It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to discuss the very important and serious matter of Serco and its announcement to press ahead with asylum seeker lock-change evictions. In giving a bit of background, I will be mentioning a number of organisations that have expressed their concerns, both publicly and to me. They include: the Scottish Refugee Council, Positive Action in Housing, the Govan Law Centre, the Govan Community Project, Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government and, of course, the Tenants Union’s Living Rent campaign, whose badge I proudly wear today.
Earlier this month, Serco announced that it was going to restart its inhumane lock-changing programme, which could leave hundreds of asylum seekers homeless and destitute in the city of Glasgow. I and my colleagues in the Scottish National party want to prevent these evictions and future evictions from taking place. Serco currently has a contract with the Home Office for the provision of asylum accommodation in Scotland. The recent threat to evict 300 asylum seekers on to the streets of Glasgow without any consultation only strengthens the arguments that a public sector bid for those contracts would have been the best way forward.
As my hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald who serves on the Home Affairs Committee knows, in January 2017 the Committee published a highly critical asylum accommodation report. It made system-wide recommendations; uncovered unacceptable housing standards and insufficient recognition of needs, such as mental health, torture, sexual violence and trafficking; and raised serious questions about the rigour, consistency and lack of public transparency in the Home Office’s performance management regime of its three housing contractors across the United Kingdom.
I do not want to discuss the merits of live legal proceedings in this place—indeed that would not be right—but it is a concern that I have a constituent who is subject to live legal proceedings in Scotland’s supreme appellate court, the Inner House of the Court of Session, and I am surprised that both the Home Office and Serco have decided to press ahead with these lock-change evictions while the matter is still to be settled in the courts. Labelling asylum seekers as “failed” is not the sort of language that we should be using when discussing some of the most vulnerable in our society. The asylum system and process can be very lengthy and very complicated, and using labels such as “failed” is entirely unhelpful.
The Scottish Refugee Council has also expressed its concerns on the matter. Serco’s announcement on
No one should be rendered street homeless, and certainly never, ever without the protection of court due process. There is a wider strategic importance in Glasgow continuing to resist and overcome the clear housing and due process gaps in the current asylum system that will have relevance to other parts of the UK, especially other asylum dispersal areas such as the north of England, the midlands, south Wales and Belfast. We are clear that what is happening in Glasgow—with multinationals such as Serco intending to evict vulnerable people and render them immediately street homeless through callous, traumatising and possibly still unlawful lock changes—is an extreme symptom of a failed and broken Home Office approach to its responsibilities under the refugee convention and EU asylum legal instruments to prevent the destitution of those seeking refugee protection.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his powerful speech and for bringing this debate to the House. He has mentioned some of the local authorities that have stepped up to the plate to take the dispersal of asylum seekers in local authority areas. Does he agree that other local authorities that might have been interested in becoming dispersal authorities and stepping up to that plate will be completely put off doing so by the horrendous process they have witnessed in Glasgow?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I will express later in my speech the real views of local government, but he is correct that there are local authorities that were considering becoming part of the asylum dispersal process that are now minded not to do so as a result of what they are seeing in Glasgow, with Serco’s announcement of lock-change evictions.
There should never be anything inevitable about destitution, from any system of support—be that social housing, social security or asylum accommodation. The decade-long devaluation, underfunding and outsourcing of public service delivery of housing to women, men and children seeking refugee protection has been part of the wider austerity project that has penetrated deepest in communities of entrenched multiple deprivation across the United Kingdom, including Glasgow. We should always remember that it is these areas, however, that have consistently welcomed people seeking asylum through the Home Office’s asylum dispersal programme.
As a consequence, those communities, council areas and third sector services have been stepping up to help, as we have seen in Glasgow. That is despite their unfairly having the responsibilities and costs of helping people shunted on to them by two of the most powerful institutions in the UK—namely, the Home Office and multinational companies such as Serco, which enjoys profits of £30 million, which basically exist only to win public service contracts, especially from UK Government Departments in immigration and asylum, defence, transport and other spheres.
The Scottish Refugee Council has had to increase its destitution service provision and influencing and advocacy activities, and accelerate its work with key partners such as Positive Action in Housing, Shelter Scotland and JustRight Scotland, co-ordinating the charity and legal sector collaboration against these proposed evictions. It has met regularly since August 2018 to share information and take actions via litigation, legal policy and campaigning. Other members include the Legal Services Agency, Latta Law, Govan Law Centre, the British Red Cross, the Asylum Seeker Housing Project, the Refugee Survival Trust and, of course, the great Govan Community Project.
