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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, a large number of organisations are involved with asylum seekers and refugees. Have the Government been in conversation or discussion with them? Is there any other example of single-sex provision being made? If so, will he give a chapter-and-verse outline?

6 p.m.

Lord Filkin: I would be delaying the House needlessly if I listed everyone to whom we have spoken about the provisions, or with whom we have exchanged correspondence. That is part of a proper process of publishing a White Paper, considering comments on it, publishing Bills and going through the detailed scrutiny process. On recollection, this must be our 13th or 14th day of debate on this Bill, and I am glad to say that a range of external organisations have been vigorous and vocal in their representations.

I am not certain whether I fully understood the thrust of the noble Lord's question on single-sex provision. We responded directly to previous representations on the matter in the House by saying that there would be a centre for single men. I think that I indicated that such a revision would be beneficial, not least because many asylum seekers are single men. There were doubts about whether single women should be mixed with single men, and about whether it was always desirable to mix families with single men.

There are no simple answers. It would be naive for anyone to think that there is one simple model that is totally right. Our initial proposed model is an accommodation centre that is substantially free-standing and able to provide support itself without burdening other local services, and which can itself provide the legal services that guarantee much faster processing and avoid the paper chase about which we have all been rightly critical. Although there is much to commend that model, in response to representations we are saying that it is right and sensible to look at alternative models. As I said earlier, we will develop a smaller centre for single men on their own, which may be located near, or in, an urban area.

We will continue our very helpful discussions with the Refugee Council on its core and cluster models. There are interesting possibilities. We have not resolved all our differences, but we continue to negotiate with hope and good faith. It would be desirable if we could conclude such negotiations so that we would have a third model and a third option. I am signalling three options, which could apply in a rural area, an urban area or—to be pedantic—on a rural-urban fringe. If my maths serves me correctly, we are already talking about nine possible permutations within the scope of the changes that the Government made previously and announced yesterday.

We have not closed our minds to other alternatives. Noble Lords previously suggested to me that we might have a family-only centre. There is no reason for us to

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rule that out automatically as nonsense or to say that we are not prepared to consider it. That does not mean that we will accept the proposal, but we will consider it, because it is sensible to think about how we can fulfil the principles.

We remain committed to the benefits of the free-standing model, which is why we are pursuing our proposals for the two accommodations centres at Bicester and at RAF Newton. Those developments will take their course subject to planning permission decisions, which are out of the Home Office's hands. As we announced yesterday, we have decided not to pursue our proposal for a centre at Throckmorton airfield. The decision was made not because the site is not suitable but because we have been unable satisfactorily to settle the land acquisition arrangements that would allow the site to be developed within an acceptable timeframe for the trial. For a variety of reasons, I am sure that the House will welcome that.

A centre as large as one with 750 places can be an effective means of supporting asylum seekers and providing the necessary processing speed that we all want. Having a mix of models seems intelligent, because in practice it would allow research of the alternatives. That evaluation will be seriously thorough and will allow Members of this House to engage in the process of evaluating what works best and why. We know that as a nation we must support destitute asylum seekers. We know that as a nation we want to accelerate the process of doing that so that we can conclude these issues, give refuge to those who justify it and remove those who do not. We are convinced that accommodation centres are a crucial part of that answer. However, our minds are flexible about which models would be best for different asylum seekers. That is why pilots, trials and evaluations are carried out. None of us knows now which would be the perfect answer. It is common sense to try a model and then to evaluate it.

The effect of the amendment would be to open up scope for unreasonable challenges to the location of an accommodation centre. We touched on the matter previously and are clear about it. The amendment would create the possibility of delay and uncertainty, before and after planning consent has been secured, and throughout the life of each centre.

It is an implicit and enforceable principle of administrative law that the Secretary of State should not exercise his powers unreasonably. We will not locate accommodation centres in areas where we are not satisfied that we can provide for the needs of asylum seekers. It is also implicit in Clause 45 as the Bill left the Commons that support will be provided having regard to a person's personal circumstances. I emphasise that point because it may be germane to many concerns. We made clear in earlier debates that we would not house someone in a centre if it could not deal with his or her needs. As I am sure that the House will appreciate, that does not imply that we are extending a personal preference so that people can choose where they will go.

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We have listened very carefully to the many important debates on the Bill. We have opened a considerable range of alternative options and have signalled our interest and commitment in seeking further sensible options and finding out whether they meet the principles that I announced today and many times previously. For those reasons, it is important to allow trials to proceed. The amendment is not only unnecessary; it is positively risky and dangerous, for the reasons I suggested.

