On my appointment by the Prime Minister three weeks ago, I was appraised of the critical situation at the Manston processing centre. Within days, the situation escalated further with a terrorist attack at Western Jet Foil that forced the transfer of hundreds of additional migrants to Manston. I urgently visited Western Jet Foil and Manston within days of my appointment to assess the situation for myself and to speak with frontline staff, during which time it became clear to me that very urgent action was required.
Since then, the numbers at Manston have fallen from more than 4,000 to zero today. That would not have been possible without the work of dedicated officials across the Home Office—from the officials in cutters saving lives at sea, to the medical staff at Manston—and I put on record my sincere gratitude to them for the intense effort required to achieve that result.
To bring Manston to a sustainable footing and meet our legal and statutory duties to asylum seekers who would otherwise have been left destitute, we have had to procure additional contingency accommodation at extreme pace. In some instances, however, that has led to the Home Office and our providers failing to properly engage with local authorities and Members of Parliament. I have been clear that that is completely unacceptable and that it must change.
On Monday, a “Dear colleague” letter in my name was sent to outline a new set of minimum requirements for that engagement, backed by additional resources. This includes an email notification to local authorities and Members of Parliament no less than 24 hours prior to arrivals; a fulsome briefing on the relevant cohort, required support and dedicated point of contact; and an offer of a meeting with the local authority as soon as possible prior to arrival.
I have since met chief executives and leaders of local authorities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, among many other meetings, to improve our engagement. We discussed their concerns and outlined the changes that we intend to make together. I have also met our providers to convey my concerns and those conveyed to me by hon. Members on both sides of the House in recent weeks, and to agree new standards of engagement and conduct from them.
These new standards will lead to a modest improvement, but I am clear that much more needs to be done, so this performance standard will be reviewed weekly with a view to improving service levels progressively as quickly as we can. In the medium term, we are committed to moving to a full dispersal accommodation model, which would be fairer and cheaper. We continue to pursue larger accommodation sites that are decent but not luxurious, because we want to make sure that those in our care are supported appropriately but that the UK is a less attractive destination for asylum shoppers and economic migrants. That is exactly what the Home Secretary and I intend to achieve.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Last Sunday afternoon, the Home Office contacted my local authority by email to give it 24 hours’ notice that it had selected a hotel to act as contingency asylum accommodation. That gave the excellent people at Tendring District Council no time to respond properly to the issue of services. It is an inadequate timeframe and shows how poor the comms from the Home Office have been; I have not been contacted personally about the issue at all. I am glad that the Minister finds it unacceptable, but will he agree to meet me and the local authority to discuss the plans for Clacton?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those important issues. I will, of course, be happy to meet him, as I have met hon. Members on both sides of the House in almost every case where someone has requested to do so.
In respect of the hotel in Tendring, as I understand it, having spoken to officials this morning, a proposition was put to Tendring District Council to use a former care home in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which would have accommodated a small number of asylum seekers. Short notice was given because it was to be a backstop accommodation option in the light of the extreme situation that we were contending with at Manston. On further inquiries, and prior to his inquiry to the Department and the calling of the urgent question, the proposition was dropped by the Home Office and there is no intention of proceeding with it.
For information, had that proposition been taken forward, it would have been for a very small number of individuals. At the moment, there are 39 asylum seekers accommodated in my hon. Friend’s constituency, 14 of whom are in hotels and 25 in dispersed accommodation. That accounts for 0.02% of the population of Tendring’s local authority. I do not say that to diminish the legitimate concerns that he raises, but merely to provide context. If we are dealing with 40,000 individuals crossing the channel illegally, there will be a need for all local authorities in the country to work with the Home Office and to play their part. It is absolutely incumbent on the Home Office in return, however, to provide good standards of engagement so that we can ensure that the right accommodation is chosen in the right places. That is exactly what I intend to achieve.
It seems that we come to the Chamber at least once a week to hear about the mess that the Home Secretary is making of an asylum system that her Government have broken. The root cause of today’s urgent question is the failure of the Government to process asylum claims with anything like the efficiency required. In 2012, the Home Office was making 14 asylum decisions a month; it is now making just five.
