– in the House of Commons at 12:39 pm on 29th March 2023.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on illegal migration.
Three months ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a comprehensive plan to tackle illegal migration. We said we would act, and we have. We have increased immigration enforcement visits to their highest levels in recent years: since December, more than 3,500 enforcement visits have been carried out and more than 4,000 people with no right to be here have been removed. Anglo-French co-operation is now closer than ever before and will be deepened because of the deal struck by the Prime Minister earlier this month. We have expanded our partnership with Rwanda to include the relocation of all those who pass through safe countries to make illegal and dangerous journeys to the United Kingdom. Our modern slavery reforms, introduced in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 to prevent those who seek to abuse our generosity from doing so, are bearing fruit. We are tackling the backlog in our asylum system by cutting unnecessary paperwork and simplifying country guidance. As a result, productivity has increased and we are on track to process the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of this year.
We must ensure that our laws enable us to deal with the global migration crisis, which is why we have brought forward the Illegal Migration Bill. The Bill goes further than any previous immigration legislation to fix the problem of small boats, while remaining within the boundaries of our treaty obligations. Of course, as we reform the asylum system, we will continue to honour our country-specific and global safe and legal commitments.
But we cannot and will not stop here, because illegal migration continues to impact the British public in their day-to-day lives. The sheer number of small boat arrivals has overwhelmed our asylum system and forced the Government to place asylum seekers in hotels. These hotels take valuable assets away from communities and place pressures on local public services. Seaside towns have lost tourist trade, weddings have been cancelled and local councils have had their resources diverted to manage them. The hard-working British taxpayer has been left to foot the eye-watering £2.3 billion a year bill. We must not elevate the wellbeing of illegal migrants above that of the British people; it is in their interests that we are sent here.
The enduring solution to stop the boats is to take the actions outlined in our Bill, but in the meantime it is right that we act to correct the injustice of the current situation. I have heard time and again of councils up and down the country struggling to accommodate arrivals. This is no easy task; the Government recognise that placing asylum seekers into local areas comes at a cost, and so central Government will provide further financial support. Today, we are announcing a new funding package, which includes generous additional per-bed payments and continuation of the funding for every new dispersal bed available. We will also pilot an additional incentive payment where properties are made available faster.
However, faced with the scale of the challenge, we must fundamentally alter our posture towards those who enter our country illegally. This Government remain committed to meeting our legal obligations to those who would otherwise be destitute, but we are not prepared to go further. Accommodation for migrants should meet their essential living needs and nothing more, because we cannot risk becoming a magnet for the millions of people who are displaced and seeking better economic prospects. Many of our European partners are struggling with the same issue: Belgium, Ireland, Germany and France are having to take similar steps, and the UK must adapt to this changing context.
I have said before that we have to suffuse our entire system with deterrence, and this must include how we house illegal migrants. So today the Government are announcing the first tranche of sites we will set up to provide basic accommodation at scale. The Government will use military sites being disposed of in Essex and Lincolnshire and a separate site in East Sussex. These will be scaled up over the coming months and will collectively provide accommodation to several thousand asylum seekers through repurposed barrack blocks and portakabins. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is showing leadership on this issue by bringing forward proposals to provide accommodation at the Catterick garrison barracks in his constituency. We also continue to explore the possibility of accommodating migrants in vessels, as they are in Scotland and in the Netherlands.
I want to be clear: these sites on their own will not end the use of hotels overnight. But alongside local dispersal and other forms of accommodation, which we will bring forward in due course, they will relieve pressure on our communities, and manage asylum seekers in a more appropriate and cost-effective way. Of course, we recognise the concerns of local residents and we are acutely aware of the need to minimise the impact of these sites on communities. Basic healthcare will be available, around-the-clock security will be provided on site and our providers will work closely with local police and other partners. Funding will be provided to local authorities in which these sites are located.
These sites are undoubtedly in the national interest. We have to deliver them if we are to stop the use of hotels. We have to deliver them to save the British public from spending eye-watering amounts on accommodating illegal migrants. And we have to deliver them to prevent a pull factor for economic migrants on the continent from taking hold. Inaction is not an option. The British people rightly want us to tackle illegal migration. As I have set out today, we are doing exactly that and I commend this statement to the House.
Today’s statement is an admission of failure—perhaps that is why the Home Secretary has asked the Immigration Minister to make it instead. Four years ago, the Cabinet said that they would halve channel crossings; they have gone up twentyfold since then. A year ago, they said they would end hotel use; they have opened more than ever. They keep making new announcements, but it just keeps getting worse. People want to see strong border security, and properly managed asylum and refugee systems, so that the UK does its bit to help those fleeing persecution and conflict, alongside other countries, but we have got neither of those at the moment.
There is no point in the Government blaming everyone else, because they are in charge. The asylum system is broken because they broke it; they have let criminal gangs rip along the channel; people smuggler convictions have halved in the past four years, even though more boats and more gangs have been crossing—and yet Tory MPs yesterday voted against Labour’s plan for cross-border police units to go after the gangs; and they have let asylum decision making collapse—we have had a big increase in staff, but 40% fewer cases being decided. So they have failed to take basic decisions and they are still not doing Labour’s plan to fast-track last year’s arrivals from Albania and other safe countries.
As for today’s announcements, we need to end costly and inappropriate hotel use, but these plans do not do that. The Minister has had to admit that, contrary to all the briefing in the papers this morning, they will not end hotel use—instead, these sites are additional. Ministers should have been finding cheaper sites and properly managing costs years ago.
Today’s damning report from the Government’s own independent watchdog, which strangely the Minister did not mention today, says that there has been no cost control; that the Home Office contracts are highly inefficient; that there is no cross-Government transparency and oversight; and that officials did not have financial information on the contracts they were signing and did not compare costs. Most ludicrously of all, it says that
“different parts of the Home Office operating different schemes…at times, found themselves competing for the same hotel contracts, driving prices up.”