The Scottish Refugee Council considered the Immigration Minister’s descriptions of the situation in the
The Scottish Refugee Council received 61 referrals from Migrant Help in the second phase of that process. That compares with 419 individuals assisted by Scottish Refugee Council destitution advisers from April 2018 to March 2019, 263 of whom were in Serco asylum accommodation. Through sustained funding from a charitable organisation and short-term resources from the Scottish Government, the Scottish Refugee Council has managed to stretch limited funds to prepare and lodge 120 applications for section 4 support, with 59% of those being successful—thereby lifting 72 individuals out of destitution or preventing them from falling into it. That has been achieved outside any Home Office support. I think that we would all want to continue to urge the Home Office, as the state party to the refugee convention and EU asylum legal instruments, urgently to provide resources that are genuinely commensurate with need, including the funding of independent advocacy support to help individuals in grave need.
Towards the end of last year, the Home Affairs Committee recommended direct funding to organisations and city councils in dispersal areas because of the undoubted cost implications for participating dispersal authorities. Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that the work that the Home Office undertook to carry out with local authorities to calculate the funds that would be needed seems to have been put on the back burner and kicked into the long grass, despite it being necessary as a matter of urgency?
I agree that it is urgent, as my hon. Friend suggests. I am sure that the Minister will address that, because there is a very real concern about it, not just from independent advocacy groups such as the Scottish Refugee Council but from local government and the Scottish Government. I will come to that later.
The priority remains to help all those facing asylum destitution, especially those due to receive the 14-day notice-to-quit letter followed by the seven-day lock change notice. Destitution advisers provide a holistic assessment of need and ongoing support and co-ordination, including for individuals under threat of eviction through lock changes by Serco. All these individuals are known to the Home Office. The process of submitting new evidence for a refused asylum claim is lengthy and complicated for most, and they might not have an option to return because of fear of persecution. To simply say that they “refuse” to leave is not accurate. We must emphasise that the actions of Serco are, in this sphere, functions of a public nature and therefore come under the scope of the Human Rights Act 1998. This legal status was confirmed in a Court of Session decision.
It is important that we highlight just some of the individuals who are under threat of eviction by Serco and the Home Office. We have been advised by the Home Office, and by the Minister at a meeting I had with her earlier this week, that those with vulnerabilities will not receive such letters, but that does not seem to be the case. I am going to mention a number of cases that have been presented to me by asylum charities. Everyone here knows the safety and belonging that a home brings, but today in Glasgow we are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis of hundreds of women and men who sought sanctuary in the UK. The Conservative Government have none the less retained their basic inhumanity in the asylum process. Since last week, they have been ruthlessly rolling out their privatised hostile environment in Scotland’s largest city.
Courageous women like Mariam, who has fled abuse in Eritrea but been refused refugee protection by the asylum system, should never have received a notice to quit. Why? Because Mariam has depression, is receiving medication and is being helped by a community psychiatric nurse. Serco has ordered her to get out of her house through a lock-change letter, which means no protection against street homelessness, with no rule of law or court oversight, callously causing trauma and tearing her away with immediate effect from her only source of shelter. Do we leave people like Mariam on the streets, with their mental health going through the floor, to be a sitting target for traffickers or exploiters, when the outgoing Prime Minister said that tackling trafficking was a top priority? Does the Minister realise that those sorts of decisions feed exploitation and are a boon to organised crime, while destroying lives? Surely the decent thing is to ensure that Mariam’s lock-change is cancelled.
Another concern that has been brought to my attention is that letters are being delivered by two men in uniform, sometimes to women who live on their own. I have a real concern about that, and I find it completely and utterly unacceptable. For a woman who has fled her country to seek shelter and asylum in the UK, two men in uniform visiting the house with letters will mean something completely different from what it would perhaps mean to us. It is unacceptable, and I hope the Minister will have something to say about that.