Tory Ministers like to blame covid, but the truth is that this is a mess of their own making. They chose to downgrade asylum decision makers from higher executive officer grade to lower executive officer grade, leading to a less experienced workforce on lower wages with lower retention rates and collapsing morale. The inevitable consequences were slower decisions, more decisions overturned at appeal, an increasing backlog and ballooning taxpayer costs.
With the average time to process an asylum claim standing at 449 days, the people smugglers see the backlog as a marketing opportunity—an open invite from this Conservative Government to those who want to melt away into the underground economy. All this catastrophic incompetence has led to the Minister scrambling around to find contingency hotel accommodation, resulting in what the Home Secretary described this morning as “poor communication” between central and local government.
Will the Minister therefore confirm whether he really feels that his undertaking to give local authorities as little as 24 hours’ notice is reasonable? Did he recently pull out of two meetings with council leaders at short notice? What mechanisms is he using to monitor the performance of contractors and subcontractors? I have heard from councils where the public health team was not informed about serious health issues, including pregnancies, so does he accept that he is failing to give local authorities key health-related information? What progress is he making on tackling the crisis of unaccompanied children being placed in hotels— 222 have already gone missing—and will he apologise to the couples who have had to cancel their wedding receptions in hotels at extremely short notice as a result of this Government’s chronic mismanagement?
Dear me! The reason I had to pull out of the meeting with local authority leaders was that the hon. Gentleman had called an urgent question and I was here answering his questions. The idea that the Labour party knows how to get a grip of this challenge is, frankly, laughable. The last Labour Government left the Home Office in such disarray that their own Home Secretary declared it not fit for purpose and had to split the place up. The backlog of cases was so high that he had to institute an amnesty, where they literally wrote to people and said, “Welcome to Britain. We can’t process your application—you’re in.” That is not the approach that we are taking.
Labour Members have no credible proposals to stop the problem at source. They voted against the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and they opposed the Rwanda scheme. Their own leader, in his leadership campaign, called for the closure of immigration removal centres—the places where we detain people, often foreign national offenders, while we are trying to get them out of the country. The truth is that, in the last Labour Government, the party was committed to mass migration and uncontrolled immigration. We are only the party that believes in the British public. We are the party that wants to ensure that we secure our borders and have a controlled migration system.
As always, I have some sympathy for my right hon. Friend in having to deal with an urgent question such as this. Recent examples in Torbay show that previously there was engagement with local authorities, although I must say that the news that we were looking to use accommodation was never welcomed. It would be interesting for him to reflect on how the new standards he has laid out will operate and work. Is he saying that this will be an interim period with a bare minimum of 24 hours’ notice and that he hopes to go back to giving a longer period of notice, both to MPs and to councils, particularly those with responsibility for children’s services, because it is really unacceptable that people are finding out about this from staff working at hotels and residents living next door?
I can only speak to the situation as I found it when I arrived in the Department, and at that point there were almost 4,000 people at the Manston site. There were serious concerns about conditions at the site and, indeed, about its legality, and there was insufficient accommodation available to us to house the asylum seekers. We have set out, through immense efforts in the last few weeks, to rectify that situation. It is clear to me that insufficient accommodation was procured over a sustained period, and we need to tackle that. We will do it in a number of different ways, including through dispersal accommodation with local authorities; through judicious use of hotels, with good engagement with local authorities; by using larger sites that provide us with decent but not luxurious accommodation; and, of course, by tackling the problem at source. We cannot build our way out of this challenge. We have to reduce the pull factors to the UK and we have to ensure that the backlog of cases is cleared as swiftly as possible.
I think we are all agreed in this House that it is important that the Home Office liaises in advance with local authorities, service providers, non-governmental organisations and local representatives. The Minister has made some commitments in that regard today, and we will obviously monitor closely how those are implemented and how they work. We should also be agreed, and I think we are close to being agreed, that hotels really should be a matter of last resort, rather than routine, so I have a couple of thoughts on how we get there.
