HL Deb 09 July 2002 vol 637 cc661-78

8.57 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

moved Amendment No. 102: After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—

"DISAPPLICATION OF RIOT (DAMAGES) ACT 1886 (C. 38) The provisions of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 (c. 38) shall not apply in respect of any damage caused to—

  1. (a) an accommodation centre, or any property therein;
  2. (b) a removal centre (as defined in section 147 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33)), or any property therein."

The noble Baroness said: I take this amendment seriously, as I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, during the dinner break. I think that I spotted him passing on my concerns to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, so the Government are aware of my approach to the amendment.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that if there were a repeat of the Yarl's Wood disaster in respect of either an accommodation centre or a removal centre, the provisions of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 would not apply in respect of any damage caused. The Committee will recall the appalling consequences of the fire at Yarl's Wood earlier this year. In the aftermath of that fire, the insurers who act for the company that runs Yarl's Wood made a claim against the Bedfordshire Police Authority for almost £100 million. They are suing to recover what they have paid out.

As I understand it, the provisions of that Act apply even when there has been no negligence or default on the part of the police. The Act provides that where a police authority declares under the terms of the Public Order Act 1986 that a riot has taken place, police authorities become liable to pay for any damages to buildings and their contents arising through riots.

My question is: what will happen if there is a fire at an accommodation or removal centre in future? Will insurers be unwilling to cover renewals of existing policies in respect of removal centres? Are the Government destined to become the insurer of last resort?

In a debate in another place, my honourable friend Peter Luff voiced his concerns about those matters. He has a particular interest in the proposal to build an accommodation centre in his constituency. He asked: Is it true that some police authorities have declined to police those centres, or to provide the protection necessary? Who will be liable if there is a fire, such as that at Yarl's Wood? Who will insure this centre in the event of a similar disturbance? Is it not time to re-examine the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, which I think puts the responsibility for damage on the police".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/5/02; col. 493–4.]

When the Police Reform Bill was debated in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, tried to solve the problem by repealing Section 38 of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 in toto. That would have had an unfortunate and unwelcome consequence, although I recognise that the noble Lord acted throughout from good intentions. The amendments were not pursued, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, then a Minister at the Home Office stated: The Government are pursuing an urgent review of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886. When we have pursued our urgent review, we shall report back to Parliament. However, I cannot guarantee that that will be in time for Report stage".—[Official Report, 12/3/02; col. 805.]

The review was not completed in time for our Report stage, and today, as the Report stage of that Bill begins in another place, we are still waiting for the results of that urgent review.

I am being helpful to the House and to the Government. We need wait no longer. My solution, which would stop the problem recurring, is simple and timely. We should stop the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 from applying in the case of accommodation and removal centres. That can be achieved through this simple amendment to the Bill. I hope that the Government will accept it. I beg to move.

9 P.m.

Lord Greaves

We welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, has proposed the amendment. It highlights something that has, since the Yarl's Wood fire, become a problem. We regard it as a probing amendment, tabled to let us see what the Government will do about the problem. We look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Lord Avebury

On the last occasion I inquired, the Government said that they had to wait until insurance contracts relating to other removal centres came up before they could see what the position was on premiums. Has the Minister anything further to tell us about that? It is obvious that the events at Yarl's Wood must have had a knock-on effect on the attitude of insurers to the premiums that they would charge for detention centres and, further, for PFI prisons, which, I understand, are privately insured.

The outcome of the urgent review that the noble Baroness mentioned is important, not just for the detention centres but for every other PFI contract relating to a location where such events might—even remotely—be possible. The repercussions for government spending are so enormous that, I am sure, the Government must have considered the matter urgently. They should produce some figures. If they cannot deal with the questions about the urgent review, they should at least say what happened when other contracts came up for renewal.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The amendment is certainly timely, and, in that sense, it is useful. It disinters an important issue. I do not claim that I can answer all the questions that have been posed in our short debate, but I recognise the great importance of that debate. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly asked some hard questions about where this matter might leave us with other projects. In truth, the matter will, in the end, have to be left to the outcome of the review undertaken following the events at Yarl's Wood.