I have a number of other cases to mention. A 34-year-old woman from Eritrea was issued with an eviction letter dated
Another case presented to me is a 72-year-old gentleman who is an Iraqi national but has lived most of his life in Syria. He left Syria when the war started. He has lost contact with his wife and children in Europe and is in Glasgow alone. He speaks Arabic. Serco sent him a lock-change eviction letter dated
Another case is that of a 58-year-old woman who received a letter from Serco dated
Another case I have is that of a constituent who received a letter on
It appears that Serco is treating individuals with complex cases as one mass of people, and this is likely to lead to unjust decisions and vulnerable people with a genuine reason to be here being ejected from their accommodation. As a landlord, Serco is ill-equipped to pass judgment on someone’s asylum status. Walking unannounced into someone’s accommodation and rummaging through their private belongings does not make that person an immigration officer. The people Serco is attempting to evict are not subject to deportation orders. The Home Office support has stopped for now, but that does not mean that their cases—to put it in inverted commas—“failed”. They can still engage with the legal process and apply for support to be reinstated. Appeals and judicial reviews do happen and are often successful.
I want to come on to the local government view. I have a letter, which I will place in the Library, from Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council, and a note of the meeting of local authorities passing on their concerns about asylum accommodation contracts and processes. There are pressures in different areas, including the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, and Glasgow, as incoming contractors face the need to procure a large number of properties in a very short period of time. It is my concern that Serco is advertising the fact that the reason why it needs to remove asylum seekers from their accommodation is so that it can hand back the keys to the original landlords, which does not seem to me to be an acceptable reason.
There is very real concern from local government that the transition deadline will not be met in some areas and that contingency accommodation may have to be used. The distribution of asylum seekers across the country is very uneven, with some areas of high concentration, including Glasgow. Local authority leaders from other parts of the UK agree that we need to progress the funding issues, as local government is left to pick up the tab for the decisions made by both Serco and the Home Office. In their view, the Home Office is failing to address issues for which it has responsibility and seems unable to provide up-to-date data on the number and locations of asylum seekers. When data is produced, it is often incomplete and contradicts information available from other sources.
In the view of local authorities, nothing is being done by the Home Office to convince other local authorities in the UK to participate in the dispersal programme. However, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the fact that asylum seeker lock-change evictions are going ahead has resulted in some local authorities suggesting that they would not want to participate in that sort of process. Local authorities participating in the dispersal programme are still waiting for the Home Office response to their request for funding, and they see no evidence that that has been taken to Her Majesty’s Treasury.
I think it would be fair to say that we have a number of questions about what is going on in relation both to the contracts, and to this inhumane move to subject asylum seekers to lock-change evictions and make them homeless. However, before I ask those questions, I have to say that I am very concerned at the behaviour of Serco. I want to reiterate again that two men should not approach women living on their own or with children, going in with threatening letters and handing them over in that way. That is something I want to hear the Minister condemn, and I want that practice put a stop to.
Can the Minister answer the following questions? I have a number of questions for her. Does she intend to come to Glasgow to witness a lock-change eviction? When is she next coming to Glasgow to discuss the asylum accommodation contract with asylum charities and the council? Does she realise what it would mean for someone to come home and find that their locks have been changed? May we have a guarantee that no one in Glasgow who has vulnerabilities as defined by the Home Office safeguarding policy has or will receive 14 days’ notice to quit, or a seven-day lock change notice?
Will the Minister publish the Home Office safeguarding policy? To my mind, the four cases that I presented involve people who would qualify as having a vulnerability under that policy. Will the Minister say more about what the Home Office defines as the over-staying group? Does it have a list of those in that group? Will she confirm whether refused case management and immigration enforcement teams are planning to start working through the over-staying list? Are they planning to detain people at their reporting events in Glasgow? Can she assure me that that will not happen, and that it has never been discussed since the first announcement about Serco evictions in July 2018? Can the Minister provide an assurance that no one in the over-staying group will be visited by immigration enforcement in their asylum accommodation, purely because they are classed as an over-stayer?
As a result of what has been put forward, the Home Office is required to make a decision. You will have heard the rumours, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I have, about the shredding machines in Departments being in overdrive and working overtime, prior to the new Prime Minister and new regime.
Well you have heard the rumour now. Given the facts presented today, the Home Office must now call a halt to these eviction notices. Everything we have been told by the Home Office in good faith about how this system will work in practice has been shown not to be the case. Letters were issued before 20th June, although we were told that they were not. We were told that those with vulnerabilities would not receive letters, but that was not the case. The style of how those letters are being delivered is completely unacceptable on any level, as I hope the Minister will agree. As a result of the facts I have put forward, which were given to us by asylum charities, will the Minister call a halt to these evictions?