First, on where the Home Office spends resources, I hate to say it—well, I do not mind saying it—but the £140 million spent on Rwanda is a complete waste of money. Could the Minister confirm that about 4,000 or 5,000 caseworkers could have been employed for that sort of sum? Let us not waste any more money on that at all. Will he also look at the tens of millions of pounds that contractors are now raking in in profit through that scheme, and seek to provide that money directly to local authorities to procure accommodation in their communities?
Secondly, on the backlog, as I have said before, there are thousands—tens of thousands—of Afghans and Syrians in the system who could be taken out of it with a quick decision. The inadmissibility procedure is a complete waste of time. It achieves nothing, and it clogs up 10,000 spaces.
Finally, we did hear confirmation today that decision makers are among the lowest-paid civil servants going, but they make life and death decisions. Surely that has to be looked at again, and they need to be paid properly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a number of valid concerns and suggestions that I will certainly bear in mind. It is important now that the Home Office tackles the quite serious operational issues it faces, one of which is obviously addressing the backlog of cases. We are going to do that by training the staff better, ensuring that they have the right leadership and ensuring that they can raise productivity by having a less bureaucratic system than the one we have today.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to disperse people throughout the United Kingdom in a fair and equitable manner. One of the challenges we face is the fact that, disproportionately, Scotland has not stepped up to this challenge. There are, I believe, only about 10 hotels in Scotland that are currently housing asylum seekers, for example, and the Scottish Government have not supported us in procuring others. Asylum seekers are primarily centred on the city of Glasgow, which has a very significant number of asylum seekers and a long history of accommodating them, but other cities and towns in Scotland need to do the same. If he would like to work with me to correct that imbalance, I would be delighted to do so.
The Minister should know that we do not want 24 hours’ notice of another hotel going; we want our hotels back to their proper purpose. When is he bringing legislation through this House as a matter of urgency to give him the legal back-up he is going to need so that fair and quick judgments on asylum are upheld, not overturned by the courts?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are reviewing the legal situation, and we will come to a view about whether further changes are needed to make sure that our laws are sufficiently robust. My right hon. Friend and I are in agreement that individuals should come to this country only if they are genuine asylum seekers fleeing persecution, war or human rights abuses, not asylum shoppers who have passed through multiple safe countries, including France, and certainly not if they come from demonstrably safe countries in the first place, such as Albania. We should pursue all options, including Rwanda, to create the right amount of deterrence to deter people from making the crossing.
I welcome the fact that Manston is empty today, but can I say to the Minister that it should never have got into the mess that it did, because the Home Office was working on forecasts of up to 60,000 people travelling across the channel this year? The Home Affairs Committee produced a report in the summer, and our No. 1 recommendation was to deal with the backlog to stop people having to go into hotels.
Can I highlight to the Minister that Home Office contractors that seek accommodation for asylum seekers are really only interested in the bottom line? They have concentrated the accommodation they have sourced in the poorer, cheaper areas—places such as my own constituency in Hull—and even when local councils in Yorkshire have come together to try to ensure equitable distribution across Yorkshire, Mears, which provides the accommodation for the Home Office, actually overrules local councils and does not do a service to the Home Office. Will the Minister look at the role that his contractors are playing in the inequitable nature of the distribution of asylum seekers?
I met the contractors and outsource partners of the Home Office earlier in the week, and I conveyed the frustrations that many Members have expressed to me, including some of the points that the right hon. Lady has set out. She is right that, for as long as we have this issue, we need a fairer and more equitable distribution of those accommodated in contingency accommodation. There is clearly a role for the Home Office in leading that. There is also a role for the outsource partners, and I made that point to them. It does seem to me as if some parts of the country are bearing a disproportionate burden, and we need to encourage those outsource partners to look more broadly for suitable accommodation. They undertook to do that, and my officials are going to provide better data to them so that there is a better picture of where the hotels and other accommodation are when they form those judgments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his engagement with a number of us over the last few weeks and for the work he is doing having come into the job only a few weeks ago. He has outlined his ambition for large dispersal accommodation and, as he knows from his previous roles, local authorities know their communities better than any third-party procurement company. Will he ensure that local authorities have the final say about the appropriateness and suitability of dispersal accommodation, as they will have to manage it on the ground?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have met and spoken to her on a number of occasions as she has voiced the serious concerns of her residents as well as those of Medway Council about at least one potential accommodation site in her constituency. She felt strongly that it was unsuitable, and there were serious concerns with it when I looked into it. We want to get to a point where there is proper, long-term interaction between the Home Office, our outsource partners and local authorities so that these choices are made together on sensible criteria and not imposed on local communities at short notice. The situation at Manston a few weeks ago was so serious, and concerns about its legality so severe, that it was right that we acted swiftly. There may be occasions like that in the future, but that cannot be the sensible, business-as-usual approach of the Home Office.