We must be clear about what the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 provides for. It provides for compensation to be paid from the local police fund under certain circumstances for losses incurred through injury, destruction of premises or stealing or destruction of the contents of those premises by any person involved in a riot. The Act also allows for insurance claims agreed to by insurance companies and accepted by the police authority to be refunded to the insurance company by the local police authority.

The subject has been brought into focus by the Yarl's Wood case and the claim against Bedfordshire police. The Government are undertaking a fundamental and urgent review of the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 because of the many implications and ramifications that flow from it. I make it plain again that, when we have completed that review, we will report fully to Parliament. I cannot, at this stage, say whether any conclusions will be reached about the future of the Act within the timetable for the Bill. All three noble Lords who contributed to our discussion should understand exactly why that is. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, put his finger on it when he said that it was a complex subject. It seems unlikely that we will be able to conclude that review within the timetable for the Bill.

We understand entirely the concern felt by the Bedfordshire Police Authority and all other police authorities, which act in good faith to quell disorder wherever it occurs but still suffer financial penalties. At the same time, we must weigh the position of those who have insurance and those who do not. That is an important consideration; some authorities are, effectively, self-insured. We must also consider the overall impact of removing the protection afforded by the Riot (Damages) Act, as proposed in the noble Baroness's amendment.

The Home Secretary made the Government's position on Yarl's Wood clear on 25th February in his Statement about the riots and the insurers' claim against Bedfordshire police. The claim being made by the insurers is, unquestionably, way beyond the resources of the Bedfordshire police, and, as a responsible government, we intend to take whatever advice is necessary and work with the police to protect their interests and those of the people whom they serve in Bedfordshire.

Although the amendment is timely, it is also difficult for us to consider in the context of this Bill. I suggest to the noble Baroness that although this is an opportunity for her to test the Government's resolve, it is perhaps not the best occasion on which to do so. I suggest that we should take more time and have more mature reflection on the consequences of this claim and its wider, broader and deeper implications.

I realise that that does not satisfy the noble Baroness in terms of answering all her questions. I fully recognise that they are very important, but I suggest that in view of those comments she might find it within herself to withdraw her amendment today.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

As always, I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who took part in this short debate as we canter towards the end of a long day. I thank the Minister for giving no answers to a series of questions. He did strive to give as many answers as he could manage not to; it might help if I were to get all my negatives together! The Minister referred to the fact that this is disinterring an important issue. My golly, this is an important issue which is well and alive to people in Yarl's Wood! Of course, I do not seek to make my measure retrospective. I fully appreciate the complexities of dealing with matters retrospectively, with all the legal consequences that follow. It is a live issue and a future one for the accommodation and removal centres which are at the core of this part of the Bill.

The Minister said that he could not answer the questions posed in this short debate. I do not believe that any of them came as a surprise to him as they were raised in debate in another place, both in Westminster Hall and in the Chamber, and in a series of Questions for Written Answer. I have not posed any matter out of the blue.

The Minister disappointed me when he was unable to say whether a conclusion would be reached on an urgent review by the end of discussions on the Bill. That is where my matter of principle arises. If the Government give a commitment to carry out an urgent review on such a vital matter, there are times when they have to have their resolve tested. The Minister was kind enough to say in the first sentence of his remarks that the debate was timely and useful. I believe that this is the time when a timely and useful amendment needs to be put to the Committee. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

9.10 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 102) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 56; Not-Contents, 102.

