Asylum Seeker Accommodation Off Wirral Peninsula

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:56 pm on 25 May 2023.

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

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.