Sheffield welcomes asylum seekers, and we have 1,500 in the city. I have had a note today from the council leader, which echoes the points made by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson. Asylum seekers are almost totally housed in the poorest, most disadvantaged parts of the city, with the reason being that the Home Office’s sole criterion is how cheaply it can house them. Council leader, Terry Fox, says that the council has
“offered to work with the Home Office regarding opening up areas of the city which are traditionally not used for procurement”.
The Home Office has not even replied to the offer. Will the Minister turn his words into deeds and have his officials get back to the city council today and work with it as requested?
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman—he and I have worked together on local government matters for many years—and I will certainly ask my officials to speak to the city council and see if we can resolve that issue. It is true that, in some areas—even within a particular local authority—the local authority itself creates red lines as to where it wants to have contingency accommodation by saying that there are postcodes where they do not want to see such hotels. That may not be the case in Sheffield, but it is in other areas. The outsource partners raised that with me earlier in the week. We may be able to work together on that to ensure a better distribution, even within local authority areas.
It is, of course, important that we take into account value for money for the taxpayer when we choose hotels. I think it is outrageous that the taxpayer is paying £6 million a day for these hotels. I could not have been clearer to my officials or the outsource partners that I do not want to see the four-star hotels, the stately homes, the luxury barn conversions and the many outrageous examples brought to my attention in the last few weeks persist.
Order. We do have a lot of business to get through this afternoon, so, if we could have quick questions and quick answers, that would be very helpful.
I believe that the situation is now so bad and chaotic that the Minister should consider his position.
On Friday, North Northampton Council, Northants police and other local agencies had an online meeting with the Home Office and Serco regarding the potential use of the 51-bed Royal hotel in Kettering, slap bang in the middle of the town centre. Serious environmental health issues, including mould and no kitchen facilities, were raised. Northants police raised serious concerns about community safety and the vulnerability of the asylum seekers. The Home Office and Serco officials agreed that the hotel would not be used until those issues were properly addressed. Yesterday, the council was advised that 41 asylum seekers had been moved into the hotel on Sunday afternoon, without any notification at all, and that could rise to 80. No biometric of previous offending history data has been shared with the local police. It is totally, 100% unacceptable.
First, given that many asylum seekers in this country are living in fear of far-right reprisals, actual thuggery, bricks through windows and being followed to their accommodation by extremists who would threaten them, will the Minister rebuke the small number of his colleagues who have been naming and identifying hotels where asylum seekers are staying? Secondly, If he wants to reduce the number of hotels and other inappropriate accommodation being used to house asylum seekers, he could do his job properly and clear the backlog. Perhaps he could start with the 35% of asylum seekers coming from those five countries where the grant rate is up to 95% and get rid of the problem. Finally, he is bothered about the cost to the system, and so am I, so why will he not allow asylum seekers to work so that they can pay some of their own costs and integrate better? That would also tackle the awful mental health problems suffered by people who are forced to be idle having fled persecution.
On asylum seekers working, there are respectable arguments on both sides of the issue. I take the view that, for a range of different reasons, there are already significant pull factors to the UK and it would be unwise of us to add a further pull factor. However, I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman takes a different view.
With regard to the backlog, we are now going to institute the processes piloted at our Leeds office, which will ensure that productivity is increased significantly. However, he is right that we need to get through the backlog. It should never have been allowed to get to this level in the first place.