Division No. 1
Anelay of St Johns, B. Kingsland, L.
Arran, E. Knight of Collingtree, B.
Astor of Hever, L. Lindsay, E.
Attlee, E. Listowel, E.
Bhatia, L. Luke, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lyell, L.
Bridgeman, V. [Teller] MacGregor of Pulham Market, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Mancroft, L.
Burnham, L. Mar, C.
Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Byford, B. Monro of Langholm, L.
Caithness, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Norton of Louth, L.
Chan, L. Onslow, E.
Colville of Culross, V. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Colwyn, L. Peel, E.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Renton of Mount Harry, L.
Denham, L. Sandwich, E.
Eames, L. Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Elton, L. Sharples, B.
Ferrers, E. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Fookes, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Higgins, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Joffe, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Jopling, L. Wakeham, L.
Kimball, L. Walker of Worcester, L.
Acton, L. Bassam of Brighton, L.
Addington, L. Berkeley, L.
Alderdice, L. Bernstein of Craigweil, L.
Alli, L. Borrie, L.
Amos, B. Boston of Faversham, L.
Andrews, B. Brennan, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Brett, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Avebury, L. Carter, L.
Bach, L. Chandos, V.
Barker, B. Clark of Windermere, L.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Lockwood, B.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Craig of Radley,L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Crawley,B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.[Teller]
Davies of Coity, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Desai, L. McNally, L.
Dholakia, L. Maddock, B.
Dixon, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Dubs, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Elder, L. Pendry, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Pitkeathley, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Filkin, L. Rea, L.
Gale, B. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Golding, B. Rooker, L.
Goldsmith, L. Russell, E.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Greaves, L. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Grenfell, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Grocott, L.[Teller] Simon, V.
Hamwee, B. Smith of Clifton, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Smith of Leigh, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Harrison, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Haskins, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Thornton, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B. Turnberg, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Hoyte, L. Walmsley, B.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Islwyn, L. Whitaker, B.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Whitty, L.
Judd, L. Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord Privy Seal)
Layard, L.
Lea of Crondall, L. Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Clause 15 [Support for destitute asylum-seeker]:

9.20 p.m.

Lord Greaves

moved Amendment No. 103: Page 9, line 11, after "accommodation" insert "in accordance with the principle of family unity The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 103 seeks to put on the face of the Bill the principle and important practice that families in accommodation centres should not be split up, that children should not be split from their parents and that wives and husbands should not be split up.

The Minister spoke earlier about the arrangements the Government propose to make in accommodation centres and their intention to provide family units. That is certainly a welcome step forward. However, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent families from being split, either on the same site or on different sites. This probing amendment is designed to discover what guarantees the Government can give that families will not be split in this way. This is on the basis of the principle set out in Preamble B of the 1951 convention which, among other things, recommends governments to ensure that the unity of a refugee's family is maintained.

It will be interesting to know the Government's thinking in regard to the proportion of families they expect to be housed in accommodation centres. Single males make up more than 80 per cent of asylum seekers; single women, families of various kinds and single children make up under 20 per cent. So families make up a small proportion of the total.

Much of the public discussion in regard to accommodation centres has centred around the position of children and families in relation to their education and so on. The impression has been given that there may be a tendency to put a higher proportion of families in accommodation centres than asylum seekers in general. Do the Government believe that the proportion of families in any given accommodation centre at any given time is likely to be 20 per cent? Will it be less than that or might it be 30 or 40 per cent? It will be interesting to know the Government's view on this issue. I look forward to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

I gladly support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not only because I believe in family unity but because I would not like it to be thought that it is only the Liberal Democrats who believe in family unity.

Lord Filkin

I shall be brief because the position has been made clear in the debates on earlier clauses. I want to make it absolutely clear that families placed in an accommodation centre will remain together. The residential units they occupy will allow for this. The precise nature of the residential units will be a matter for those who design the accommodation but it will accord to this general principle.

I do not think that a statutory reference is necessary or appropriate. For example, if a family arrives consisting of two parents, a young child and the older brother who may be, say, aged 25, naturally the parents and the young child would be placed together in the same unit but it might be more sensible for the 25 year-old, who would most probably be claiming asylum in his own right, to be placed in a separate unit. We would need to consider each case on its merits. But there is no disagreement with the purpose behind the amendment.

I just point to the existing situation in respect of removal centres and NASS accommodation where the same clear principle applies but without any statutory reference to family unity. I am not aware that there have been any suggestions that this principle has been compromised in those types of establishments.

