Asylum Seeker Accommodation Off Wirral Peninsula

– in the House of Commons at 3:54 pm on 25 May 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ruth Edwards.)

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 3:56, 25 May 2023

I am grateful to have finally secured an Adjournment debate on a matter of such great significance to my constituents and, I would hope, to all those who believe in the need for a more compassionate asylum policy. On 14 April, officers at Wirral Council were informed by Home Office officials of Government proposals to accommodate up to 1,500 vulnerable asylum seekers on a vessel berthed in my constituency of Birkenhead. The vessel will be located on the site of the Wirral Waters development, an active work site in an area of Birkenhead without adequate transport links to local amenities, services and community support networks. To all intents and purposes, it would be a floating prison ship.

I should be clear that, as far as I am aware, no deal has yet been concluded between the Home Office and the owners of Peel Ports to accommodate refugees at Wirral Waters. However, given that large barges and ferries are already being deployed elsewhere in the country for the purposes of housing refugees, and that the Home Secretary has staked her reputation on adopting a punitive approach to those who come to this country seeking sanctuary, the direction of travel is clear.

When news of the plans broke, it caused considerable concern across my constituency. Questions were rightly raised about the capacity of the borough to cope with a scheme of this scale and nature, and whether our overstretched and underfunded local services would be able to provide effective support to such a large number of refugees without there being a serious impact on the services provided to local people in one of the most deprived communities in the country.

The proposed location of the vessel is the £4.5 million Wirral Waters development site—that is a cornerstone of the ambitious programme of regeneration now under way in Birkenhead—and that has caused great consternation. After years of delay, work is well under way in bringing that project to fruition. Businesses and communities across Birkenhead are counting on the project to succeed, but it is hard to see how that work can safely continue if the site becomes home to as many as 1,500 people.

The implications of the proposal for my constituency are serious, but I want to be clear that my concerns first and foremost are for the welfare of the refugees themselves. I have not called this debate to say, as other Members have in previous debates, “Not in my backyard.” Instead, I proudly and without equivocation say that refugees are welcome here. The question that the Government must answer today is fundamentally a moral one: how on earth can they justify a policy that treats fellow human beings with such inhumanity?

Wirral has a proud tradition as a place of refuge, from my ancestors who fled famine in Ireland to the Ukrainian families who are making it their home today. We are proud of our record of opening our doors to those in need. Our borough has taken the second-highest number of refugees in the Liverpool city region across all Home Office pathway programmes, behind only the city of Liverpool itself.

It has accepted the highest number of people under the Homes for Ukraine scheme in the entirety of the Liverpool city region. However, we need to ensure that people who come to the UK in the pursuit of refuge are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about the importance of compassion towards refugees in this country. My community has also accommodated many needy people. Does he agree that there needs to be more support from the Home Office in many cases? I raised a case with the Minister recently—he was very generous in helping me with the matter—of a child who would have been unable to sit their standard assessment tests in Reading, and would have been moved to Plymouth at a time when it was vital for them to continue their education in their existing school. Does my hon. Friend agree that there ought to be more thought from the Home Office about supporting refugees at times of great need, not moving them when it is unsuitable to do so?

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I think this debate is all about dignity and respect, and I hope the Home Office and Ministers will be mindful of that.

The Government’s policy of using disused ferries, boats and barges to house refugees may satisfy the legal criteria of their statutory duty to house refugees, but it falls far short of the obligations we owe towards those in need and it betrays the trust that these vulnerable people have placed in us. As soon as I learned of these proposals, I immediately wrote to the Home Secretary. By the standards of the Home Office, the Minister for Immigration’s response was remarkably prompt: I only had to chase him up three times in writing and raise a point of order in the House before he got back to me. Of course, his letter fails to acknowledge my request for a meeting with him and Home Office officials, and he has not engaged in any meaningful sense with my concerns about the welfare of the refugees whom he intends to strand on an active worksite on the periphery of my constituency or the impact that will have on local services. I have been forced to pursue an Adjournment debate because of the Home Office’s stubborn refusal to be transparent about its plans. I understand that, from the Minister’s perspective, much cannot be said publicly, but refusing to engage, even in confidence, with the local Member of Parliament about a decision of such great significance to their constituency is not only discourteous but, frankly, absurd.