Added to the chaos, we now see a bidding war where local authorities find themselves competing against Home Office procurement for temporary accommodation. That is not new. The Public Accounts Committee highlighted those very issues in its report in November 2020 and made a recommendation to the Home Office, which the Government accepted, that:
“The Department should, as a matter of urgency, communicate with NHS bodies, MPs and other key stakeholders such as police, setting out how it will consult and engage with them in future.”
We also asked the Department to write to us further about that approach. So this failure was on the desk—everybody knew that it was happening—and it is still a failure now. Why?
As I have said in answer to other questions, we want to move forward to a much better level of engagement with local authorities. From my prior experience in local government and seeing the confluence of issues from Homes for Ukraine, the Afghan resettlement scheme, the Syrian scheme, the number of asylum seekers and the general lack of social housing, it is important that Departments such as mine and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities work closely together and that the Government take a place-based approach where we understand the specific pressures that we are placing on particular local authorities and work with them as closely was we can.
A significant number of hotels in my constituency are to be used to house migrants for way more than a year beyond the Manston incident of a few weeks ago—one is booked out until July 2024—which is starting to cause community tensions and having an impact on the business community, which cannot use those hotels. When will the Minister’s dysfunctional Department get a grip and deal with the core problem that the Government have caused?
It is not the Government who have caused the issue here. The primary focus of our attention should be on the tens of thousands of people who are crossing the channel illegally, putting immense pressure on our asylum system. Frankly, even the most well-oiled machine would have found it extremely difficult to deal with that. There are a number of serious issues that the Home Office must get right. Quite clearly, we have to get the backlog of cases down, we have to get people out of hotels, and we have to find sensible accommodation that is good value for money but decent, so that people awaiting the outcome of their cases can be accommodated appropriately.
The right hon. Gentleman is right about one thing: the Home Office has not covered itself in glory. In January, I was informed 24 hours earlier that 150 asylum seekers would be relocated to a hotel in Knowsley. Unfortunately, the Home Office notified the wrong local authority about what was about to happen—although, to be fair, it did apologise. There are now 180 asylum seekers in that hotel. I was told that it was initially only going to be for three months. It is now over 10 months. Can the Minister give me some indication of when that arrangement will end? It has already massively exceeded the prediction of how long it would be.
I would be very happy to get back to the right hon. Gentleman and set out in detail the strategy for hotels and accommodation in his constituency. My approach has been: first, to ensure that Manston is brought to a legal and decent situation as quickly as possible—I think we are broadly there—secondly, to move to good-quality engagement with local authorities while we are still in a difficult and challenging situation; and thirdly, to move to a point where we are not relying on hotels at all, or doing so very judiciously, but accommodating people in dispersal accommodation or larger sensible sites. I am afraid that will take us some time because, as I have said in previous answers, there has been a failure to plan for accommodation over a sustained period. We need to correct that now.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his engagement with Kent councils and for meeting my residents in Dover to hear about the impact of this issue. My council does not get 24 hours’ notice before the people it has to deal with arrive. I am very concerned that a second under-18s centre has been established in Dover at a location that the authorities think is not suitable for that purpose, together with Clearsprings making offers of unsuitable hotel accommodation. In what way will that now change, following my right hon. Friend’s meeting with Clearsprings, Mears and Serco? Can he give assurances that he will continue to engage with them to ensure that they do more to assess whether accommodation is suitable and whether services can be provided to support that accommodation?
I have asked all our providers to noticeably step up the engagement they have with Members of Parliament and local authorities, including ensuring—this may be small, but none the less local authorities have raised it with me—that there is a named point of contact for every building, so that a local authority or a Member of Parliament can speak to somebody at that outsourced partner and get answers to their questions and concerns. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind words. We are working closely together because she is very much on the frontline of this challenge, and I appreciate just how difficult it is for her constituents. With regard to children’s accommodation, we want to ensure that as many of those young people can move to state or private foster care as swiftly as possible. We are putting in place the right financial incentives to ensure that happens.
The Minister is right that communication has been inadequate. When a safeguarding concern arises among asylum seekers staying in a hotel in Newham, the council does not get to hear about it even though it has the statutory responsibility. It seems that what is happening is that the contracting company—the company that contracts from the Department; in our case, it is Clearsprings—does get told. The council is supposed to be copied in but is not. Will he ensure that that particular aspect of communication is resolved?
