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Lord Judd: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point. I am full of apprehension because a centre that is a good place at present, despite all the constraints of the policy that is being administered, could become a different place very quickly.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, other noble Lords are confirming my remarks. The Government intend fundamentally to change the nature of Oakington. In the future, it will be used only for the people who are certified and who will not have a right of appeal. All those cases will be dealt with in the seven to 10 days that it presently takes for a decision to be made in the first instance.

I have sought to ask the Government the following question on several occasions, but have never received a proper answer. In the original White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer, we were told that the Government intended to process cases within a total of six months. That time was divided up into two months for first decisions, and four months for the whole of the appeal process. Yet we are still talking about a six-month

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period now that the whole of the casework system, which, as noble Lords will remember, was really in chaos at the time of the White Paper, has been fundamentally reformed. We should also bear in mind the fact that the purpose of accommodation centres is to concentrate all services under one roof, including legal services, so that people can be put through the system as fast as possible.

The Government are fully in accordance with our intention not to ask people to remain in accommodation centres for any longer than is necessary. With all the improvements that we are told have been made in the processing of asylum cases, together with the further improvements that would result from having people in accommodation centres, I simply cannot understand why we have not been able to improve on the estimates made a few years ago in the White Paper.

The Government said previously that the time limits available to people for appeals had not changed, but that has always been the case. When they originally made the estimate of six months for total processing, the legal requirements for notice of appeal, and so on, were the same then as they are now. So that part of the process has not been altered. However, as a result of the improvements in the casework system and the concentration of services, especially legal services, in one place—thus enabling quicker access to them—one would have expected a slightly better outcome now than five years ago.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I missed the first few sentences of the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I hope, therefore, that I shall not repeat what he said. It seems to me that this is a reasonable amendment. On Report, (at col. 312 of the Official Report), the Minister said that 70 per cent of all asylum seeker cases were determined within two months. He went on to point out that that had improved from 60 per cent, and said that it was hoped that that rate would shortly improve. With the proviso that in "exceptional circumstances" the four-month period could be exceeded, the amendment seems to be most reasonable. I hope, therefore, that the Government will accept it.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment. Like the right reverend Prelate, my concern is with the very concept of "accommodation centres" and their usefulness, as well as the proposed length of stay. However, I shall not repeat those arguments today. I wish to raise just one concern.

I understand that the Minister has been in regular conversations with the Refugee Council about the alternative models that it has recommended, but that he has not been able to make any commitment. I am sure the noble Lord will agree that we have been discussing this issue as though it were already a major plank of government policy, when in fact the policy is in its infancy and the vast majority of asylum seekers are subject to dispersal under existing rules. I put it to the Minister that that also implies that he remains

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open to the ideas being put forward by the specialised bodies, many of which have the day-to-day care of asylum seekers and understand their needs.

If that is the case, can the Minister give the Refugee Council some assurance that its models for more modest forms of accommodation are being studied, and could yet be reflected in this Bill? Why must the Government press on with one set of plans in primary legislation, while leaving another set of plans to vague promises of co-operation? I submit that this is giving rise to considerable suspicion that consultations, which I know have reached an advanced stage and which involve considerable time on the part of all parties, are no longer being given the weight that is due and that Ministers promised.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I genuinely believe that this issue is one on which there is shared agreement about the objective that we want to achieve, but that the debate is about what is a sensible mechanism to get there. I would not go so far as to say that that was the unanimous position in the Chamber, but it seems to me that there is a general consensus that it is important for us to achieve rapid, fair, and proper decision making on asylum applications, while providing people with the support that they have asked for and to which they are entitled under the law.

The debate is about the best way of making that decision-making process work more quickly in accommodation centres. As the House knows, we believe that such centres have the potential to provide excellent quality of support and, at the same time, improve significantly the processing—if I may use that rather cold term—and the decision-making process, both on the initial decision and on the first stage of appeal.

Amendments proposing a variety of maximum lengths of stay for residents of accommodation centres have been put forward during different stages of the Bill. We have had 10 weeks, three months, four months and six months, sometimes allowing for exceptional cases and sometimes not. The joint amendment—Amendment No. 4—echoes an amendment tabled on Report which proposed that the maximum time for people to remain in accommodation centres should be four months unless there were exceptional circumstances. It differs from the amendment tabled by the noble Lord in Committee, which suggested a maximum of six months. In turn, that differed from Simon Hughes's proposal in another place for a maximum of six months with the possibility of a further three. That differed from the proposal made by the noble Baroness in Committee and on Report that the maximum should be 10 weeks. That differed from the maximum of three months, suggested by, I think, Humfrey Malins in another place. So we are not lacking creativity in that respect.

We all want faster processing, but the succession of arbitrary suggestions of maximum limits is not helpful. They are not accompanied by detailed processes showing where each stage has been reduced or whether there are knock-on effects in other parts of the system. It is not in the interests of asylum seekers or the public

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to pick out such limits simply as an attempt to set the Government up to fail. Our intention is that people will be well supported in accommodation centres throughout the process of initial decision making and subsequent appeal rights. We must remember that the centres are designed to support asylum seekers throughout the process of initial decision making, appeal to an adjudicator and, if they choose, any subsequent appeals.