This is totally chaotic.
Basically, the Government have written a whole load of cheques in a panic. If they had put that money into clearing the backlog instead, we would not be in this mess now. They should have been working with councils to do that, but they did not. Yesterday, Tory MPs again voted against Labour’s plans for a legal requirement for councils to be consulted. Instead, the Minister has Conservative councils, backed by Conservative MPs, taking action against him. So can he confirm that the Foreign Secretary is backing legal action against the Home Secretary? Frankly, that is a first, even for this chaotic Government.
The Bill makes things worse. There are no returns agreements with France or Europe. The Prime Minister has just said that the Home Secretary was wrong: the Rwanda flights will not start this summer. The Government have nowhere to send people to and, instead of speeding up asylum decisions, they are just going to cancel them, which means more people in asylum accommodation and hotels and more flimflam headlines that just do not stack up. Today, it was barges and it turns out that there are not any. Desperate to distract everyone from the damage that they might want to do to the Dambusters heritage, they instead start talking about ferries and barges. Three years ago, they said the same thing. Last summer, the Prime Minister said that it would be cruise liners. The Home Office civil servant said that ferries would end up costing more than the hotels on which they are already spending so much money. So, instead, the Immigration Minister has been sent around the country with a copy of “Waterways Weekly”, trying to find barges, and he still has not found any.
Can the Minister tell us: are these sites going to be additional and not instead of hotel use? Will he still be using more hotels, or fewer for asylum seekers in six months’ time? On the 45,000 boat arrivals last year, can he confirm that more than 90% of decisions have not been taken because the backlog is still the Government’s failure?
Will the Minister apologise for the Government’s failure on cost control? They failed to support Labour’s plan to go after the gangs, to get a new agreement with France and to fast-track decisions and returns. They are flailing around in a panic, chasing headlines—barges, oil rigs, Rwanda flights, even wave machines—instead of doing the hard graft. They have lost control of our border security, lost control of the asylum system, lost control of their budget and lost control of themselves. Will he answer my questions and will he get a grip?
Is it not abundantly clear that Labour does not have the faintest clue how to tackle this issue? It has absolutely no plan. What we have laid out today is three months of intense work, which is seeing the backlog coming down; productivity rising; more sustainable forms of accommodation; a harder approach to make it difficult to live and work in the UK illegally; illegal working raids and visits rising by 50%; and greater control over the channel—all improvements as a result of the 10-point plan that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary set out.
The right hon. Lady looks back to a mythical time when Labour was last in office— when the Home Office, according to their own Home Secretary, was deemed to be not fit for purpose. Labour calls for more safe and legal routes, even though we are second only to Sweden in Europe for resettlement schemes. It calls for more money for law enforcement, even though we have doubled the funding of the National Crime Agency, and our people are out there upstream tackling organised immigration criminals every day of the week.
Is it not extraordinary that the Home Secretary—[Interruption]—the shadow Home Secretary cannot bring herself to condemn those illegal immigrants who are breaking into our country in flagrant breach of our laws? That is weak. The truth is that the Labour party is too weak to take the kind of tough decisions that we are taking today. In its weakness, it would make the United Kingdom a magnet: there would be open doors, an open cheque book and open season for abuse. The British public know that the Conservative party understands their legitimate concerns. We do not sneer at people for wanting basic border controls. We are taking the tough decisions. We will stop the boats. We will secure the borders.
Although the Minister did not mention RAF Scampton by name, we assume that that is the base in Lincolnshire to which he is referring. I can inform him that the moment that this is confirmed, the local authority of West Lindsey will issue an immediate judicial review and injunction against this thoroughly bad decision, which is based not on good governance, but on the politics of trying to do something. How can he guarantee that we will not lose £300 million-worth of regeneration, already agreed and signed, between West Lindsey and Scampton Holdings? How will he preserve the listed buildings and the heritage centre? How will he preserve the heritage of the Dambusters and of the Red Arrows? How can he guarantee that there is no contamination from the fuel bay of the Red Arrows? How will he protect the safety of 1,000 people living right next door to 1,500 migrants and a primary school? He cannot guarantee anything. Will he work with West Lindsey and Lincolnshire now to try to find an alternative site? We are prepared to do it, but we do not want to lose £300 million of regeneration. Lincolnshire will fight and Lincolnshire will be proved right.
I can only pay tribute to my right hon. Friend—my friend and constituency neighbour. He is representing his constituents forcefully, in the way that he has always done in this place, and he is absolutely right to do so. I can say to him that, while this policy is, without question, in the national interest, we understand the impact and concern that there will be within local communities. All parts of Government want to work closely with him and his local authorities to mitigate the issues that will arise as a result of this site. There will be a significant package of support for his constituents. There will be specific protections for the unique heritage on the site. We do not intend to make any use of the historic buildings. In our temporary use of the site, we intend to ensure that those heritage assets are enhanced and preserved. We see this as a short-term arrangement. We would like to enter into an agreement, as he knows, with West Lindsey District Council, so that it can take possession of the site at a later date, and its regeneration plans, which are extremely important for Lincolnshire and the east midlands more generally, can be realised in due course.
Well, Britain has historical form on the use of internment camps and it is despicable that this Government are intent on bringing them back in 2023. The Minister’s pathetic attempt to draw comparisons with the use of cruise ships to accommodate Ukrainians is as offensive as it is misleading. In fact, yesterday, the Ukrainian Speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk, thanked Scotland for saving the lives of his fellow citizens.
Scotland is standing down that emergency humanitarian response. Glasgow has closed it and Edinburgh has an end date in sight. Furthermore, the Scottish Government provided wraparound support for those cruise ships, with local government, NHS, schools and community integration. The Minister’s plan is a prison ship designed as a deterrent.