I will. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In recent months or years, the outsourcing partners have seen their relationship almost exclusively as one with the Home Office and not with the relevant local authority. I have made it clear to them that they have a dual duty to work closely with the Home Office and the local authority. He raises an important point and I will pass it on.
There are now five hotels in Skegness occupied by asylum seekers and a further one in my constituency. I thank the Minister, and indeed the Home Secretary, for the engagement he has had with me ahead of what he knows will be a public meeting on Friday with a very concerned local community. I wonder if he could say what his message would be for that public meeting.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and wish him well with that meeting. We want to ensure that we exit hotels as swiftly as possible, and I set out in answers to other hon. Members how we will do that. I appreciate the burden that this is placing on his constituency and I hope the increase in engagement from the Home Office and its partners will ensure a better and more fruitful relationship with his local authorities.
It is not just local authorities that need consultation, but the NHS. In York, 80 internationally recruited nurses have been displaced as a result of the Mears Group block-booking their hotel. The nurses were also sitting exams at a crucial time for their entry into the NHS. Some 150 more NHS nurses were due to be in that hotel. It is now costing the NHS at least £10 per nurse per night to try to accommodate them elsewhere. Can the Minister explain why they cannot remain in that hotel? Will he talk to the NHS to ensure that this does not happen again?
I have spoken to the Minister with responsibility for secondary care about the broader issue of doctors, nurses and other clinicians staying in hotel accommodation and how we can have better communication between local NHS trusts, local authorities and the Home Office when hotels are procured, so I hope we will be able to improve processes and ensure it does not happen in future.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My right hon. Friend was exactly correct when he talked about the Labour years of backlogs. There were warehouses upon warehouses full of paper files. The Home Office referred to it as Layby. What additional funds have been offered by the Home Office to local councils and police forces to support activity with asylum seekers and others in hotels in their area, including the two hotels in Loughborough, neither of which the council or police knew about until I passed on the email I had received from the Home Office.
We are providing local authorities with a per capita grant of £3,500 for any asylum seeker in their local authority area, which provides a base for the support they will need to give them. The hotels and other contingency accommodation are fully funded, in the sense that the provider should be providing food and other services, as well as basic security, for the site. We put in place a significant package around children. We are reviewing whether that is sufficient, given that we are finding it hard to get local authorities to take children out of hotels.
Last week, the Secretary of State placed 90 asylum seekers in two unsuitable hotels in Shepherds Bush. She did not tell the local authority. Some had immediate medical needs, some had no proper clothing, and they all had health and welfare needs. The council and local charities have stepped up now and are providing appropriate support—they are good at that and they care about vulnerable people. In future, can we have a week’s notice? Can we be consulted on the numbers, the locations and the needs of the people involved? We are quite prepared to do our fair share, but we need that notice.
I had a very productive meeting with London Councils. It raised questions, such as the one the hon. Gentleman raises. We will now be providing a full set of information about who is coming, what their prior medical conditions are, what nationalities they are and other matters that will be useful to local authorities. We are setting a minimum engagement period of 24 hours, but quite clearly that needs to be significantly more in future—at least a week—and I hope we can reach that within a matter of months.
It has been determined in the courts that fear, and particularly the fear of crime, is a material planning consideration. The Home Office is contracting hotels and other premises through third parties to house people who arrive illegally in this country—people on whom we have no background information and who may even have ill intent against our way of life. Although we should not be in this position in the first place, should local people not be consulted and local consent sought for housing people who are clearly not holidaymakers or business visitors, and should we not test whether the fear of crime locally has changed?
We want to get to a point where there are multi-agency meetings prior to a final decision on a hotel or other sort of accommodation. That would involve full engagement with the local police force so that we could test, for example, far-right activity or public disorder. In my short tenure at the Department, I have seen a number of cases in which we have chosen not to proceed with accommodation on that basis, because it is very concerning when residents, or indeed migrants, are put in that situation. More broadly, when migrants arrive at Dover, we take biometrics, have counter-terrorism police officers there and do everything we can to screen them, prior to their moving on to other accommodation.
