Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Desai: My Lords, it is difficult to argue against the amendment, but I spoke against it at an earlier stage and I shall try once more—my inhumanity bit—and see what happens to my reputation.

Despite what the noble Baroness said in answer to my noble friend Lord Corbett—especially in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said—the recommendation seems to be that we cannot have asylum seekers anywhere but in urban areas. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said that you have to have places of worship, lawyers—and no doubt ethnic food

6 Nov 2002 : Column 776

places—and so on. The idea is that the entire burden of accommodating asylum seekers in centres will fall on urban areas.

But urban areas are currently taking the bulk of the burden because, as my noble friend said, some 50,000 or 60,000 people are now living in urban areas. A small experiment is proposed by the Government—four centres. My noble friend has come back and said, "Okay, not four centres. Maybe fewer. Maybe one or two of 750 and some of 400". But no, that will not do either. The rural areas which are normally pleasant and green, where people love to live, will alienate foreigners. Foreigners are foreigners. Foreigners cannot have our green and pleasant land. They cannot be accommodated in low-density areas with lots of fresh open air. No, they cannot do that. Why? Because if they live like that, their children will be disturbed. So their children have to live in crowded urban areas and they have to go to schools where they will probably—I have said this before—get beaten up. That is what happens to strangers in small schools.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Lord is putting words into my mouth.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I did not say that the noble Lord said that. I said that last time.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the argument that I was using was not between urban and rural areas. I was saying that if accommodation centres are to be set up, there ought to be one project on the Refugee Council model in an urban area where we can compare like with like. The type of service talked about as being provided in the community is the very type of service that the Minister is effectively providing in accommodation centres. Let us look at where the actual benefit occurs.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lord, who knows so much more about this than I shall ever know. I hate to contradict him. If he reads tomorrow what he said, as I listened the sense was very clear—that the centres cannot be located anywhere except where all the facilities are available. I have only lived in urban areas. I lived in London and now I live in Hastings, for weekends, so I know how strained are urban areas. The argument clearly is that rural areas must bear none of the burden and that, no matter what people say, rural areas will not accommodate any asylum seekers—not even one or two centres.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, my noble friend is getting himself quite waxed up about the issue of urban areas.

Lord Desai: Why not?

Lord Judd: My Lords, can he address in his interesting remarks an issue that concerns some of us very deeply and is partly related to urban areas—size and accessibility?

Lord Desai: My Lords, I said at an earlier stage that in Islington, where I was chairman of the Labour Party

6 Nov 2002 : Column 777

for some years, a council estate of 750 would be regarded as bijou and very desirable because it was small. Many citizens live in much larger council estates. They would be shocked that your Lordships thought that a centre accommodating 750 people was very large. In a sense, the Government's argument has always been that the people in centres should not live there a very long time and that if one wants to minimise their length of stay, those people must have sufficient legal and other facilities within the centres to expedite their cases. No one has yet argued that there are not economies of scale in that respect. If you try to do this at a level of 250 people, all you will do is lengthen the stay of those unfortunate people. In your desire to do well by them, the unintended consequence would be that you would stretch out their misery more. If you want to do that, do that—but do not think that is a humane thing to do.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, we are talking about something that does not yet exist. We are talking about somewhere where none of us hope we ever will live. We appreciate the Government's desire to get on with this legislation but we have a right to set certain parameters. That is why I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for the amendment. I hope very much that the Minister—who is not quite in the league of Job but is almost getting there—will listen carefully.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am new to your Lordships' House and still learning its ways but it would be as well to remind ourselves just what we are talking about.

We are talking about a government proposal to set up accommodation centres as part of a response to an undoubted public demand that we deal more effectively and efficiently with claims for asylum in this country. The process needs to be both faster and fairer to avoid the long days that presently arise in too many cases. People outside will not understand if they get the impression that there is any attempt in your Lordships' House to obstruct these general endeavours.

Listening to the debate, I get the impression that, perhaps with reluctance, there is general support for the idea of accommodation centres except that we do not want them in rural areas—they can only be in urban areas; they must not accommodate more than 250 persons; they must be in clusters; and they must have access to buses and trains. When one adds all those things up, people listening to your Lordships' debates may get the impression that there is not much enthusiasm for accommodation centres in the first place.

As I understand the proposal—and as my noble friend the Minister, with his enormous patience, will no doubt remind us—and despite what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the proposition is for a trial. As the right reverend Prelate said, there are no such centres at the moment. We do not know what we are talking about in that sense. As my noble friend the Minister made clear earlier, the Government are

6 Nov 2002 : Column 778

seeking the authority of your Lordships' House for a trial of about nine variations of the proposal, which he explained at the beginning of the debate.

I get the impression that there are noble Lords who, against a background of general support, are only willing to support the idea if their definition of the ideal accommodation centre is the one proceeded with and therefore there cannot be an experiment. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Judd argued against an experiment.