I was asked what we thought would be the mix of families. It is a long way off. We are aware that it will be some time before the accommodation will be finalised. Therefore, at this stage I have nothing further to add on that but respectfully suggest that the amendment may be withdrawn.

Lord Avebury

Surely the Minister can at least give the figures for the number of families who apply for asylum at present compared with the number of single men. My noble friend thought the figure to be about 80 per cent single men and 20 per cent families. Is that confirmed by the Government? Would not it be logical, therefore, for the accommodation in the centres to conform with those numbers? Unless there is a radical change in the mix of asylum seekers between now and the date when the button has to be pushed for construction, would the Government have regard to the numbers in the asylum population in the past year or two?

Lord Hylton

When the Minister replies, can he say what principle of selection will apply to the centres, given that the great majority of asylum applicants will continue to be dispersed, as occurs at present?

Lord Filkin

I stand by my original indication that the point at which we finalise the accommodation and put families in it is some time away. As a rough and ready figure, about 40 per cent of the residents—counting every soul as one—might be part of a family compared with 60 per cent who are not. The 20 per cent figure for families relates to cases: one family equals one case. But those are only rough and ready figures at this stage for reasons the Committee will understand.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful to the Minister for that information and for placing firmly on the record that families will not be split. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn,

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

moved Amendment No. 104: Page 9, line 12, after "centre" insert "for a maximum period of ten weeks, save in exceptional circumstances The noble Baroness said: The effect of Amendment No. 104 is to say that the Secretary of State can make provision for a person to stay at an accommodation centre for a maximum period of 10 weeks.

The purpose of the amendment is to require the Secretary of State to ensure that the application for asylum made by a person who is required by the Secretary of State to be resident in an accommodation centre is processed within that period of 10 weeks. I believe it is vital that the process of deciding applications is as swift as possible, as I have commented previously. This is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle which we believe, if properly completed, would ensure that we have a one-stop shop in which all can have confidence rather than the half built affair proposed at present by the Government.

If there is no incentive on the face of the Bill—having a proper target as a time limit—the likelihood is that time will drift and people will spend far too long in the centres. My amendment would ensure that the Home Office reacts with speed and efficiency.

I have sought to be practical. I have included in the amendment the recognition that there may indeed be exceptional circumstances which means that the claim cannot be processed within the time limit of 10 weeks. Perhaps the Home Office may have asked for documentation in a timely manner; they may have asked for documentation from another country and the other country fails to respond in the required time. That, of course, might be an exceptional circumstance.

The Government are not averse to setting time limits in other areas. The time limit in juvenile courts for the period between arrest and disposal of the case is an example in point. The Minister in the other place commented that this could not be a parallel because asylum claims entail overseas inquiries. Of course, my caveat of having the "exceptional circumstances" rider in the amendment would deal with that problem.

The Government have said that they expect six months to be the maximum time spent by most people in accommodation centres. That really is far too long. It is important that the claims are processed more rapidly than that if we are to be fair to the asylum seekers who need to know the result quickly. We need to be able to show people overseas that if they come to this country, they can expect a speedy and fair resolution of their claim.

By allowing the decision making to drift to a six-month limit the Government are also accepting that they will not process more than 6,000 of the 80,000 claims a year in accommodation centres. That is far too small a proportion even for what is to be a trial; it will leave the great majority still to face dispersal around the country, with all the problems that that causes for them. By accepting my amendment, the Government would set the objective of processing about 16,000 applications a year in accommodation centres rather than the paltry 6,000 that obtains at present. That would be a better target for all concerned. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Avebury

Can the Minister tell me whether I am right in thinking that the target of two months for the initial decision and a total of six months for the whole process was originally contained in the White Paper, Fairer, Faster and FirmerA Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum? If that is the case, is it not curious that the accommodation centres that are designed to speed up the whole process still maintain the same time limit? Surely the whole point of the exercise is to try to shorten the time-scale. I entirely agree with the thrust of the noble Baroness's amendment, although the 10-week period that she has allowed is perhaps a little too strict.