The independent commission of inquiry into asylum provision in Scotland, which was set up by Refugees for Justice and is chaired expertly by Baroness Helena Kennedy, laid bare the deficiencies in the Home Office’s approach to accommodating vulnerable people, which resulted in the Park Inn incident in my constituency and a suspected suicide in other accommodation in the city. At my surgeries week in, week out, I see families and people with vulnerabilities who have been sent to shoddy, poor, substandard accommodation by the Home Office while contractors rake in the profits. Will the Minister tell me how long it will be before people in my constituency can expect to be treated with dignity and respect by the Home Office?
I have been clear from the beginning of my tenure that I want to ensure that we always provide decent, but not luxurious, accommodation to all asylum seekers. I will say, however, that the Scottish Government have a poor record in that regard. They have consistently failed to find hotels in Scotland and to disperse individuals. The fact that Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom housing Homes for Ukraine individuals in cruise ships shows the Scottish Government’s failure to find better accommodation.
We would not need this debate if we did not have thousands of illegal immigrants amassing on French beaches. I know that my right hon. Friend is committed to cracking down on illegal immigration and breaking the business model of the criminal smuggling gangs. Does he agree that the problem is spread throughout Europe and that we need to work together with our European partners to break down the criminal gangs and stop them making money out of human trade?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a global migration crisis, and the mass movement of individuals across the world, including in Europe, will be one of the big features of the 21st century. We are committed to working with our friends and neighbours, as we saw from the Prime Minister’s early success in securing a deal with President Macron. We would like to go further and will shortly convene the Calais group of—primarily—northern European nations to discuss what further steps we can take. If there are further ways that we can work with our partners to crack down on the pernicious people smugglers and criminal gangs, we absolutely will.
It is nearly a week since I raised a point of order with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, about press reports over the private contractor charged with running a hotel for asylum seekers in my constituency. It had taken somebody who had been charged with the sexual assault of a child and then bailed, and it housed them in another hotel, from which they absconded. I asked for an urgent update from the Minister. I am pleased to hear that he has met with other MPs, but I have had no information about that.
The concerns about the safeguarding experience of private contractors are legion. The permanent secretary could not even tell MPs today whether there is a clear safeguarding policy that children should not be housed with strangers in these hotels. We are talking about children who are with their parents, so fostering is not a solution. Will the Minister finally publish the safeguarding requirements that are put in place for private contractors, so that we can hold them to account for their behaviour?
I have been concerned by the reports that the hon. Lady raised and have asked my officials to investigate them. I would be happy to discuss them with her, if that would be useful. The most important thing is to ensure that hotels are run in a sensible and decent manner. If we are dealing with such large numbers of individuals, unfortunately, incidents will occasionally happen. That does not excuse them. They are completely unacceptable, and we need to ensure that the police vigorously investigate them when they arise.
The lack of consultation has been appalling for some time. As the Minister knows, we in Stoke-on-Trent have already done far more than our fair share. We have resettled hundreds in housing and are now being asked to do more to provide hotel spaces, which puts immense pressure on our council, the police, health services and schools. Where is the money to make sure that our services can cope with the additional pressures?
We have provided £3,500 per asylum seeker to local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent, so that they have further support. The hotels that have been procured there are fully funded and the services that wrap around them are paid for directly by the Home Office to the contractor. However, I do not doubt the pressure that is being put on places such as Stoke. That is one reason why we have done mandatory national dispersal, and we have instructed the Home Office and suppliers to find accommodation in a broader range of places across the country.
Is it not an Alice in Wonderland world when Conservative MPs call for the resignation of a Minister for trying clear up the mess caused by his boss and 12 years of failed policies that they have supported? Exeter has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees, who have enriched our city and contributed greatly to our city’s economy, but when will the Minister offer my local council the longer notice period of more than 24 hours that he promised? Twenty-four hours is not enough and it is not acceptable for local authorities trying to help those people and provide decent services.