The Home Office and Serco must know that they have picked the wrong city—the city of Mary Barbour and the rent strikes just over a century ago; the city of the great Glasgow girls who campaigned against child detention and ensured they got their school friend back. Thousands of volunteers have signed up to the living rent campaign, and they are on standby and ready to step in and prevent these evictions. The Government should be in no doubt that if Glaswegians are required to use their human rights, such as the right to peaceful assembly, to protect the basic human rights of others, that is what will be done, and I will join my fellow Glaswegians to prevent these evictions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and providing me with the opportunity to clarify the current position in Glasgow regarding those who are no longer eligible for asylum support or accommodation.
The United Kingdom has a proud history of providing an asylum system that protects and respects the fundamental rights of those individuals who seek refuge from persecution. The Government are committed to working closely with communities and stakeholders to ensure that destitute asylum seekers are provided with safe, secure and suitable accommodation, and that they are treated with dignity while their asylum claim is considered. However, it is important to recognise that the majority of the affected cohort in Glasgow do not have status in the UK. They have sought asylum. Their claim has not been substantiated. They have exhausted the appeals process and they now need to take steps to return to their country of origin.
Even if some of these individuals have not qualified and have not met the technical definition of what a refugee is, that does not mean they are not vulnerable people, it does not mean they do not have significant needs and it does not mean they should not be treated with dignity. Why do we have a cliff-edge process that means that, if an asylum claim is refused, no alternatives are looked at and there are no ways to try to work with that person to ensure they are looked after properly?
At no point have I said that these people are not vulnerable. I have tried to set out that they have had an asylum claim that has not been found to be valid and that they have been through the appeals process. If the hon. Gentleman will give me some time, I will move on to discuss the various means of support that are available, particularly to those we heard about earlier: those who are vulnerable, those who have medical conditions and those who have children.
The system that operates in Glasgow is the same system that operates across the United Kingdom and has been operated by successive Governments since the introduction of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Asylum seekers and their dependants who would otherwise be destitute are provided with accommodation and a weekly cash allowance by the Home Office while their asylum claim and any subsequent appeals are considered. This form of support is usually known as section 95 support. If an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, they are free to take employment and become eligible to apply for mainstream benefits in the same way as British citizens and other permanent residents.
If their asylum claim is refused but they have children at the time their appeal rights are exhausted, they remain on section 95 support until their youngest child reaches 18 years of age or they leave UK. Those without children who exhaust the appeals process lose access to section 95 support, but a very similar form of support, known as section 4 support, is provided so long as they take reasonable steps to leave the UK, or, importantly, show that there is a legal or practical obstacle that prevents their departure. Examples of such an obstacle include: those who are too sick to travel, those who need time to obtain a necessary travel document, and those who have made fresh submissions against the refusal of their asylum claim that have not been resolved.
I thank the Minister for giving way. This is an important point in terms of someone’s status and their appeal. My understanding from what she says is that someone who has been refused an upper tribunal level could be subjected to an eviction letter. Is the Minister saying that those individuals have effectively 14 days to submit fresh evidence—an article 8 application or the like? Someone who has been refused an upper tribunal level still has the right to submit a fresh claim.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that they have the right to submit a fresh claim, but I am very anxious to emphasise that what we cannot encourage is a circular process, where people submit claim after claim when a first-tier tribunal and then an upper-tier tribunal found their claim to be unfounded. Circumstances may change, I absolutely accept that, but it is important that, while we treat individuals fairly, the system is upheld.
Decisions to refuse section 4 support attract a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. It is clearly reasonable to limit the offer of section 4 support to people who satisfy these conditions. Providing support indefinitely and without conditions to people who have no right to be in the UK is wrong in principle and risks undermining public confidence in the asylum system.
I have said that it is right that people who have no legal basis to remain in the United Kingdom are not supported indefinitely, but it is also right that they should be aware of their options, and the advice and support available to them. Advice on accessing further support or returning home with support is routinely provided to all whose claim has been refused. However, in the case of this particular cohort of people we have gone further. Since August 2018, we have been working with partners in Glasgow, including Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Refugee Council, to ensure that affected individuals are aware of the further support available to them.
Migrant Help, on behalf of the Home Office, has been reaching out to those affected to explain how they can continue to be supported and accommodated if they take the necessary steps to return to their country of origin. We have also provided information on our assisted voluntary returns scheme, which provides up to £2,000 in reintegration assistance.
Migrant Help has contacted 373 people to discuss these options and conducted 154 advice appointments. The Home Office has also held over 296 conversations about voluntary return. The scheme available is designed to assist those who require more help and includes supporting resettlement in the country of return by providing financial or “in kind” support from an overseas provider.
