Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:55 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 8:55 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, it is difficult to see much in the gracious Speech that will address the social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality identified as “abhorrent” in the Conservative manifesto. Even welcome measures, such as those on domestic abuse, discussed so powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, just now, will be brought forward only in draft form. That is the more disappointing, as this is an opportunity to put into law the Government’s stated intention in its manifesto that survivors of domestic violence will retain the right to an automatic lifetime tenancy under the Housing and Planning Act 2016. As this is not mentioned in the background briefing on the draft Bill, it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm this intention on the record tonight. I would also welcome an assurance that there will be no further delay in ratifying the Istanbul convention.

Echoing the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, I would say that the thought of a third Conservative immigration Bill in as many years does not inspire hope after the last two, particularly as the manifesto appeared to suggest that asylum seekers who manage to make their own way to the UK are not deserving of help. Even when they achieve refugee status, this group is already profoundly disadvantaged through a two-tier system that has developed for refugees, identified by the inquiry into the experience of new refugees conducted by the APPG on Refugees, of which I was a member, and published just before the election. Our report, Refugees Welcome?, observed that while many local communities indeed make refugees welcome, in too many areas we identified barriers to integration and lack of support for refugees that undermine those positive examples and take away from the protection that refugee status should entail.

These barriers are very much of the Government’s making, and they include: the far-too-short 28-day move-on period between the ending of Home Office support and the provision of mainstream social security and housing, which leaves many destitute, and will be even more problematic under universal credit, paid only after six weeks; inadequate support to learn English, other than for resettled Syrians; and restrictive family reunion rules, identified by the UN refugee representative as one of the biggest obstacles to integration. The inquiry also warned that the recent announcement of automatic use of safe return reviews will undermine refugee integration still further.

Acceptance of our recommendations, including for a cross-departmental national refugee integration strategy overseen by a Minister for Refugees, could make a valuable contribution to the wider “new integration strategy” promised in the manifesto. It was proposed under the rubric of,

“A country that comes together”,

and “Integrating divided communities” in the context of immigration, ethnic diversity and extremism. But, as the shameful and tragic Grenfell Tower fire underlined, communities are also divided by social class and socioeconomic inequality.

All the predictions are that, on current government policies, especially the benefits freeze, the socioeconomic divide will worsen markedly during this Parliament, as will homelessness, according to Shelter. Despite the manifesto’s vague aspiration to,

“reduce levels of child poverty”,

independent estimates indicate the opposite is all too likely.

One of the Grenfell Tower residents was quoted as saying, “They don’t care about us. They don’t listen to us”. For too long, people in social housing and people living in poverty have been treated with contempt, their lives and their views counting for nothing. Along with an end to prioritising cutting spending and so called red tape over safety and housing needs, one of the most fundamental lessons for public authorities has to be that people on benefits and/or in low paid and insecure work must be treated as citizens of equal worth, with equal voice and equal rights.

I have one final point. Following yesterday’s helpful briefing, can the Minister give an assurance that any Grenfell Tower residents rehoused in larger and/or more expensive accommodation will not be subject to the bedroom tax or benefit cap? The suggestion that they can in any case be protected through discretionary housing payments is not good enough. The clue is in the name—discretionary. Any diminution of the tenants’ social security rights would mean they are not being,

“guaranteed a new home on the same terms as the one they lost”,—[Official Report, 22/6/17; col.71.] as promised by the Prime Minister in last week’s Statement to Parliament. Anything less would surely be too cruel for people who have gone through such trauma.