As I said when I raised this matter on a point of order on 17 April, Members have a right to know what is happening in the communities they represent. With the recess imminently approaching, I hope the Minister may be more obliging in providing some clarity. First, if an agreement is reached to accommodate asylum seekers on Wirral Waters, what steps will be taken to address the health needs of refugees living in a cramped and overcrowded environment, where disease could spread rapidly? Secondly, what additional financial support will be made available to Wirral Council to ensure that refugees get the support they need, without there being an adverse effect on the quality of support available to local people living in one of the most deprived communities in the country? Thirdly, what steps will the Government take to ensure that refugees can access local amenities, services and vital community networks, rather than being left to rot on a worksite, considering that dramatic cuts to local bus services have left the area without adequate transport links? Finally, what steps will the Government take to ensure the physical safety of the refugees, especially in the wake of the terrible scenes outside the Suites hotel in Kirkby in February, when a mob attempted to storm the hotel? I believe that, were the Minister to seriously and honestly engage with all those questions, he would quickly realise just how unworkable and unethical the proposal is.

The Minister for Immigration said in his reply to me—I expect this to be echoed in the response we shall hear shortly—that the Government have had no choice but to implement such extreme measures and that asylum accommodation is now costing the taxpayer £6 million a day. We have heard that this is being driven by the rise in small boat crossings experienced over the last year, but if we are looking for someone to blame for the crisis, we should turn not to the desperate men, women and children who felt they had to risk their lives on dangerous channel crossings, but to Government Members. Since 2014, the asylum backlog has more than doubled, despite the UK receiving just 8% of all asylum applications made across the European Union and the UK in 2021. As of 31 December 2022, more than 161,000 people were stranded in limbo waiting to have their claims heard with the primary cause being that applicants are waiting longer than ever to have their claims processed. This is a Conservative crisis for which innocent people are being forced to pay the price.

I secured this debate to talk about the situation facing my constituency of Birkenhead, but it would be remiss of me not to end by reflecting on the broader national context. The evolution of asylum policy in this country has followed a clear trajectory towards ever more punitive treatment of those who have done nothing more than exercise their legal right to claim asylum. It has culminated in Ministers attempting to house refugees on disused ferries and in this House’s voting for the Illegal Migration Bill, a despicable Bill which breaks entirely with international law. Yet none of it has done anything to stem the numbers of people coming to the UK in search of safety, and nor will it. All that the hostile environment has done is perpetuate the misery of people who have already experienced the most unimaginable suffering.

But there is an alternative. That begins by enshrining the principles of respect and dignity at the heart of a new, fairer asylum system. It necessitates the establishment of safe and legal routes to the UK so that no one is ever forced to risk their lives, or their loved ones’ lives, in the English channel. It requires the Government to get serious about making the investments needed to tackle the asylum backlog and end the miserable limbo which so many asylum seekers are forced to endure for so long. And it means that rather than treating them as a burden, we should be harnessing the experience, ability and talent of people waiting for their asylum claims to be heard by allowing them to seek paid work, contribute to the economy and find accommodation of their own. There is a better way.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Minister for Immigration 4:06, 25 May 2023

I am grateful to Mick Whitley for securing this debate. The concerns of Members of this House and their constituents should be taken seriously, and they are being taken seriously. I will set out shortly the work we are doing and are looking to do with Birkenhead.

First, however, it is right to set this in the national context, as the hon. Gentleman did, because the situation we as a country find ourselves in is not sustainable. The number of people crossing the channel in small boats has placed the asylum system under enormous pressure. The continued occurrence of these dangerous, illegal and wholly unnecessary journeys has left us in the invidious position of having to resort to using hotels to house asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute in order to fulfil our legal obligations. The enduring solution is of course to stop the boats and break the business model of the people smugglers, which is why we have brought forward the Illegal Migration Bill. In the meantime, however, it is right that we take steps to minimise the impact on local communities and reduce the burden on the taxpayer of the use of hotels.

The Home Secretary and I have been clear that hotels are inappropriate and we must shift to more suitable forms of accommodation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a hotel in Kirkby in the Liverpool city region which was the subject of violence—unacceptable levels of violence—earlier this year, but that highlighted the difficulties of pursuing this route for housing asylum seekers and the need to find better, more sustainable solutions.

The challenge we are facing as a country is a significant one and it calls for innovative approaches, such as the use of military sites and vessels. These sites are undoubtedly in the national interest and the UK Government approach is in step with those of our northern European counterparts. A number of other European countries, such as Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are looking at similar approaches and how they can house very large numbers of asylum seekers in ways that are of lower cost to the taxpayer and more sustainable while they work to find solutions to the migration crisis that the whole continent is experiencing.