I should note that a minority of the affected individuals have received a grant of leave to remain, but have none the less refused to leave their accommodation at the end of their eligibility. We are working closely with Glasgow City Council on these cases and have an agreed process to move these individuals into appropriate local authority housing and to access mainstream benefits.
I thank the Minister for giving way again; she is being most generous. Will she clarify whether those who will potentially be subjected to a lock-change eviction notice over the next few weeks have the right to remain?
As I was saying, a small number of people have been granted refugee status, but it is absolutely right that they then move on from accommodation that is designated for destitute asylum seekers, so that the next cohort of asylum seekers can move into that accommodation, and those refugees—who have the right to stay, live and work in this country—move into accommodation that is appropriate for their needs and is not designated part of this asylum support accommodation, which is specifically designed for a cohort of people who are still in the claims process.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, I have also written to all Glasgow MPs with a direct line of contact to Home Office teams, who can work on a case-by-case basis should they have any questions or concerns. All applicants involved have been notified that they can contact their MP for advice and that their MPs have a direct line to the Home Office.
Some concern has been raised about the legal position in relation to issuing lock-change notices, which I would like to clarify. In July 2018, Serco commenced a process of reclaiming properties from those whose asylum applications had been decided and were no longer entitled to support. This was after a similar process had been successfully rolled out in the north-west of England.
The process of issuing a lock-change notice, if an individual refused to leave a property at the end of their entitlement, was paused pending a legal challenge in the Scottish courts. That pause did not affect people’s eligibility to receive asylum support, so those who became appeal rights exhausted or were granted leave to remain continued to receive the normal letter asking them to leave their accommodation. However, in that period, Serco did not follow this up by proceeding with lock changes if the individuals declined to leave.
In April this year, Lord Tyre dismissed two cases brought against Serco and the Home Office contesting this course of action. An appeal has been lodged and is currently sisted. As the cases were dismissed, Serco is now moving to resolve the circumstances of those staying in Serco properties. It is right that it does so.
Finally, I want to clarify the operational process, which I also set out in my recent letter to Glasgow MPs and MSPs.
The Minister says that it is right for Serco to act in that way given Lord Tyre’s judgment, but surely it would be right for Serco to wait for the outcome of the further appeal. Will she also address the issue of funding for local authorities, with the Home Office having undertaken to work with local authorities to assess the impact of dispersal on their resources? Why has that work been kicked into the long grass?
The legal action that was started last year and the judgement concluded in April this year did not provide a barrier to Serco continuing with this activity. It chose to pause it. The further appeal does not provide a barrier and the judgment was very clear. It is right that Serco should seek to make sure that accommodation designated for asylum seekers is available to those who fall into that category.
I must make a little more progress.
Each week, Serco has provided the Home Office with a list of individuals who are overstaying in properties. The Home Office carefully checks that list against internal databases to ensure that the individuals have not lodged further submissions or new applications to remain, and that there are no known obstacles that would prevent them from leaving the United Kingdom. Once that is confirmed, the information is relayed back to Serco and a notice to quit is served, providing 14 days to leave the property. At the end of that period, if needed, a lock-change notice is served, providing seven days in which to leave the property before the locks may be changed. The first notices were issued on
The Minister can hold this line that the first letters were issued on
I set out very clearly earlier—I cannot find the place in my notes right now—that Serco continued with the process because actually there was a cohort that came to everyone’s attention in the summer of last year, but between then and now there have been additional asylum seekers in Serco accommodation who have submitted new claims that have been found not to be substantiated. The process is not set in aspic; it continues the whole time. Different individuals will have come in and new claims will have been made by that cohort. The hon. Gentleman refers to other individuals who received notices to quit, but it is important to reflect that that might have been because their claims were found to be warranted and they were given refugee status and so needed to move into mainstream accommodation. There will also be those whose asylum claim was found not to be substantiated and were not in need of protection.
It remains the position that all of the cohort can apply for section 4 support at any time, and if they do, the process will be suspended until the application is considered and any appeal against its refusal is decided.
I think that Mr Deputy Speaker is concerned that we are about to use more time than I am permitted.
I am proud of the contribution that our country makes to providing accommodation and support to those seeking asylum. However, when the courts have decided that an asylum claim is not well founded, it is important that the support is available only if the individuals take reasonable steps to leave the UK, or if there is an obstacle to their departure. I am of course always willing to consider practical ideas about how we can further encourage those whose asylum claim has been refused to accept the offer of support on these terms.
Question put and agreed to.