In his letter to me of 8th July, the Minister pointed out that, 53 per cent of applications received in the period April to December 2001, inclusive, had initial decisions reached and served within two months … [and] that 43 per cent of appeals received in the period April to December 2001, inclusive, were processed through both tiers of the IAA within 17 weeks". So we are a long way off meeting the target suggested by the noble Baroness. While I hope that the accommodation will enable the process to be speeded up, I believe that a little more latitude should be allowed the Government. But I agree in principle with the idea put forward by the noble Baroness; namely, that there should be some form of time limit in the Bill.

Baroness Whitaker

I am not sure whether I am in support of the amendment. That may depend on the response given by my noble friend the Minister. It is slightly tied in with the position of children. Although it is the subject of later amendments, it seems to me that six months is too long in the life of a child, especially if he is attending school inside the accommodation centre. I am talking about children who are already deprived of their rights under the UN convention because of the UK Government's reservations. If my noble friend were able to give some assurance that families with children would be fast tracked so that a shorter period than six months would apply—indeed, 10 weeks would be excellent, but even three months would be better—I would not need to support the amendment.

Lord Greaves

I shall speak to the three amendments included in this grouping that are tabled in my name, and those of my noble friends Lord Russell and Lord Dholakia. I refer to Amendments Nos. 107B, 111A and 111B. We are seeking to extend the time limit, which the noble Baroness's amendment sets at 10 weeks, to six months. The three amendments simply place the six months' limit in different parts in the Bill: in regard to the power to provide accommodation; in regard to the requirement on asylum seekers to reside in that accommodation; and to prevent them being kept in there after six months.

This matter was debated at great length in another place. A number of assurances were given by the Government as to their intentions and wishes, which are also set out in the Minister's letter to my noble friend Lord Avebury, to which he referred. But nothing has yet been done to set down in tablets of stone—in legislation or anywhere else—any guarantees that the six-month limit will be kept to.

There is a general view that six months is the absolute limit for the stay in an accommodation centre. As the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said, for young children receiving an education, six months in a centre is too long a period. We are not suggesting that a period of six months should be the norm. We are suggesting that it should be the absolute limit.

Indeed, the Home Secretary himself is reported as saying in another place on 7th February: God forbid that anyone should be in an accommodation centre for six months".—[Official Report, Commons, 7/2/02; col. 1037.] Clearly, some people will be there for six months, whatever God may or may not say, and we must hope that they are very few.

There are good reasons why in some cases it may not be possible to process claims fully through both the initial stage and the appeal stage in less than that time. The "two plus four" formula has been referred to; namely, that two months should be the limit for the processing of initial applications for refugee status or leave to remain and that four months after that should be the limit for the two stages of appeals which will then be available.

For people who come to this country without any documents or information, with no proof of who they are or where they have come from, it sometimes takes quite a long time to obtain a certain amount of documentary evidence as to what they have suffered and what is the basis of their application for refugee status. If they do not have the opportunity to obtain those documents, it is simply their word against what the adjudicator may think. In those circumstances their application is less likely to succeed.

So, in fairness to the applicants, they need to be given sufficient time to try to obtain the necessary information to support their claims. I know from personal experience that obtaining documents from such countries as Iran or Afghanistan can be time-consuming. Getting them translated accurately also takes time. So there are processes to be gone through which take time and which justify saying that in many cases the initial decision cannot be made in less than two months. The same applies to the appeal process. At that stage people will have realised what is holding up their claim and will know what extra documentation and proof they have to find.

We believe—a point put forward in another place by my honourable friend Simon Hughes—that six months as a limit is not unreasonable. However, six months in an accommodation centre is bordering on the unreasonable. If it is the Government's belief that people should not be in accommodation centres for longer than six months, that ought to be clearly laid down somewhere. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment on the face of the Bill—I can understand the reasons why he might not—what is he prepared to do to provide a guarantee in black and white that people will not remain in the centres for more than six months?

