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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, will my noble friend give way? Some, if not a majority, of the schools to which he referred are open for children in the summer. The children can attend for two months or so. It is true that they do not receive formal lessons, but they have the advantage of being with other children. Does my noble friend agree?
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, my noble friend is right. I have experience of that in the city of Birmingham. ButI do not know and should like to find outI wonder how often that applies to schools
There are two other assumptions behind the amendments and I have great doubts about what they seek to achieve. First, against the time-scales that I have already mentioned, there is an assumption that the children of asylum seekers will be able to integrate readily into what, for most of them, will be thoroughly strange surroundings. That will particularly be the case against the background, for many, of the most traumatic experience of being trafficked halfway across this planet in order to reach the United Kingdom so that their parents can claim asylum. In the first weeks of arrival in a totally different culture which is alien to their experiences, I question whether they will find it easy to integrate. I believe there must be at least some argument that they will fare bettercertainly in the initial weeksby being among children from their own backgrounds while they adjust to the different, strange and foreign surroundings. Their new environment will be all those things to children from remote countries. I believe that that is a factor in this issue.
The second point that I want to make is tied up with the first. There is an assumption that somehow in the accommodation centres we offer security, safety and sanctuary to parents. But then we say, "Well, the children won't be able to enjoy that for the length of time that adults can because we are going to take them away and put them into mainstream schools". We shall leave aside the question of how near the mainstream schools might be. They will certainly not be around the corner from the sites that the Government have in mind for the accommodation centres. I wonder about a family that, again, has been trafficked halfway across the world. It arrives at an accommodation centre and is then split up. It is no good saying to a tiny child who has been dragged halfway across the world in those circumstances, "It's all right. You're coming back tonight". That runs the risk of introducing even more problems than those with which they must already cope.
I turn to my final point. I hope that your Lordships will not mind my reminding the House of when we last debated the issue. On that occasion I mentioned to the then Minister that I hoped very much that, if the Government were successful in their ambition to establish accommodation centres and to provide education within those centres for children, there would be real and live links between the schools in those centres and the schools in the surrounding areas.
That is extremely important because the centres will not be segregated in the sense that they will be behind high wire fences. At least there is the intention that there will be exchanges between the education provision in the centres and the local schools. I acknowledge that that does not dispose of the arguments, but there are some countervailing arguments that, in my view, are just as powerful on behalf of the child as the arguments put forward by those who support the amendment and say that it is in the best interests of the children to put them straight into mainstream schools.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Lord said that the reason that he did not attend the meeting last night, at which he could have debated these matters as there was no one putting forward the Government's point of view, was that it was not about asylum but about refugees. I imagine that my invitation is the same as his. It says:
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I believe that we have the same leaflet, but I am mixed up about which meeting it was. It was another meeting. I e-mailedI hesitate to say who, although it may have been Save the Childrento make that particular point and asked why the expression "refugee children" was being used when referring to children of asylum seekers. I apologise to the organisers of the meeting.
Earl Russell: My Lords, as this matter has become so dominant I shall take a few minutes to put it right. The word "refugee" in the UN convention and in the UNHCR handbook applies to anyone from the moment he or she makes his or her claim for asylum. That was the law and it was upheld by the Appellate Committee of this House in a judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, in 1993. The position changed with a single remark made obiter by Lord Justice Simon Brown in the case of Ex parte B in 1996. Only since then has the distinction between refugees and asylum seekers come into British law. People were using language in a form that was only six years out of date.
I also believe that the noble Lord is a little pessimistic about the chances of asylum seeker children in mainstream schools. He forgets the extraordinary adaptability of children when they want to be adaptable. When I had been in the United States for three weeks one of my graduate students rang up. My son picked up the phone and the graduate student later asked me, "Who was the American boy who answered the call?"
I have mentioned before a Kosovar family known to me. Their daughter, who was 12 when she arrived, has now been in a mainstream school for one year and speaks English rather better than I do. She is developing an intriguing combination of the intellect of David Starkey and the manners of the Queen and she devours the publications of the National Portrait Gallery with the greatest assiduity. I believe that there are many more such cases than the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, is aware of.
In reply to many of my amendments the Minister said that he would reflect on the matter during the summer. We too were capable of reflection during the summer. On 10th July at col. 704 I gave warning of the possibility that we may do so. I thank the Minister and his officials for the courtesy with which they have helped us in a good many meetings, but the reasons are not known to the House so I need to describe them to a certain extent.
When the Bill was in the Commons my honourable friend Mr Hughes, with the agreement of the whole party, was concerned, as we remain, to shorten the time that people spend in accommodation centres. He accepted an offer from the Home Secretary to trade off a guarantee of not longer than six months in accommodation centres for acceptance of this educational proposal. In Committee it was my task to probe that undertaking. The Minister gave replies that I could best describe as sincere but not robust. We understand the reasons for that. The general feeling in the width of colloquy on our Benches afterwards was, "Do not shoot the Minister, he is doing his best". I know something about the posts from Tirana, for example. They are not unique on this subject.
Our anxieties began with some questions asked by my noble friend Lord Greaves, especially in a concluding intervention in the Minister's speech. The words "separate but equal" are rightly of ill omen on this subject, but speaking as one who regards Cambridge as the other place on both sides of the Atlantic, I say that the situation, although improbable, is not impossible.
My noble friend's question showed that, although qualified teachers were to be employed, not all the teaching was to be done by them. Some of it would be carried out by assistants and some by parents. There was to be no responsibility for the LEA, which may have monitored common standards. The job was to be given to contractors who, it is clear, would be under instructions to save money. So there is no mechanism by which common standards can be obtained.
Here we engage the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I understand, and the Minister will remind us, that this country has made a reservation to that convention relating to the children in this country who are not British nationals, but the UN committee that is monitoring our compliance with the convention at the moment has ruled that that reservation is contrary to the convention itself. We have to look at Article 2.2 of the convention and take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis
Another matter that has altered the position since we discussed it in July is the sudden withdrawal of the right to work. There is no guaranteed right to support outside accommodation centres. If a person is in a position where he or she does not have a right to support or the right to work, early discharge from an accommodation centre begins to appear a rather less attractive prize. The argument against segregation in education correspondingly carries more weight. That weight has been helped inside the Government as well. A human rights report of the Foreign Office of 2002 states:
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