My problem is not with the objective that the House is trying to achieve but with the mechanism. It is not realistic, and I shall explain why. Current practice directions from His Honour Judge Henry Hodge, who presides over the Immigration Appellate Authority, are that a substantive appeal hearing before an adjudicator—the first stage of an appeal—will not be given less than seven weeks from the date of receipt of appeal in respect of standard track cases. That means that the appellant will be given at least seven weeks to prepare a case. Plenty of noble Lords will affirm that that is right and necessary. We can add to that the time for the appeal to take place, which could easily be another two or three or more weeks after that. So even if we sustain—as, I suspect, we will—the two-month period for the initial decision, it will not be possible to deal with a case within four months, unless we shorten the time that appellants have to prepare and present their case. It cannot be sensible that people must be asked, prior to having their first appeal considered, to leave the accommodation centre. Setting a time limit of four months would mean that we would allow all those who sought permission to appeal to the tribunal to leave the accommodation centre, whether they wished to or not.

We must also remember that we are trialling accommodation centres, with a view to rolling them out nationally if, as we expect, they work. It is not just a question of creating a fast-track procedure for around four centres. The system must work for the generality of destitute asylum seekers. For that reason, we do not think—we will not be mealy-mouthed about it—that it is sensible to put such measures into the Bill.

Noble Lords will notice that, during the Bill's passage, we have made two major changes. First, we accepted that, if a family with children were still in an accommodation centre after six months, their situation would be reconsidered to see whether it was still right and appropriate to retain them there. Their views would be taken into account as part of that process. If the Government decide that they should stay, they have the right to leave after a further three months, whether the Government want them to do so or not.

In response to arguments made on Report last week, I agreed to give further thought to whether we should have a further power in the Bill that would make it possible to put other time limits into effect. As noble Lords will see from our amendment, we have decided that the power is there to bring in time limits for other classes of applicant, apart from families with children, or, alternatively, to bring in time limits differentially for some accommodation centres if we feel that they need an incentive or for other reasons. We are not

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being flippant: we are saying that we are persuaded that time limits may have a role to play both in the interests of the applicants, in certain circumstances, and as a stimulus to processing. We are not being obdurate for a second. Our minds are open—in some cases, more than open—on the matter, and we have been persuaded. However, we would be mad to do that in primary legislation. If the House reflected soberly on the matter, it would not for a minute think otherwise.

It is a highly dynamic situation. I do not know—I doubt that any Member of the House does—what the asylum situation will look like in Europe or in this country in three years' time. What ability will we have to improve the speed of processing? Will we be able, as I hope, to go much further than we have done to date? It is not possible to see the future with the apt degree of precision.

The amendment would mean that irrespective of the volume of applicants, irrespective of their needs and irrespective of the stage that they had reached in the process, they would have to be moved elsewhere after four months. That is not sensible and not in their interests. Nor is it in the interests of any government seeking to manage the process. It is sensible to recognise a need and some scope for applying time limits, using secondary legislation, in certain areas. We have already given a clear commitment about how that will operate with regard to families with children. For those reasons, we think that our amendment genuinely responds to the arguments advanced on Report. We also introduced Clause 24 to deal with the case of families with children.

I was asked several questions, to which I shall seek to respond. Some questions went back to the wider question of whether accommodation centres were a good and proper way to give support to asylum applicants who asked for it while their case was being considered. I shall not detain the House on that matter; there have been considerable discussions on it.

Many people believe—as do I—that the centres have the potential to offer better support than we have seen in Britain to date. They are better than anything that I know of in continental Europe. The measure of that will be in the evaluation that we will carry out, and I will be pleased to accompany Members of the House—if I am still in my present office, spared or not spared—on inspections of the accommodation centres. We can see what we make of them. We are being open about the evaluation process, but the bottom line is that I do not think for a second that we will have anything to be ashamed of, as a society, in the quality of accommodation and support offered. I know of nothing that matches it elsewhere in Europe, and Europe is generally ahead of many—if not all—places on that front.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about our intention with regard to the six-month period and referred, rightly, to the White Paper. The noble Lord is right; the White Paper said six months. He is also right, as the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, said, that we are now handling 70 per cent of initial

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applications within two months. There is no problem with that. The problem arises when people exercise their perfectly legitimate right to go to one and then two stages of appeal. We cannot remove that right, nor do we intend to. It is not possible to complete the process within four months.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about discussion of alternative models. I had thought that on Report I gave a fairly clear sign that discussions were under way and were continuing. The legislation leaves open the possibility of bringing in different forms of accommodation centre that meet the fundamental principles of providing high quality support, not putting a burden on local services, and allowing faster decision making than has been possible in the past.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about mental health facilities. We have spoken about that previously. The basic facilities in accommodation centres will be similar to a GP's practice, but we recognise that some residents of accommodation centres will have emotional problems. We have considered providing some secondary care facilities for mental health, for example, in accommodation facilities. We are still discussing that.

I hope that I have answered the important point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford about humanity. I believe that the story able to be told by people who had been through one of our accommodation centres—albeit returned there—was that they were treated fairly and humanely and were given support. That is certainly the Government's intention and we wish to be judged by that.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about his visit to Oakington. It demonstrates that even a centre which is fast-track for cases which are likely to have limited, or not the best, chances of success can deal with cases rapidly, fairly and with humanity. People who are there can recognise that, which is highly relevant to the figure he gave of 250.

I shall not detain the House further. We support the objective of trying to ensure that there is faster decision-making. But for the reasons I have given, in terms of the measure on the face of the Bill and the considerable inflexibility—

5.30 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may intervene—and I apologise for interrupting. There is an important argument that under a rigid time limit one might be at a crucial point when that is reached. That could add to people's problems if they suddenly found themselves ejected from their accommodation at a time when things were coming to a head in other respects. It could be difficult and that is why I said that we needed to hear convincing arguments.

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My noble friend has tried to help in this respect but he has been a little general in his approach to time limits. It would help the House if he could give a specific indication of how in another way time limits might be introduced.

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