Alex Wickham from Bloomberg reports that the Home Office rejected a similar plan last year as it would be even more expensive than the eye-wateringly expensive hotels plan, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds per hour. What has changed since that advice last year?
Private providers are making a fortune out of this. The Minister is now spending, scandalously, one third of the UK’s international aid budget on domestic asylum costs, so what impact has this raid on crucial aid had on the push factors bringing people to these shores? When this idea was previously proposed last year, Ministers were advised that security would be a nightmare, the project would be expensive and it would amount to arbitrary detention—a breach of the UN refugee convention. What has changed since that advice was given last year? Does he understand that housing unaccompanied minors or traumatised people who have fled a warzone in military-style accommodation, considered unfit for the Ministry of Defence, would be gravely inappropriate, and will he give assurances that such individuals would be exempt from such measures?
The real problem is the backlog—we all know that—and the Home Office’s inability to tackle it. The Minister knows that I have constituents waiting six months, 10 months, 14 months, 18 months, 20 months and more for a decision from the Home Office. When will he stop wasting money on headlines and instead tackle the real crisis and fix the backlog?
On the hon. Lady’s question regarding the use of overseas development aid to pay for the accommodation of asylum seekers here in the UK, we entirely agree. It is a gross waste of taxpayers’ money and we want to see that money being put to better usage. That is exactly why we need to stop the boats—so that the finite resources of the United Kingdom can be applied to resettlement schemes where we bring people from places of grave danger such as conflict zones directly; or we use our resources to support people in some of the most hard-pressed places in the world. That is obviously the best and most moral way forward, rather than having open borders for predominantly young men who are in a place of safety in France.
As I said in my statement, we do see merits in using vessels. They have been used successfully in Scotland. It is surprising that the SNP seeks to denigrate one of its own policies, since it does not have very many successful policies—and particularly when it comes to ferries, let us be honest, the SNP is on shaky ground.
With respect to families, we do not intend to put minors or families on these sites, but they are the right way forward for single adult males. We are making significant progress on the backlog—[Interruption.] We are, actually; we know the hon. Lady does not like to deal in facts, but I can give her our internal figures, unpublished as yet, which show that over 11,000 cases in the backlog have been processed in the last three months as a result of the new processes we have put in place.
The broader point with SNP Members, as we all know, is that they have become humanitarian nimbys. The hon. Lady takes a kind of St Augustine approach: “Lord, let us welcome refugees, but not in our constituencies.” She would have more credibility if she stood up and welcomed refugees and matched her fine words with good deeds.
Order. Now, now. We will just calm down before we go any further, thank you. I expect better from Members.
If I may respectfully make a few points to my right hon. Friend the Minister, we need to tackle this entire debate and discussion with a degree of maturity, because it is a difficult and sensitive subject. The points I would like to make refer to previous policy, the new plan for immigration and Greek-style reception centres. Had we had those in place, as I think he would recognise, we would not be in this situation.
I am an Essex MP and the other MP for the Braintree district. Wethersfield is not in my constituency—in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary—but it is no different in rurality and village size from a former site, Linton-on-Ouse, which is not in Essex and which was cancelled by the current Government. Why is it deemed appropriate for asylum seeker accommodation for single men to be placed in a rural village in Essex, where there is no infrastructure and no amenities, when it was not appropriate for somewhere like Linton-on-Ouse?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who began this good work with her new plan for immigration—an incredibly important step forward. Among other points, it recognised that it is critical that, when individuals cross the channel illegally, they are moved either to detained accommodation, which we want to bring forward as a result of our Illegal Migration Bill, or, in the absence of that, to specific sites where they can be housed appropriately, where their cases can be processed swiftly and where they have minimal impact on the broader society.
I know my right hon. Friend pursued a very similar prospect in north Yorkshire, and she will have sympathy with the work we have done in recent months to take forward these proposals. We do not have a current plan to proceed with the Linton-on-Ouse proposition, but the sites I have announced today are just the first set that we would like to take forward, because we want to remove people from hotels as quickly as possible and move to this more rudimentary form of accommodation, which will reduce pull factors to the UK and defend the interests of the taxpayer.
I think the House should be more generous to the Minister and acknowledge the true genius of this announcement. Only this Home Office team could think that the answer to the problem of growing numbers of people in small boats was to bring them all together and put them into one big boat. Armando Iannucci himself could not improve on that. But if the Minister is confident in his projections about what is going to happen to the backlog of asylum applications, why is the extra capacity going to be necessary?
To answer the second point first, we want to see anyone crossing the channel moved into this rudimentary accommodation immediately. That is why it is critical that we build national capacity so that we can clear the hotels, consign that policy to the history books and put people into larger sites. That is why we need them. I have affection for the right hon. Gentleman, but he is being naive in this regard. I speak every day, as does the Home Secretary, to our northern European counterparts in Ireland, Belgium, Denmark and France, all of whom are pursuing options such as this, because there is a European migration crisis. We have to ensure that the UK is not a magnet for individuals who are either economic migrants or essentially asylum shoppers. I will not allow the UK to be a soft touch.
The Government’s determination to accelerate the processing of claims is to be welcomed. My right hon. Friend would agree that it is unacceptable, wrong and immoral that people have their lives put on hold, unable to make a new future for themselves or to be returned to their countries of origin. We have a number of hotels in my Bournemouth West constituency full of such people, who are constantly in touch with my hard-working casework team and want their cases resolved. So too do those involved in the hospitality and leisure sector in Bournemouth, on which our economy depends, and local residents who want to see those hotels brought back into the purpose of serving that thriving sector. Can he assure me that the proposals he is announcing will bring into sight the day when those hotels will be returned to that purpose?
