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The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 4 is grouped with government Amendments Nos. 8, 18 and 19. The purpose of our amendment is to place a four-month maximum time limit on the period that people spend in accommodation centres.
I presume that government Amendment No. 8 gives power to make rules limiting the length of stay in accommodation centres when a person wants to leave. It seems likely that the Government may argue that their amendment is superior to ours, which has the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay.
We propose this amendment for two reasons. The first is the argument that centres are not a normal social setting and that a lengthy stay in one is a poor preparation for settlement in the United Kingdom for those who are to remain following a successful outcome of their application for asylum. Our concern is that people may become institutionalised. Such people may well seek to opt for a longer stay in the centres. The second reason is to seek to force the Government to make good their commitment to speed up processing times. That is an issue independent of the views of those in the centres.
I do not see why the Government should object. The major argument that they have put forward throughout the proceedings on the Bill is the speed with which they want to deal with asylum applications and people in accommodation centres. Accommodation centres will be very expensive. They will take a great deal of attention away from the vital matter of improving the National Asylum Support Service, which will continue to be responsible for the majority of asylum seekers. A centre in which people will stay for a few weeks requires different facilities from a centre in which people stay for several months. The worst of all possible worlds is a centre that is designed for short stays but in which people have to stay for longer periods with inadequate facilities. Lengthy stays will also destroy the throughput of cases, causing centres to deal with a smaller number of cases.
Clause 24 deals with the length of stay for families. The Government have been prepared to talk of their current intention that regulations will provide that families will be allowed to leave after nine months. We note that there is a similar amendment on general length of stay, but nine months is not good enough. A
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 4 moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I endorse all the arguments that he has put and I shall supplement them with some different observations.
On previous occasions I have argued that it is important to have a time limit on the face of the Bill because I believe that it will introduce the necessary rigour to the operation of processing claims. This is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that we believe, if properly completed, will ensure that we have a one-stop shop in which all can have confidence. It fits in well with other pieces of the set, that the accommodation centres should be in a location that is suitable to the needs of the people who will be accommodated in them and, as we shall discuss later, that there should be access to legal advice from suitably qualified advisers.
As I mentioned on Report, the experience of other organisations shows that it is important that one proceeds with processing such applications and in a fair way. It is possible to be fair while having fast processing. Oakington has shown that that is so. Where there is legal advice, the legal decision takes from seven to 10 days and appeals are listed within four weeks thereafterwell within the four-month period that we are discussing.
If there is no incentive on the face of the Bill to have a proper targetI believe that four months is a genuine and proper targetthe likelihood is that time will be allowed to drift, bureaucracy and slowness will set in and people will spend far too long in the accommodation centres. I support the amendment.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendment. I want to draw your Lordships' attention to a letter from Dr Matthew Hodes, who is senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine. He writes:
We have not heard what kind of health services will be provided in the centres; we do not know what mental health provision there will be; and we do not know what child mental health services will be provided. I should be grateful to the Minister if he could tell the House what stage of planning has been reached in that respect.
There is a serious shortage of provision in mental health, especially in terms of consultants and in terms of child and adolescent mental health. I am concerned that if children are to spend long periods in such an environment they should at least have decent health
The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, I hope that the Minister will forgive me intruding again on the debate. We on these Benches understand the complexities and the difficulties of handling these kinds of issues. Others have spoken of that, and successive governments have struggled with them. Let us be under no illusion that we are tackling a difficult human problem. This is not a party political matter, but a matter with which we all struggle.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that many of us are concerned about the accommodation centres as a way of handling the situation. In Committee, the noble Lord said, in talking about the options, that:
What will an institution of 250 predominantly young males be like? What will that mean to the people who stay there? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the timings concerned, I believe that 250 people living together for four months will be long enough.
Where will the centres be located? Will they be in the countryside? Will the people have access to the local communities? If they are in vulnerable multi-ethnic and multi-cultural centres what will be the impact? Those are our anxieties and that is why on these Benches we have considerable sympathy with those who want to hem in the centres. Knowing all the difficulties that the Minister, the Government and all of us face in tackling these problems, we need to know the humanity of the situation .
Even on a pragmatic level, might we not be dealing with people who could be leaders in their own community in years to come? Is it not, therefore, important that they take back with them a message of how well they were treated in our society, even under difficult circumstances? That would be both a hopeful and a good message about this country and its values. That is why we are anxious on these Benches about these proposals. Anything the Minister can say to help us with that anxiety would be enormously welcome.
When making that visit, what became absolutely clear to me was the positive atmosphere that I seemed to detect. Although some people question how far it is positive, from my experience around the world it seemed to me to be a relatively positive atmosphere, which related to the fact that it was full of hope with the expectation that everyone would be out of the place in no time at all. If the length of time that people will stay in the place is extended, the whole psychology of the centre will quickly change. I do not suggest that there is any ill will in that respect, but the inevitable bureaucratic processes will lead to people staying much longer.
The amendment before the House is important in principle. I congratulate the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on having put it forward. If my noble friend the Minister wants to convince us, he must assure the House tonight that he will have some specific, watertight arrangements in place to ensure that there is no drift and that such places do not change in character. Otherwise, there will be no alternative but to consider the amendment extremely seriously.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I believe I am right in saying that the Oakington centre is not relevant to this amendment, because the Government have the intention of using it entirely for people who are certified.
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