We have not made a final decision to place a vessel in Birkenhead port. However, we have identified the port as a potentially viable location and are seeking to engage the local authority, the local NHS, police, other emergency services and other public agencies to help to inform a final decision. A multi-agency forum is being established, and will meet imminently, to assess the risks and identify mitigating actions. The forum, like others that we have established elsewhere in the country, will include representatives from national, regional and local public sector agencies and the Home Office. I hope that local stakeholders, including Wirral Council, will participate in the forum in the collaborative manner envisaged. It is certainly important for statutory officers, such as those of the council, to participate and fulfil their responsibilities.

I will use this opportunity to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He asked whether the vessel would be, in his words, a “prison ship” or a non-detained facility. The Home Office has no intention of using the vessel as a detained facility. The migrants who would be housed on it would be living in a non-detained manner, which means that they could leave the boat and spend time on the shore, whether that be in communities nearby in Birkenhead or further afield. That would be carefully managed by the Home Office to ensure the safety of the migrants, community cohesion and the impact on local town centres and high streets. There are ways in which we are able to do that, which we have learned throughout our experiences elsewhere in the country, such as at the non-detained facility that we operate at Napier in Kent.

The hon. Gentleman implied that this was an unorthodox approach. It is one that is being used both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe today. The Scottish Government have used vessels to house Ukrainian refugees, for example, in Leith in Edinburgh, over the last year or two. My understanding is that that experience has been broadly successful both for the refugees and for the local community. The local council has been extremely helpful in supporting those individuals and the Government have rightly provided resource to the council to meet the costs of doing that.

The barges and ferries that the UK Government are looking at have in many cases been used by British workers, such as those working on large construction sites, or oil and gas projects. Indeed, some are ferries that have been used for police and other staff at the Olympics or at COP26 in Glasgow. It would therefore be wrong to characterise them as inhumane or indecent. That is not the intention of the Government.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the important regeneration project at Wirral Waters. As a former Local Government Secretary, I am familiar with that, as there was—and I believe continues to be—a role for Homes England in its development. Nothing that the Government do should in any way imperil the success of that important regeneration project. We have already made that commitment to the parties we have spoken to and, in our future engagement with Wirral Council, we will do everything we can, should that project proceed, to protect the integrity of the Wirral Waters scheme.

The use of a vessel, whether it be at Birkenhead or in any other location in the UK, would only be for a very limited period. In most cases, we have proposed using these vessels for 18 months, after which they would be moved away and a different solution found.

The hon. Gentleman raised the understandable concern about the impact on his local authority and other local services in his area. All parts of the country face pressures on public services, but I understand that Birkenhead has particular challenges in respect of deprivation and we as national Government should take those challenges seriously. If we were to proceed with the project, we would provide funding to Wirral Council to recompense it for any work it does to support the project. We would also provide funding for the police in Merseyside to ensure they are able to support the safety of the migrants on the vessel, the security of the port and the safety of residents in neighbouring communities. We would also work with the local integrated care board to ensure that there is suitable healthcare provision.

What we are offering on a similar vessel in Portland in Dorset is a basic primary care facility located on or beside the vessel sufficient to meet the immediate needs of the migrants, and reduce pressures on local GPs and primary care providers, and some funding to the local healthcare authorities to ensure they are able to provide that and that there are minimal knock-on consequences for the wider healthcare economy.

We are also working with the UK Health Security Agency to work through some of the challenges the hon. Gentleman raised around communicable diseases, and to ensure that, when migrants come to vessels of this kind, they have been properly health screened in advance and offered vaccines, where appropriate, and that the correct checks and processes are in place to ensure diseases do not spread throughout the vessel or into the local community. Those are exactly the sorts of questions that we would now want to work through with Wirral Council, the hon. Gentleman and other local stakeholders.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate to the Floor of the House, and for raising understandable and important concerns on behalf of his constituents. I believe that the policy of using vessels and pursuing larger sites such as disused military bases is overwhelmingly in the national interest, but I understand that there will be very serious concerns in the local communities that are most immediately affected. It is right that he raises those concerns and that we work with him productively to address as many of them as possible. The Home Office will continue to engage with the key stakeholders in and around Birkenhead as we work through our proposals. I hope that he and I can forge a productive partnership if we choose to take this forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.