One of the reasons put forward in another place was that having an absolute cut-off line was unreasonable because it might actually be unfair and unreasonable to individuals in some circumstances. People whose claim had been accepted on the border of six months, or whatever time was put forward, ought to be given a little time before being kicked out into the wide world to find their own accommodation. Alternatively, if someone was waiting for a decision that was due in a few days or the following week it would be unreasonable to make them find other accommodation in the community or to transfer them there. Similarly, to force people who had had their claims refused and who were waiting to be removed from the country into interim accommodation pending their removal might be unreasonable.

Those are good, sensible arguments, but they are arguments of detail, not arguments against the basic principle that six months in an accommodation centre is long enough for anybody, and certainly long enough for any family. Any person or family who is going to be settled in this country must start integrating into the community before six months. People who are going to be removed ought riot to be held for longer than that. We ought to be able to deal with their cases.

What guarantees can the Government give us to allay our fears so that we are content to withdraw the amendment, as I am sure the Minister will ask us to do?

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Six months is a very long time for children. The Refugee Children's Consortium told the Joint Committee on Human Rights that children should not be in accommodation centres at all. The consortium made nine points, which are put in legalistic terms, but they are very sensible. The shorter the time for children the better. If it can be reduced to 10 weeks, perhaps we can accept the idea of families being incarcerated in this way. I do riot know what the noble Lord is going to say, but that seems to be an argument.

The Earl of Sandwich

I support the noble Baroness. Her earlier simple amendment on numbers turned into an hour and a half long debate. This is a critical issue. The amount of time that people are going to spend in accommodation centres determines the nature of the centres and the resources that we commit to services. The more services and the larger the numbers, the longer people are going to stay in the centres.

The Government believe in targets, so why not set a target? It may not be on the face of the Bill, but let us hear a more definite target along the lines suggested by the noble Baroness.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was going to mention detention. Many of us who have sat through these Bills have complained about how long people have to spend in detention centres. We believe that the Government are going to shorten those periods. Why can they not turn their attention to accommodation centres in the same spirit?

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I shall be extremely brief in support of my noble friend. I have read the Commons Committee debate on 9th May at cols. 106 to 119 of the Official Report. It was a long debate. If I may be allowed a Wimbledonian metaphor, by the final column the debate was at about deuce. Mr Malins, serving, raised a question about the words, "in exceptional circumstances". I acknowledge that the Minister, Angela Eagle, blocked it. I further acknowledge that the matter was resolved by force majeur in a vote in the next column so that the Committee could move on with proceedings on the Bill.

I also noticed the words that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, quoted. On 7th February, the Home Secretary was saying God forbid that anybody should be in an accommodation centre for six months, but by col. 118, just before the Committee debate came to deuce, Angela Eagle said: On Second Reading, the Home Secretary said that six months was about right".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee E, 9/5/02; col. 118.] That is clearly a different quotation from that which was used on 7th February. There has been some movement from the Government, possibly in the wrong direction. I have not found the Home Secretary's specific words at Second Reading, because the reference is not given in the text. As, in my view, it was about deuce after 12 columns of debate and my parliamentary neighbour in Kensington North—who had an asylum caseload very similar to my own in Westminster, South—expressed her own sympathy for the spirit of the amendments that we were moving, I shall be very interested to listen to the Minister when he responds to the remark about "in exceptional circumstances", given the fact that that is an addition to the amendment, since we moved a simpler amendment without it in Committee in the Commons.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton

I think that 10 weeks, as stated rather baldly in the amendment, is by itself too short. Can the Minister say how he envisages these accommodation centres working in practice? For example, will they be used in combination with reporting or in combination with cards giving access to various necessary services? If that were the case, then it might be possible to take only part of the total asylum decision-making process within the accommodation centres, allowing the possibility for the individuals or families to move on to another stage sooner than six months.

Lord Filkin

I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. There is clearly not an issue between us on the importance of dealing with applications for asylum as rapidly and succinctly as we possibly can. I think that everything that has been said in our two sittings thus far has affirmed that. Such action is in the family's interests and in the Government's interest. The issue is whether it makes any sense in practice to have a statutory lock-in in the Bill as opposed to a process in which the Government clearly set themselves goals on what they seek to achieve. For reasons that I shall try to outline, I think that a statutory lock-in in the Bill would not be in the interests of good government or of families.