My right hon. Friend raises exactly the concerns that have motivated us to bring forward these proposals. We want to make sure that the interest of his constituency and his constituents are put above those of illegal immigrants coming into our country. This is the necessary first step to build national capacity in these new forms of accommodation, so that we can begin to close the hotels and move forwards.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the discussions he held recently with the leader and chief executive of Knowsley Council and me to discuss the problem we have with a hotel in my constituency. He is aware that, in my view, the use of hotels is not fair on the taxpayer or on local communities, nor is it suitable for the refugees themselves. Will he, though, give me some indication of what criteria will be used to determine which hotels close and in what sequence?
The conversations I had with the right hon. Gentleman and his local authority leaders informed the decisions we have taken, because it was clear from his constituency that that hotel was inflaming community tensions, that many people thought it was wrong that illegal migrants were being housed in a much-regarded facility, a hotel used for weddings and social events, and that we need to bring that to a close. When we have the capacity to begin closing hotels at pace, we will look at that through a number of lenses. Obviously we will close the most egregious cases first, where the cost to local communities is highest, as well as those in locations that were clearly unsuitable to begin with, such as seaside towns and so on, and those where the contracts are coming to an end and we would not want to renew them for value for money purposes.
Land-based reception camps in the right place have to be the solution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we look at what has happened in hotel so far with illegal migrants, we have had issues with local residents, disappearing children, sexual assaults and so on, and that putting these people on boats or barges, where the problem will be exacerbated tenfold, is totally and utterly out of the question?
There are no easy answers; these are among the most difficult decisions in government. Placing asylum seekers on well-run large sites and providing specific facilities, with minimal impact on local communities, is the right approach. Taking hotels on a relatively ad hoc fashion, in town centres and on high streets, is not the right way forward. In respect of vessels such as barges or ferries, I do see merit in that approach, which has been pursued in Scotland and, in particular, in the Netherlands, which is using them effectively. That approach provides good value for money and decent accommodation.
The Big Help Out app encourages people to volunteer for a good cause over the coronation weekend, and a number of opportunities listed on it are with organisations that help refugees and asylum seekers, including the British Red Cross. Does the Minister agree that it is appropriate that people spend the coronation weekend supporting the people who he says have broken into this country?
The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree on the fundamental point here, but I believe in borders, in national security and in national sovereignty, and those people who choose to enter our country in flagrant abuse of our laws, and who, in many cases, throw their documents into the channel, are breaking the law, and it is right that we take action against them and, where possible, remove them from our country.
May I welcome you back to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? It has been a while.
Does the Minister agree that while the Government accelerate assessment, enforcement and removal, it is quite right that we look at suitable and sustainable accommodation for illegal immigrants? Does he also agree, then, that if armed forces bases are suitable for our brave, they are certainly suitable for illegal immigrants?
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is a peculiarity in that those on the left of politics seem to be happy to house our brave armed forces personnel on those sites but not to see illegal immigrants temporarily housed there while we process their claims. Of course, we will always be motivated by decency and legality. Those sites will be well run and appropriate, but we must not allow a further pull factor to the UK to emerge.
The right hon. Gentleman told the House a little earlier that the three sites, which we presume are RAF Scampton, RAF Wethersfield and a site in East Sussex—perhaps he would care to name it—will
“provide accommodation for several thousand asylum seekers”.
Can he tell the House how many thousands, and in doing so, can he remind us of the total number of people who are being placed in hotels currently?
The number of individuals who will be housed on the sites will step up. Obviously, we want to ensure that the sites are well managed, so initially there will be smaller numbers, but within a very short time, there will be several thousand on those sites.
I am not going to give those details to the right hon. Gentleman now, because it is right that we engage with the local authorities and that they be the first to know the full details of our plans, but there will be a very significant addition to our capacity. The point he is making is that, in addition to that, there is a very large number of people currently accommodated in hotels, but this is the first step—the first step on the road to clearing those hotels and moving forward.
I would just make one further point: it is abundantly clear to me, having spent four months in this role now, that there is no way in which I or the British Government can build our way out of this issue. There are tens of thousands of people entering our country in an irregular manner every year. Of course, we have to get our own processes and management processes in place, but we have to stop people coming here in the first place. That is why we are bringing forward the Bill.
I welcome today’s update and commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for his efforts in getting us to this stage. Further to the repeated assurances that I have received from him and the Prime Minister, will the Minister now commit to publishing a clear timetable—in weeks, not months—for the closure of the two migrant hotels that are within touching distance of each other in Erewash, and will he guarantee that that will be the end of their use for such purposes?
I know that my hon. Friend has been tenacious in campaigning on behalf of her constituents, who, as I said more broadly in my statement, are extremely concerned about the impact that those hotels are having and about a loss of amenity, including business, tourism and social events. It is for that reason that we are taking this difficult but correct decision to produce these sites, and I hope that we will start to see the use of hotels come to close in the months ahead. I would be delighted to work with her as we do that.
The British taxpayer is shelling out more than £6 million a day to house migrants, but asylum decisions have collapsed by 40% since 2015. That is what is to blame for the chaos with hotels. Furthermore, a damning watchdog report found that the Home Office did not have the financial information even to test whether those contracts were value for money, and did not even follow the correct procedure as was laid out. After 13 years, is there anything that this Government can manage to do properly?
We all know what state the last Labour Government left the Home Office in. We have only to refer, as I did the other day, to the report of John Vine—the inspector at the time—which painted a picture of complete chaos and dysfunction at the Home Office when the Labour party was last in power.
It is important that we get the backlog down. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can see from what I have said that I have put in place a robust plan and that we have a high degree of confidence that we will succeed in getting the backlog down over the course of this year. But the real issue is the number of people crossing the channel; the people smugglers, the human traffickers. Clearing the backlog and processing people’s claims even faster will not stop the boats—that is a fantasy. Stopping the boats requires tougher measures than that, such as those set out in the Illegal Migration Bill.