I hope that the House will agree that Amendment No. 17 is an unnecessary addition to the Bill. I commend the Government's position on this.

Moved, that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A.—(Lord Filkin.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A, at end insert "but do propose the following amendment in lieu thereof—


17BPage 9, line 8, at end insert— "( ) In determining the location of premises provided under this section the Secretary of State shall have regard to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein." "

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 17B is an amendment in lieu. As the Minister said, yesterday the Government made some significant concessions on this Bill, having listened to the views expressed in this House and in the country beyond. We welcome 90 per cent of those concessions. We have always made clear that we want this Bill on the statute book and we want it there soon. But the Bill needs to be effective and fair in its operation. We wish to remove defects which, if left, would require the legislation to be revisited with further amending Bills over the next year.

The amendments in this group bring us back to the issue of where accommodation centres should be located. Newspaper reports in advance of debates in another place yesterday led us to hope that the Government had listened to our objections to their plans to build huge centres in rural areas each accommodating 750 people, and that those plans would be abandoned. When the Minister Beverley Hughes spoke in another place yesterday, our hopes that the Government had thought again on this principle were dashed. She announced that the centre on Throckmorton airfield was being dropped because of planning problems and that the other two huge rural centres would go ahead. She said at col. 151 of Commons Hansard that she still considers the site to be suitable. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has repeated that today. That means that the Government have not recognised the fallibility of the model. They have not solved the problem. The only offer on the table was that the third centre would now contain 400 or 450 single males. The Minister said yesterday:


    "That will allow us to test the alternative approach against the larger centres".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/02; col. 150.]

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No, that is exactly what will not happen. It does not make this an effective trial. The Government's approach is still flawed.

The Refugee Council has confirmed to me today that the idea does not meet its proposal for a cluster and core approach, which would require smaller centres of about 200 people in each as satellites around a nucleus, where services such as health or legal advice could be properly provided. This system could be sustained in or near urban areas.

The Minister in the Commons said yesterday that the Government would continue working with the Refugee Council. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has repeated that today. However, there is no commitment or budget to start a trial alongside the three existing large centres. We are given yet another hope, which I fear will be dashed.

We are left with the trial of pilot schemes that is not effective and does not encompass the type of centre that we believe is the way forward. The Minister has said that the Government wish to be flexible about the trial. You cannot be flexible when you have only one model to trial. That does not work.

When accommodation centres are established, their success will depend on their ability to meet the diverse cultural, social and linguistic needs of the people who will live in them. We believe that those needs will best be met by locating much smaller accommodation centres close to communities that already provide for the needs of those who come from similar cultures.

Even the Home Secretary has acknowledged to the chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service that placing such large centres away from urban areas is likely to lead to isolation and potential institutionalisation, with consequent possible psychiatric difficulties for those who are placed there. That is his comment.

The huge weight of opinion inside and outside Parliament is that the Government have got their pilot modelling wrong. The Refugee Council, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Law Society, Shelter and the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, to name but a few, all say that the proposed huge centres in rural areas will cause serious problems for those accommodated in them and, potentially, for the local residents. The sites at Bicester and Nottingham are so isolated from community life that building centres there would close down any opportunity for the Government to reconsider which services, such as education, should be provided on site. If, later today, the Government were persuaded by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth that education should be provided off site in mainstream schools, the location of those two centres would effectively close down that option.

The smaller the number in each centre, the more likely it is that they will be efficient, humane, decent and safe. The debate on this matter has sprung from two different visions of the way ahead on how to proceed with locating and operating accommodation centres. Our vision was of small, one-stop shop centres in urban areas, each devoted to handling the cases of

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asylum seekers from a particular area, country or region. At each there would be the relevant translators, lawyers and adjudicators, who would become expert in the affairs of that region. That would allow everything to be done fairly and rapidly.

I have tabled my amendment in lieu to give the Government another opportunity to reflect properly on these matters. It is very reasonable. It merely requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the needs of asylum seekers when he determines the location of an accommodation centre.

The Minister has helpfully made it clear today that the Government do not intend to put centres where they are not suitable to the needs of the people who live in them. That is not the reality of what we have heard so far about the siting of the pilot centres. If the Government reject my modest amendment, they will signal to the world that they will not have regard to the needs of asylum seekers when deciding where to locate accommodation centres. That would be wrong.


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