children in their own right. Having said that, I have some difficulty with these amendments and briefly I want to explain to your Lordships why.

I did not attend the meeting in the Moses Room yesterday because, quite frankly, I could not see its relevance to this debate and this Bill. The meeting was all about refugee children. These clauses in the Bill are not about refugee children; they are about the children of asylum seekers. I am not nit-picking here; it is an extremely important distinction. In the Bill we are dealing—

Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord to read the UNHCR handbook, where he will find that all the people whom we call "asylum seekers" are described as "refugees".

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I have not read the handbook. I take the noble Earl's point, but I have some difficulties with the piece of paper that I and, I do not doubt, the rest of your Lordships have received from the High Commissioner on this matter because, in my view, the language does not entirely fit.

However, I am making a point which I consider to be important. In the context of processing asylum applications as speedily as possible, we are dealing here with the children of those who make the applications. I made this point to your Lordships previously. The Minister reminded the House that it is intended that the first assessment of those claims will be made within eight weeks. For a number of children of those parents in most parts of the country, six or seven of those weeks could fall during the period when schools are shut for the summer holiday. That is a practicality of the issue—the mainstream schools could be locked up

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for six or seven weeks for the summer holidays. I am not sure whom that is supposed to help but, in my view, it will certainly not help those children.

We know that broadly between 35 and 40 per cent of those making asylum applications are admitted following the first assessment. According to what the Minister has told your Lordships, such a decision will be reached within eight weeks. I am then led to wonder—the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, referred to this—what favour we do the children whose parents succeed on the first assessment of their applications by taking them into mainstream schools and then taking them out again because they are to be resettled elsewhere. I ask that question simply because I believe it to be a practical one.

I want to ask some other questions. The latest reports that I have seen say that at present most applications for asylum come from people who have left Afghanistan, the Sudan and Somalia. There may have been one other country, but that is the kind of region concerned. I want to ask how likely it is that the children of those families will ever have been to a formal school in their own country. I believe it to be very unlikely.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, quoted from a joint survey by Glasgow City Council and Save the Children. One of the most important findings was that 95 per cent of the children of asylum seekers involved in the survey spoke English. I find that astonishing, but that is what it said. I believe it to be a very rare group of asylum seekers that would have that level of knowledge of the English language, but there it is in the survey. And, while I do not for a moment take away from what the survey said, in a sense it is no surprise because all the children said that they wanted to be at school.

That, again, raises a question mark for me. The survey did not—and, of course, should not because the issue was not researched in that way—refer to mainstream schools; it referred to schools which the children were attending. Of course it did. I do not believe it is fair to pray this in aid and say that, on the basis of the survey, in the circumstances that I describe it is wrong to do what the Government propose to do and for the children of asylum seekers in accommodation centres to go to school in that sense. I do not believe for a moment that the survey can be held to dispose of that argument.

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