Are there any circumstances in which my right hon. Friend would envisage children being placed in any of the sites that he has announced? To ensure that they can be moved as swiftly as possible into local authority care, may I encourage him to use the welcome additional funding that has been announced for local councils to cope with accommodation, so that they have an incentive to ensure that accommodation is available to children as a priority?
It is not my intention to house minors on those sites. It is right that we ensure that minors and families are properly supported. Those sites will be used for single adult males, and will act as a serious deterrent to those people coming to this country.
These proposals are highly reminiscent of the internment camps for refugees in the BBC series “Years and Years”, which was on during lockdown. In case you did not see it, Madam Deputy Speaker, it was really about the decline of modern Britain and ended with the election of a fascist populist Prime Minister.
Ukrainian refugees in Scotland have been temporarily accommodated in high-quality former ferry accommodation at Leith docks, which are adjacent to my constituency. I have visited that temporary accommodation and suggest that if the Minister were to visit, he would see that it is extremely different from the industrial barges that he is proposing. Does he appreciate that if the UK Government dump refugees from other countries into the sort of poor-quality accommodation that he is describing, the United Kingdom may face a claim of racial discrimination under article 14 of the European convention on human rights?
I refer the hon. and learned Lady to the comments that I made earlier. We know that the Scottish Government used ferries. I pass no criticism of the Scottish Government for their choice in doing so; it appears to have worked relatively successfully in the circumstances, so I think it is an option worthy of consideration. Of course, we intend to meet our domestic and international law obligations, and any accommodation that we bring forward will be decent and legal.
Conservative-led Dover District Council has been working hard to provide affordable and other housing for local people. Likewise, Kent County Council has been working hard to provide local services. But that excellent work is put under immense pressure by having to deal with the sheer number and volume of migrants in Kent. This has been supported by the Labour party, which does not want to stop the small boats and cares more about channel migrants than it does the residents of Dover and Deal, and Kent as a whole. Despite the pressures on services and schools, we are being asked to do more and take more, and today’s announcement will not ease those pressures on Kent. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Kent colleagues to see what more can be done to ease the immense pressures faced in Kent, particularly in Dover and Deal?
I would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and her colleagues. Again, I am acutely aware of the pressures that face Kent and the local authorities there. This policy will not only reduce the dependence on hotels but ensure that significantly increased funding is made available to local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s to alleviate some of the burdens they face.
The Minister knows that while asylum seekers are living in often very difficult conditions in the hotels, a large proportion of taxpayers’ funding is not even going to the hotels or the food providers but is haemorrhaging out into the pockets of a network of often dodgy contractors and subcontractors. What is he doing to address this mismanagement of Government funds?
I now meet very regularly with exactly those firms, our Home Office providers. The hon. Lady can be assured—in fact, I think I have said this to her privately—that I have been very clear with those companies that they have a job to do and we need them to find suitable accommodation, but the accommodation must be of good quality, must meet our contractual terms, and there must be value for money. They have been left in absolutely no doubt about my views and if the hon. Lady or any other Member of this House has concerns or criticisms, they should bring them to me and I will ensure that they are heard.
It is nice to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his hard work—he has shown me the strength of the work he has been doing over the months he has been in his role to try to tackle the problem—and I very much encourage his determination to stop the boats. I am pleased to see more enforcement work and the funding that is coming forward for local authorities. That funding is key for any local authorities that deal with asylum seekers. I wish to make a plea about the dispersal accommodation element: when the Home Office makes decisions about where to put such accommodation, if agencies agree that a place is inappropriate, the Home Office should really take note of that information and look for alternative sites.
My right hon. Friend has been vociferous in raising legitimate concerns about one particular location in her constituency. She is right to say that there should be appropriate engagement between the local authority and the Home Office before any decisions are made, and that the police and other stakeholders should be informed. Where there are serious concerns, of course we should not proceed with those properties.
The Minister was right when he said that we need to stop people coming here by boat. Last night, Labour voted for the establishment of a cross-border police unit in the National Crime Agency to target the criminal gangs smuggling people across the channel. That measure would make a huge difference, in the short term and the long term, to the protection of our borders and to the welfare of migrants, so why on earth did the Government’s MPs vote against it?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, whom I know to be a compassionate, fair-minded Minister. He is having to take extremely difficult decisions in balancing help for people who are the most vulnerable and the interests of the people who elect us to represent them in this place—UK taxpayers. Does he agree that the failure of Opposition parties to recognise that during such a migration crisis there has to be a sensible limit on numbers, and their refusal to admit that resources are limited and UK taxpayers’ money is limited, make them unfit for office?
My hon. Friend raises an important—indeed, fundamental—point: of course we want the United Kingdom to be a generous and compassionate country that is renowned around the world for how we treat those seeking sanctuary, but we also have to appreciate the finite resources we have and deploy them in the most effective manner. I feel profoundly that we are sent here not to grandstand or virtue signal but to put the wellbeing and interests of our own constituents first.
The Minister has made vague statements about all asylum seekers being moved out of hotels, but he does not have a plan for how to do it, does he? [Interruption.] Well, let us see it. As the Minister for Security announced yesterday, the only fall-back is to pass responsibility back to local authorities. Did the Minister see the Local Government Association’s response to that plan yesterday? It said that most councils have no social housing to offer, and in most areas the local housing allowance is not sufficient to pay for the cost of accommodation. What does the Minister expect local authorities to do when thousands of asylum seekers are simply passed back to them from the hotels they are currently in?
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman always campaigns against the building of new homes. That might have been the easiest way to fix the housing crisis. We are going to work carefully and productively with local authorities to address this issue. That has always been my approach: when I was Local Government Secretary I engaged constantly—religiously—with local authority leaders, and we continue to do so. We are going to provide significantly enhanced resources to local authorities so that we better meet the true cost of handling this difficult challenge.