In the letter that I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman and others, I said that 24 hours would be the bare minimum that we expect. I have asked officials to go beyond that already. I will ask for weekly updates on the performance against those standards and will review them progressively with a view to improving them. As I have said in answer to many questions, we want to improve this very significantly, as quickly as we can. In my tenure in the Department, the main bar on us has been ensuring that Manston was operating legally and decently. It is only that that has prevented us from implementing the standards sooner.
Will the Minister please ask the Home Office to set out a timetable for each hotel that it has used to accommodate asylum seekers so that they know when an assessment of each claimant will be made, conducted and finalised, and when such a hotel will return to its original use? By doing that, we will increase the efficiency of the system, benefit the asylum seeker, because they will know when it will be dealt with, help the local authority, and—probably most importantly—give confidence to our communities.
My hon. Friend has raised those very valid points with me already. I will take them back to the Department to see what we can do to meet those standards in the future.
Liverpool is a proud city of sanctuary, and we have welcomed many people fleeing conflict, war and persecution. We currently house the highest number of dispersed asylum seekers in the region, totalling 1,500, but my city’s resources are very stretched as a result of 12 years of austerity. Today I received a letter from my chief executive, who is concerned about the lack of consultation. He also let me know that the contingency hotel bed spaces are not included in the new asylum grant. Will the Minister, as a matter of urgency, provide Liverpool City Council with the funding and the resources for the public and the voluntary sector for the great work that they do to support these very desperate people?
I am grateful to Liverpool City Council for the work that it is doing. We have set out a funding package for the council. I will be happy to keep in touch with the hon. Lady, if we are in a position to go further than that. I have always taken an interest in Liverpool and in trying to support it to ensure that it has better public services.
My council was notified that it would be in receipt of 70 gentlemen on
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must power through the backlog, which has been allowed to reach an unacceptable level. We will do so by raising the productivity of teams and improving the management that oversees them. We will also look at how we prioritise cases, because some will have much higher grant rates than others. Anything further we can do to improve the situation, we will do. Improving the backlog is not the source of the issue; the source of the issue is the sheer quantity of people crossing the channel illegally. As much of our effort as possible needs to be focused on that, rather than on the symptoms of the problem.
The Minister may say that this is a new problem, but 16 months ago hundreds of Afghans were moved into Southwark with zero advance notice, including into hostel accommodation that Public Health England advised the Home Office not to use. Will the Minister thank Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, Southwark Council and all the volunteers who have worked so hard to provide a welcome to such a large group of vulnerable people? Does he recognise the cross-party consensus today that the Home Office has failed on this issue among many others? Will he consider passing asylum accommodation provision to local authorities, with full resources to cover all associated costs, including those of emergency children’s services?
We want to have the most productive relationship with local government that we possibly can. As a former Local Government Secretary, I know just how effective local government can be in dealing with challenging situations. The task for local authorities now is to respond to our request for full national dispersal, which means working with the Home Office to find decent accommodation in all parts of the country and, with respect to children, helping us to find state or private foster carers or care home places so that we can ensure that young people are taken out of unacceptable hotels and brought into communities where they get good-quality care as quickly as possible.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to tackle overcrowding in processing centres and end the use of hotels is to prevent the illegal crossings from happening in the first place, and that urgent delivery of the Rwanda scheme is essential to solving this crisis?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need a system with deterrence at its heart. That means ensuring that those who come here illegally in small boats cannot find a path to a life here in the UK. The Rwanda policy is an important part of that and is currently in the courts. I am confident that we will win the arguments; when we do, we will implement the policy as soon as possible.
I believe that the processing system for asylum applications is at the root of the issue. It must be solved. Although I recognise that putting families into hotels for long periods is far from ideal, they are met with safe, secure and warm conditions, and in most cases medication and shelter are provided as well. Does the Minister agree that to tackle the problem, the Home Office must employ more staff to ensure that asylum applications are processed urgently, in a timely manner?
I am increasing the personnel making decisions from about 1,000 to 1,500. However, the team who do the work have greater resources today than prior to the pandemic, yet productivity has fallen, so this is not primarily an issue of productivity. It is about processes and leadership as well.