I start by trying to counter the view that accommodation centres are necessarily bad places. I hope that I have been able today to outline the quality of accommodation and the support that will be provided. It is not necessarily true that families will suffer from being there, although we recognise that, if it is positive, most families will be pleased to receive an early decision on their asylum application.

Amendment No. 104 would mean that people could be supported in an accommodation centre for a maximum of 10 weeks unless exceptional circumstances applied. Amendments Nos. 107A, 111A and 111B would mean that asylum seekers and their dependants could be there for a maximum of six months. We have made it abundantly clear that we do not want people to remain in accommodation centres for long periods if it can be avoided. We are all agreed on wanting to process cases quickly while ensuring that decisions are fair.

We are trialling these accommodation centres. We expect them to deliver faster processing times, and we believe that the increased contact time they afford should reduce delays. I think that some of the features we have discussed today such as adjudicators and caseworkers on site are a very significant shift in the likelihood of being able to process asylum claims in accommodation centres much more rapidly than was envisaged when the Bill was first introduced in another place. I get a sense that the Committee generally welcomes that.

However, let us look at the reality of the situation. If by "exceptional circumstances" one means that a family did not go to appeal after a negative decision, I think that it would be slightly more realistic. However, families and individuals have a statutory right to appeal, and no one is suggesting that they should not do so. Particularly if they exercise their full range of rights, it is going to be extremely difficult for that process to be encompassed within 10 weeks, if possible, or within six months, as will often, if not always, be the case.

Let us consider the time periods allowed by statute for appeal. No one is arguing that we should reduce those. An asylum seeker who is refused has 10 working days in which to appeal to an adjudicator. If his appeal is dismissed he has a further 10 working days to appeal to the tribunal. If he is turned down at that point he will have 10 working days in which to apply for statutory review of the tribunal's decision. Alternatively, if leave is granted, there will be a substantive tribunal hearing on the application. Straightaway we are looking at four to five weeks before we begin to examine the time taken to interview, the need to check the information provided, any new circumstances which come to light, and so on.

Amendment No. 104 does at least provide for exceptions to the rule whereas Amendments Nos. 107B, 111A and 111B do not. But I would envisage all sorts of practical difficulties with interpreting what exceptional circumstances were. Would they be wide enough to cover a situation where a person was due to receive their final determination in a matter of days or weeks when it might make no sense to require someone to move to a dispersal area? Would they cover the situation where a person actually wished to remain in the centre pending a decision because the supportive environment catered for their needs or they needed a little more time to move on? Would they deal with a situation where there was a sudden significant increase in asylum applications because of a particular regional conflict which might have a short-term effect on processing times? If the amendment does not do this, it clearly makes little sense. If it does, then does it really achieve anything more than adding extra bureaucracy whereby the Secretary of State needs to authorise the additional exceptional period?

I am not complacent and I am determined that we must do better. But we are making real improvements. Our latest provisional data—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned this—indicate that 53 per cent of applications received in the period from April to December 2001 had initial decisions reached and served within two months. Some 47,015 asylum appeals to an adjudicator were determined in 2001–02, an increase of three-quarters compared with 2000–01. It is also important to reflect on the point that the vast majority of those who are granted refugee status or exceptional leave to remain receive that status at the time of initial decision, as I believe was mentioned previously.

I should make some other important points. Accommodation centres are designed to provide a supportive environment for asylum seekers. Those who have come seeking refuge and who have also asked for support from the Government because they are destitute will have a roof over their heads, adequate food, activities to occupy their time, interpretation facilities and will be in contact with many other residents who speak the same language. They will also be in a centre which is designed to keep them informed about the progress of their case. The inclusion of a time limit by implication suggests that accommodation centres will be awful places. That is not the case. The logical consequence of these amendments is that, regardless of whether someone feels safe and secure, we have to move them to a different area. I heard the point that was made, I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We would not want to have a situation whereby to meet some arbitrary time limit we had to move a family somewhere else just to keep faith with that time limit. That would be a case of turning government goals on their head and making the goal the objective rather than the interests of the family and the processing.