Clearly, basic and cheap accommodation for those who have illegally entered our country is far better than four-star hotels at the heart of communities. The Minister will know how strongly I feel about the use of the Novotel in Ipswich, which the vast majority of my constituents are against. It is interesting that the Labour party has said today that it opposes the use of hotel accommodation, because only recently a protest in favour of the use of that hotel was attended by the Labour parliamentary candidate and half the local Labour party. Can the Minister give some timescales with regard to when we can move those who are currently in hotels into more appropriate accommodation? The sooner we get them out of the Novotel, the better, and the more support the Minister will get from my constituents.
I share my hon. Friend’s desire to close that hotel as soon as possible; I know how hard he has been representing his constituents in that regard. Today is the critical first step. Once we have the sites up and running, a combination of new arrivals and those currently in hotels will be moved on to those sites, and the backlog clearance will of course free up places in hotels and enable us to close them, but the fundamental point is that the only sustainable answer is to stop the boats coming in the first place.
What assessment has the Department made of the increased risk of self-harm, and indeed suicide, among vulnerable asylum seekers placed in precisely the type of institutional accommodation for which the Minister is advocating today? Has the policy been subject to a risk assessment—perhaps even one that MPs are allowed to see?
We of course take the wellbeing of the illegal immigrants—the residents of these new sites—seriously. I think they will be better cared for in this bespoke accommodation than in an ad hoc network of hotels that have been taken in emergency circumstances. The new sites will be run by well-trained individuals and have their own healthcare facilities, and we will be able to have Home Office personnel on site to process their claims swiftly so that they can either be granted asylum, remain in the UK and begin to pay taxes and make a contribution to our country, or be removed.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his update and his hard work in this policy area. Will he reassure the House that the treatment of women, children and families throughout this whole process will be compassionate, and that this Conservative Government are committed to supporting and bolstering safe and legal routes to help vulnerable people fleeing persecution and seeking sanctuary?
First, my hon. Friend has my total assurance that although this policy is tough, it will also be decent and legal. The work I did in the autumn in making reforms to the Manston site in Kent is evidence of the way in which I will approach this work. On my hon. Friend’s second point, this Government absolutely believe in the UK’s being a world leader for resettlement schemes and safe and legal routes. We are already: 500,000 people have come to our country for humanitarian purposes since 2015. That is something we should be proud of and it is something that a Conservative Government will continue.
The Minister referenced and misquoted St Augustine of Hippo earlier. He was from north Africa, and the Minister would have put him in a camp as a consequence.
The Minister talked in his statement about fundamentally altering our posture. I wonder if he might consider altering his posture to that of someone who is good at his job. We have asylum seekers in hotels and hostels who do not want to be in those hotels and hostels. Why? It is because of the colossal backlog for which this Government are responsible. Rather than wasting money on this gimmick today—one that many of the Minister’s Back Benchers clearly disagree with, for a variety of reasons—why does he not invest in making sure that appeals are heard quickly and hearings are done quickly, so that people can either be given the right to remain or be removed, as his Government are failing to do? Does he agree that there is one thing worse than his and his Government’s incompetence on this issue, and that is blaming the consequences of that incompetence on the most vulnerable people in the world?
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Fault here lies with the people smugglers and the human traffickers. We should never blame ourselves in this country for the actions of organised immigration criminals—that is completely wrong. We are taking robust action to stop the boats and arrest the trade that is bringing tens of thousands of people illegally into our country and putting people’s lives on the line every day. The hon. Gentleman does not want that—of course he does not. That is why he should support our Bill and help us to stop the boats.
As the Minister knows, Stoke-on-Trent has contributed significantly to accommodating both asylum seekers and refugees. Today’s announcements of additional funding for local areas will be very welcome to help cope with some of those pressures, but my constituents want to know whether the Minister will be prioritising emptying those hotels in Stoke-on-Trent.
I acknowledge that Stoke-on-Trent has stepped up and provided a significant amount of accommodation, which is creating challenges for the city. It has been a pleasure to work with my hon. Friend and the excellent leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. We want to ensure that hotels that are the most egregious cases are closed first—I think in particular of the North Stafford Hotel in the centre of Stoke. That is exactly the sort of important business asset that I would like to see closed swiftly.
In the past few weeks, asylum seekers have been placed in hotels in my constituency that the Home Office has then deemed unfit for occupation, and those asylum seekers have been dispersed to undisclosed locations at no notice. Children have been taken out of school in the middle of exams, and I am told that last night asylum seekers were dumped outside a hotel in Shepherd’s Bush and told to share rooms and beds with complete strangers. Is it the Government’s policy to punish and humiliate asylum seekers in these ways as a means of discouraging further migrants, even though on past experience the majority are likely to be granted status in the UK?
We will always treat people with decency and compassion, but it is correct that we have to address the very significant pull factor to the United Kingdom. This approach is being followed by most of our north European neighbours, such as the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes, the French and the Irish, because the pressures are so great. The hon. Gentleman does not want to stop the boats; he does not back our Bill, or indeed any prior measures. We want to do so, and we will take the steps that are necessary.
I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for all his work in this area. I think most of us recognise that this is a multifaceted problem and that there is no silver bullet solution. Does today’s announcement mean that there will not be further requests by contractors to find hotel accommodation or similar? I am aware of challenging conversations in my own constituency at this time. Also, where we are looking to empty hotels, we have a community that is very willing to welcome people into their homes, so might we look towards a scheme where there is additional ministerial resource, as we did when welcoming Ukrainian refugees—I am not being disrespectful of my right hon. Friend’s experience in this matter—so that we can bridge that gap with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? We have a housing crisis of our own; we have thousands of our own population unable to secure accommodation, but we are keen to work to find a solution. Might there be an opportunity to bridge the housing and the immigration situations?
The Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are trying to work as closely as possible. My hon. Friend Felicity Buchan is working closely with us on the operation of schemes such as Homes for Ukraine, the Ukraine family scheme, the Afghan schemes, Syria and so on—that is very important. We also have officials who are working jointly between the two Departments, so I hope my hon. Friend will see that all of Government are working closely together to address this complex, multifaceted challenge.
