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Working on reception...

David Blunkett tried to do it; now Priti Patel is having a go.


The current Home Secretary is revisiting an idea first developed 20 years ago by one of her Labour predecessors - reception and accommodation centres for asylum seekers.


Patel's proposal was outlined in her 'New Plan for Immigration' in March, with further details provided in July.


"We will introduce new accommodation and reception centres," she said.


"Asylum seekers will be allocated to accommodation centres by the department and the Home Secretary, rather than dispersing people across the UK."


Patel added that there would be facilities for applications to be processed on site. "We will reinstate an accelerated appeal process that is fast enough to enable claims to be dealt with from detention," she told MPs.


The Home Office said the living conditions would be "basic...in line with our statutory obligations" and promised to end the use of hotels (more about that in a moment). Clauses in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is going through Parliament, would give the home secretary flexibility about deciding where particular groups of asylum seekers could be held and for how long, with a six-month limit for accommodation centres extended.


Until now, however, the Home Office has not disclosed where the centres will be built nor how many places are needed. Officials with long memories will be acutely aware that Blunkett's plans to house 3,000 asylum claimants foundered when the proposed sites were revealed. Vigorous local opposition to accommodation centres in Worcestershire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire, among other suggested areas, put paid to the scheme.


So the choice of location is likely to be critical to Patel's plans getting off the ground - which is why the 'Prior Information Notice' (PIN) issued by her department on August 11 is so important. The document gives details of the accommodation project to potential bidders and reveals that the Home Office wants asylum seekers to be housed at centres in nine regions across England - but none in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The first one on the list is north-east England, which includes a series of 'red wall' constituencies, traditionally safe Labour seats now targeted by the Conservatives, but sources say the north east is first because of its alphabetical code, and there is nothing more to be read into that.


The number of asylum accommodation places required has been the subject of much speculation; the Refugee Council estimates that between 5,900 and 14,200 people would potentially be held in the centres, on the basis that they will be used for those with inadmissible claims who need state support while their cases are dealt with.


The charity's calculations are not far off: according to the PIN, the Home Office is planning to deliver accommodation provision for up to 8,000 "service users". That will mean a network of reception centres, just as Blunkett envisioned; in fact there may have to be a dozen or so - even the biggest prison doesn't hold more than 2,000 inmates. The scale of this project cannot be under-estimated.


The PIN says the department is looking for a "commercial partner(s)" for its asylum accommodation and reception centres, making clear that it wants them to be delivered in "swift" time. The contract notice will be published on October 1. As for the fabric of the buildings, it says they could be "new build" sites using modular, modern or traditional construction methods, or involve the renovation of pre-existing infrastructure. The document says the Home Office also wants to contract out transport, facilities management, security, catering and "wraparound services", such as safeguarding, education and healthcare.


There is an intriguing paragraph in the PIN, which suggests that hotel accommodation might still be given approval, despite the Home Office pledge to stop it being used. "We also encourage consortiums, and hope to facilitate networking and engagement between different partners, including landlords, hoteliers and other accommodation providers to facilitate new solutions," says the PIN. Quite what that means is unclear, but it would appear that hotel owners might be welcome to bid to house asylum seekers after all.


Debate about the Government's plans to overhaul the asylum system has focused on far-reaching amendments to the immigration rules, to make it easier to remove those without a valid claim. The changes will no doubt be contested in the courts. However, this document signals that even bigger challenges lie ahead on the asylum front, as the Home Office begins the procurement process for a mammoth building programme: Lord Blunkett didn't manage it - will it be any different for Priti Patel?


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