However, we have tabled an amendment in response to the concerns about the length of time families with children may spend in accommodation centres. We will come to that shortly but that is designed to reflect the particular concerns about children. The amendment will enable the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring him to consider after a period of time, likely to be six months, whether accommodation other than in an accommodation centre should be provided to a family, and after a period of time, likely to be nine months, requiring him to provide alternative accommodation should the family request it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned exceptional circumstances where delays overseas have resulted in claims not being processed in time. However, that is not always capable of being described as an exceptional circumstance. What would happen if the delay in a large number of cases was due to that? As I say, that circumstance could not always be considered exceptional.

As regards turnaround times, I wish to try to signal that we are not complacent. I shall not go into a lot of detail. The turnaround times that we have quoted previously relate to the processing of the massive backlog that started to build up when numbers of applications went through the roof from 1996 onwards. Therefore, the average is weighted by longstanding applications. As regards recent performance, we are turning around about 70 per cent of cases in two months. That is extremely positive news. It is not as fast as we would like but it is a positive sign. The location of case workers and adjudicators on site should enable our initial decision-making further to speed up. However, as regards appeal processes, even with the increase in the consideration of cases by adjudicators to 6,000 cases a month by November—that is the target and will constitute a phenomenal increase in throughput—we cannot guarantee that all that will be done within a time limit on the face of the Bill.

There was some suggestion that families would be incarcerated in centres, but that is not true. They are free to come and go, subject to reporting restrictions. We do not think that the centres will be against the interests of children but we shall consider that in more detail later. Those centres will provide good education, good support for families, good play facilities and perhaps the first stability that some of those families have had for months. We strongly refute the view that they are bad for children or that they should not necessarily be there. Potentially, they will provide a better and more caring environment than will some dispersed accommodation.

I have no doubt that I have not answered all of the points at this late hour. For the reasons that I have suggested, we feel that although we are utterly committed to accelerating turnaround time while maintaining fair process, restrictions in the Bill would not be in anyone's interests, least of all those of families.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who took part in this debate at this late hour. I have been given much food for thought for the Summer Recess. There is much that I shall have to consider before taking this amendment forward. Perhaps I should say that at the beginning of my remarks rather than at the end.

I agree with the Minister that we start with the same objectives. We want a system that has speed but is fair. That is always a difficult balance to achieve in any legal system.

The Minister said that he objected to including a statutory lock-in in the Bill. Opposition parties always try to secure some kind of commitment for action from government rather than goals and targets that make a good headline one day but which the next day mean nothing to those involved, who find themselves trapped in the system. The Minister will not be surprised if I return to the issue of the statutory lock-in at some stage.

I was grateful to Members of the Committee for their comments and to my noble friends Lord Brooke and Lady Carnegy of Lour for their support. Although the Minister made some response to my rider about exceptional circumstances, that has not yet been properly addressed.

I was intrigued by the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who proposed a system for fast-tracking families with children. I had not considered that heretofore. I shall look carefully at my amendment before bringing it back in a different, more constructive, form. There are, we are told, relatively few families with children involved, so perhaps there could be a way of making the noble Baroness's suggestion a reality.

The Minister's reply was rather disappointing in many respects, but I have two points to make on it. First, his summary of the number of people who receive the determination and the period within which they do so does not quite fit with some of the information that I have to hand. I shall look very carefully at the figures that he gave and compare them with the information that I have been given by the Refugee Council and which I have received during the past few months in Written Answers.

Finally, it is important to welcome one part of the Minister's answer. It was absolutely right that he should recognise that those who apply for asylum here need proper time in which to make their application in the proper way and that they should have all the legal advice that they may need. Too often the Government seem to think that the only delays that occur in our criminal justice system are created by the defence, not the prosecution. I hope that in the system for processing asylum appeals, we shall properly recognise the fact that those who process appeals can be just as at fault as—if not more than—those who are trying to make a proper application. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 105 to 107 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at ten o'clock.