The Minister has told us that newly arrived migrants are going to be taken to this new form of accommodation, so they will be competing for places with the people he wants to move out of hotels. It seems to me that he is planning for the failure of his attempts to stop the boats through the Illegal Immigration Bill, because he is increasing capacity with the spaces that he is planning. Can he tell us how many more people he is planning to accommodate, in addition to those who are already accommodated by the Home Office?
I am confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because he does not support the Bill in the first place. However, it is our intention once we have secured the passage of our Bill through Parliament—its Committee stage over the past two days showed the strength of support for the Bill on the Government side of the House, although there was not quite the same reaction on the Opposition Benches—to bring forward the Rwanda proposal. Once that is operationalised, people will be detained, their cases will be heard in a limited fashion, and then they will be removed from the country swiftly. In the meantime, we need some capacity, and that is going to be provided by these new large sites.
My right hon. Friend is one of the abler Ministers in the Home Office, so it makes sense for him to give this statement this afternoon. Is he, though, as concerned as I am about a Gerald Ratner approach to the Government’s immigration policy, whereby they simply spend their time highlighting the problems rather than some of the work they are undertaking? Is he aware that the primary concern of most people is to ensure that the backlog of asylum applications is dealt with, and more importantly that decisions are made, as they were in 2015? Could I also caution him that even worse than a Gerald Ratner approach to Government policy on this issue is a “something must be seen to be done” policy, which might bring forward this Rosie and Jim idea of barges all over the place?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that the public do not want to see performative or declaratory policies in this space: they want to see us acting, taking difficult decisions, and that is what is within this statement. He is correct to say that this requires an approach across many different avenues. Again, he can see that from the fact that we are rapidly reducing the backlog; that we have increased immigration enforcement visits by 50%; that we have established the small boats operational command in the channel and are recruiting hundreds of officers to staff it; and that we have signed deals with France and Albania. This shows the Government acting on every approach. My hon. Friend can be in no doubt that we will solve this problem, and if we fail, it will not be for want of trying.
The Minister talked about only meeting the basic needs of the residents. However, mental health is a basic need to many people, and I do not see how isolation is going to help in that regard.
Following on from that, I invite the Minister to join me in condemning the racist protesters who are appearing outside hotels, including one in my own constituency. In particular, I invite him to directly challenge the tropes that are being used: that asylum seekers are sexual predators. The same tactic has been used down through the centuries to attack marginalised people.
I have been very clear that those far-right and other elements who are inciting violence and intimidation outside hotels or other forms of accommodation are wrong. I have directed the Home Office to work closely with the police through the National Police Coordination Centre and other parts of Government, including the security services, to track that pernicious activity and support local councils and police forces in taking robust action wherever possible. If the hon. Gentleman has particular cases that he wants to bring to my attention, I would be pleased to look into them.
Could I just probe my right hon. Friend with regard to his proposals for housing migrants on barges and ferries? Specifically, could he advise on whether he expects those vessels to have access to the quay or to be moored offshore? If they are to have access to the quay, which I would expect, what conversations has he had with port operators about the operational challenges to their business from hosting what is essentially a residential community long-term?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am not going to comment on press speculation. Obviously, I will make further statements should we proceed with any significant developments in this regard. I have pointed to examples in Scotland and in the Netherlands where the use of vessels has been successful. As my hon. Friend knows, we do not currently have the powers to detain individuals for prolonged periods of time, so any form of accommodation would be non-detained.
In response to an earlier question, the Minister talked about people “breaking into our country”. The Home Secretary has talked about an “invasion”. Those words, like this statement, are designed for the headlines, but can I ask him genuinely whether he recognises that using that kind of language to describe people, many of whom are seeking refuge from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, is inflammatory, divisive and adds to the sort of tensions that other Members have talked about? Will he reflect on his use of language and agree that the priority is to tackle the people smugglers, not to criminalise and demonise their victims?
I believe that all of us have a responsibility to choose our words with care, and to accept the occasions where we choose the wrong language. This is an area of public policy where it would be better to de-escalate the current language and tensions. I do not think it is wrong to describe individuals as illegal immigrants or to say that individuals are breaking into our country, because we have borders and they have to be enforced. If the hon. Gentleman or I crossed a national border into another country, we would expect to be met by law enforcement and a robust response.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work on this matter, as well as to that of the Home Secretary and the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel. Their diligence and co-operation with me has been welcome over the past 12 months. Last summer, I successfully managed to stop the introduction of a hotel in a wholly unsuitable place in my constituency, although unfortunately it fell on me to prove to the Home Office that it was wholly unsuitable. The threat remains, not only of additional hotels, but of companies such as Serco hoovering up family homes while we have a housing waiting list in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend set out for me what today’s announcement means for that threat and when we can safely say that that threat has been removed?
First, I thank my hon. Friend for his generous words about me and my colleagues at the Home Office. He is right to say that the sheer number of people crossing the channel illegally, coupled with the generosity of our country in recent years in welcoming 500,000 people on humanitarian grounds and the high levels of legal migration we have, is posing a serious challenge to communities and councils with respect to housing and social housing. We are working through those challenges with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and one additional element we are introducing today is a substantially enhanced package for local authorities so that they have more funding to pay for the kinds of accommodation they will need and any displacement activity that might occur.
Rather than treat those seeking sanctuary on these shores as criminals and wasting vast sums of money to build internment camps to house them, would it not be more sensible simply to issue them with temporary work permits, so that they can contribute to the community, earn their own money to cover their own housing costs and pay tax into the Exchequer, rather than being a drain upon it?