Lord Judd: My Lords, there is a certain amount of ventriloquisation going on in this debate. I argued against including in an experiment a model which, it was widely agreed, had too many dangers to be risked among people who had already experienced so much trauma. I also raised the question of the very concept of experimenting with people who may have been through the most terrible experiences.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I have great respect for those organisations who have doubts about the whole proposal but that does not make them right. We can respect their concerns and doubts but they know no more than any of us—including myself—what may be the result of this experiment. We regard this as an experiment but we are here talking about the most efficient, effective and sensitive manner in which we can deal with applicants for asylum, many of whom have had tremendously traumatic experiences—I will not weary the House with the arguments I made earlier—but who may find sanctuary, comfort and support within the walls of accommodation centres that would not otherwise be available to them if they were housed in the wider community while their claims are processed.

I do not know whether that is right or wrong but no one else in this House does either—which is why I hope very much that we will allow the Government to have this experiment, so that we can learn from what goes on and over time develop methods of properly dealing with applications in a way that avoids long delays and the further upsets to peoples' lives caused by processes that go on for years when the answer is no and they have to be deported back to their home countries.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, perhaps I may reply briefly to the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Desai. None of us who knows a little about the immigration business—I should add that I am a former immigration Minister—are against experiments to try to find out how such centres can work better, more efficiently, more quickly, and, above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, observed, more humanely, for those concerned. Some of the people about whom we are talking have been through trauma, and have had a terrible time in their own country. When they come to this country, they are looking for decency and justice.

We have spent too much of the time allocated for this Bill talking about accommodation centres. All the experts involved—namely, the Refugee Council, the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 779

Immigration Advisory Service, and so on—say that it is a bad experiment; and, indeed, a very expensive one. On that basis, one is inevitably led on to ask, "Why do it?" Perhaps I may read a statement from yesterday's debate in the House of Commons:


    "Why are we going down the road of vastly expensive accommodation centres, which no one wants and no one in their right mind thinks will be a success, when we might spend a fraction of that money to employ a minority of the people involved to improve the present system, so that it does indeed become firm, fast and fair?"—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/02; col. 183.]

Those were the words of Glenda Jackson, Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She was not pressing for refugees to be put in rural areas because they should not be placed in urban areas. She made the point that she does not actually believe that this experiment will work. That is what lies at the heart of this debate. That is why I very much approve of the amendment moved by my noble friend on the Front Bench.

After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, my noble friend's amendment is very modest. It simply asks the Secretary of State to,


    "have regard to the needs of the persons to be accommodated",

in these accommodation centres. Surely the Secretary of State will not "not have regard" to such needs. Evidently, the Minister of State for the Home Office who replied to the yesterday's debate in the other place made the point that she did not like the original amendment that we sent to the Commons because she was frightened of judicial review. No judicial review would decide that one place is suitable while another is not; the judicial review would decide whether it was the decision of a "reasonable person" to put an accommodation centre in a certain area.

Where does the fear of judicial review lie in this even more modest amendment? It can apply only if there is a real fear among Ministers on the government side that they will make the wrong decisions. Surely they should not attempt to vote on this issue with that thought already on their minds. If they are to take the right decisions, and if they believe this to be a fair trial—I agree with the concept of fair trails—they should support this amendment as being a perfectly fair idea for the Secretary of State to pursue.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton, with whom I served in the House of Commons, albeit on opposite sides. In this debate we have heard the words "flexibility" and "experiment". It is quite right for us to recognise that we are dealing with people who have their own opinions, people who have attitude, and people who are beset by children; in other words, people of all kinds. Therefore, it is very important for us to argue for flexibility and experiments.

There is one comment that we have not heard from my noble friend, who is rather curt as regards the issues that arise in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, cited some of the organisations that have written about these concerns. Perhaps I may add some further names to that list: the Immigration Advisory Service;

6 Nov 2002 : Column 780

Amnesty International; the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association; the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux; the Law Society; the Commission for Racial Equality; Shelter; the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants; the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture; and the Electronic Immigration Network. Each of those organisations has a proud record. They know a lot about refugees and asylum seekers. After we have considered this amendment tonight, I expect my noble friend to say that sensible and constructive discussions will take place with all those organisations.

The Government do not know everything; we do not know everything. The issue of asylum seekers and refugees is highly complex. I believe that my noble friend has a duty to inform this House of what he and others in the Home Office intend to do. This is all very well, but we are considering this amendment at the last moment and the Government have given us their view on the situation that confronts this House. However, all the time we are dealing with people. That is why it is impossible for us to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions tonight. This debate must continue. Every organisation that I cited is against the idea that rural circumstances should prevail as regards accommodation centres. They may be wrong in that respect. But, with the depth of their experience, I believe that they are probably not wrong.

Over the next six months, or in the coming year, the Government have a duty to bring forward their own propositions. This House and another place should be constantly informed. That is not an unreasonable request. At present, the House is informed by way of question and answer; but that is not good enough. We are entitled to have a full report within 12 months—and, indeed, a further report after another 12 months—as regards what is happening because, as I said before, we are dealing with people.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page