I understand and acknowledge that that is a legitimate point of view. It is not one I agree with, because I believe that we have to suffuse our approach with deterrence, and if we allow a further pull factor to the United Kingdom in the form of enabling people to work soon after their arrival, I suspect we will just find even more people coming to this country.
First, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his engagement, which has been robust between us at times. He will understand that in Stoke-on-Trent we have around 1,300 asylum seekers and illegal economic migrants, of whom 31% are in hotels. Residents and constituents are outraged to see the city used and abused in this way. He wholly and accurately reflects the situation with the North Stafford Hotel, which is right by a levelling-up project and a £40 million transforming cities fund project. It is right opposite our railway station, which is a gateway to 6 million visitors a year. It is wholly unacceptable. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister reconfirm what he said in answer to my hon. Friend and neighbour Jack Brereton—that Stoke-on-Trent will be one of the priority areas that will see young single men moved out of hotels and into the new accommodation he has outlined today?
As my hon. Friend knows, I love the Potteries and will always want to further the best interests of Stoke-on-Trent and its wider region. The hotel by the station is a particularly egregious one in my opinion, because it is holding back regeneration in that part of the city. I would like to see it closed at the earliest opportunity. The other point I make on Stoke-on-Trent is that it has stepped up and taken a large number of individuals through dispersal accommodation, which I hope other local authorities will do with the added support we are providing today.
Yesterday, Labour offered a reasonable amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill that would have forced the Home Office to consult with councils over asylum hotels. That would have been welcome in my constituency where, despite the Minister’s announcement, he is planning to force a third hotel on my community. Wakefield Council has already had £300 million cut from its budget. It has done its best to provide support, but it lacks the community capacity and the funding to do more. Why did the Government run scared last night and vote down our amendment to give local councils a say?
The hon. Gentleman should go back to his constituents and explain why, in his short tenure in this House, he has already started voting against exactly the kinds of measures that would stop the boats. I rather suspect that he is not on the same side as his constituents on this issue.
I can understand the Minister’s trepidation coming to the Dispatch Box for today’s statement, having had to make similar statements myself over the years, but he is outlining the right approach today. We can see comparisons, particularly on continental Europe and particularly in Greece, where large-scale accommodation centres have been used as part of a transformation of the asylum system, providing humane and decent accommodation while assisting the process of making decisions. To deal with some of the issues that we have had thrown at us, first, I assume that he will view this accommodation as part of national infrastructure and therefore take it through that planning process. Secondly, I assume that this is all, as he has touched on already, non-detained accommodation. Finally, what sort of timeline is he looking at to get some of these centres up and running, because people will only see this approach making a difference when they see hotels closing down in their local area?
My hon. Friend and predecessor knows how difficult these decisions can be. Like him, I did not come into politics to deal with clandestine entry or organised immigration crime, but I did come into politics to provide security and stability to the public and to put the interests of my constituents above those of anyone else. That is why we are taking these decisions in the national interest. We will ensure that these sites are non-detained and legally compliant. They will be provided at pace. We will make use of the planning powers that the Government have at our disposal. I am confident that we will be able to get individuals on these sites in the coming weeks.
Thirteen years of Tory mismanagement, an asylum system in crisis, backlogs out of control, and claims not being decided for years on end—this statement does nothing but scaremongering and headline-grabbing just before the local elections. A Member of the Minister’s own party has summarised this statement correctly as
“the politics of trying to do something.”
Does he agree that this statement, which is no more than headline-grabbing scaremongering, does very little to target human traffickers and the illegal gangs, but makes illegal traffickers the heroes, while making victims the real targets?
It is a darn sight better than the politics of doing nothing, which is what the Opposition are proposing. We are taking action to tackle the people smugglers and the human traffickers. I do not doubt the motivations of the hon. Gentleman, but every day in this job I see these people and the work they do. They are some of the most evil and pernicious people in society, and we have to match them. We cannot behave in a way that is weak and naïve; we have to respond with tough policies. That is what we are doing here. We will not allow the UK to be a soft touch. By ensuring that we now have this new form of accommodation, not only will we clear the hotels, but we will also ensure that there is not a pull factor to the UK.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement this afternoon, and I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Priti Patel for her excellent work as Home Secretary previously. Could my right hon. Friend comment in more detail on the similar approach being taken to asylum accommodation by Belgium, Ireland, France and Germany, and it would seem by the Scottish Government as well?
It is true, as I have said on a number of occasions, that our northern European neighbours are looking to take similar robust approaches. Ireland is considering bailing individuals to no fixed abode with vouchers to pay for their immediate needs, as I understand it. Belgium has seen tented communities arise and is using hostels akin to homeless shelters. The Danes have said, I think publicly, that the Rwanda policy of my right hon. Friend Priti Patel is an interesting and valuable one at which they are looking with interest. So we are not alone and we are not unique. We are working together because there is a European migration crisis, and we have to take serious and robust decisions and make difficult choices, or I am afraid the UK will be very exposed.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He knows that there is a difference between economic migrants who are abusing the system if they are fit and independent—their circumstances will dictate the final report—and, alongside them, asylum seekers, many fleeing religious persecution, who, whether they be women, children or families, need help urgently. Will the Minister make it abundantly clear that those who come here illegally due to extenuating circumstances will have scope for compassion in their treatment?
We want to ensure that human dignity is at the heart of the system we are creating, which is why the UK has a fantastic record in recent years for resettlement schemes of the kind I know the hon. Gentleman is a champion of, such as the schemes for those from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Syria and Afghanistan. By bringing an end to illegal migration across the channel or reducing it as far as one can, we can deploy our finite resources as a country to help those people who need it most—those people who are in conflict zones, the victims of religious persecution whom he cares passionately about—rather than those people, predominantly young men, who are fit, able and in a safe place such as France.
I will take the points of order in a moment. I thank the Minister for his statement and for responding to questions for well over an hour, but could I ask him to remain seated for the first point of order, which I think relates directly to something he may have said?