My Lords, I am pleased to be able to introduce this short debate on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees’ report, Refugees Welcome?. It was a privilege to serve on this group. It was also often disturbing to hear the stories of those who, having experienced years of difficulty as asylum seekers, found the joy of being finally given refugee status taken away by the poor ways in which they were then treated. As a nation, we had agreed that they deserved to be fully welcomed—but our systems often left them bereft and destitute. As the report makes clear, we have work to do as a nation to ensure that those who we have agreed are refugees and whom we believe have much to offer our land are made truly welcome.
A couple of months ago, I hosted an evening about community sponsorship of refugees in my diocese. During the course of promoting the event, a member of my staff was contacted by a Syrian who had previously been resettled locally. He made contact to let us know that not only would he be attending but that he would be happy to assist if we needed any help with the organisation of the event. The welcome that he had received made him passionate about offering a welcome to others. His story demonstrates that we are able to get it right. The problem is that we have great inconsistency and lack a well-integrated strategy and system.
Defining successful integration is incredibly complex, but I think my Syrian story gives a picture of it: someone is well-integrated when they want and are able to give of themselves for others in the community that they have entered. Members of Survivors Speak Out gave a similar message when they described integration to the APPG inquiry. One said it was,
“the ability to feel at ease in the new country whilst also not forgetting your own culture”.
Another said that integration was,
“when you feel really proud to be British”,
while a third described it as,
“being able to participate in social life here and be part of the community”.
These aspirations are not exclusive to refugees. They are things that we all want for ourselves and those we love. Similarly, integration is not something that you can do to an individual; it is a process that a whole community must go through. The findings of the report emphasise that successful refugee integration takes a whole-society approach; it is a two-way process. It is as much about capacity building in communities as about building resilience in individuals. This requires action from both civil society and government. That is why we should welcome both the innovation of the community sponsorship scheme and the inclusion in the Cabinet of the Minister for Immigration—but more needs to be done.
During the course of this inquiry, it became clear that the difficulties facing refugees extend beyond a simple lack of co-ordination. Instead, refugees find themselves up against processes that are in some sense biased against their success. One prominent example of this is the perilously short time that refugees have to move on from their support once their refugee status is confirmed. The stories that we heard suggest that the destitution of the vulnerable, whom we have committed to welcome, is currently a structural feature of the system. We can and should fix these structural and process issues. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who also served on the APPG, and perhaps others, will outline more specifics of how we could do so. But I want to take a step back and ask what we need to put in place to prevent instances emerging in the first place. The report’s answer has two parts: a national integration strategy and a Minister for refugees to implement it.
Throughout the inquiry, discussion kept returning to the importance of an integration strategy. While it was mainly policy specialists who made this point to us, you do not have to spend years immersed in refugee resettlement and Home Office policy to think that having a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to achieve it might be worthwhile. A strategy becomes particularly urgent when we consider all the competing priorities in government. Unless we have a strategy by intention, we are left with a strategy by implication, dictated by other priorities. Our work with refugees needs to be led by and organised around a vision for thriving individuals and communities. At present, the report makes clear that refugee support is often organised by the quirks of the DWP and short-term cost cutting. Refugees deserve better. As it happens, so do our national finances.
So a specific national refugee integration strategy makes sense. All the evidence indicates that it would have a positive impact on outcomes for refugees and, through them, for wider society. Still Human Still Here and Refugee Action both highlighted the positive role of previous UK-wide strategies in securing better outcomes. It is therefore also in our own best self-interest. Simply enfolding it into a broader social integration strategy will not be adequate. There are specifics about refugee integration that need their own clear strategy. According to the Scottish Refugee Council, the Scottish experience demonstrates that even the process of designing a strategy is beneficial, simply in getting all stakeholders around the table and buying into a common vision.
Over the course of the inquiry we identified six areas that any national refugee strategy should address: first, transition from asylum support to other forms of financial support and accommodation; secondly, ESOL provision; thirdly, employment and training; fourthly, health and well-being; fifthly, access to education; and sixthly, community empowerment. I trust that subsequent contributions may draw out some specifics in these areas.
The inquiry also heard about the importance of monitoring outcomes. While monitoring has previously taken place, Refugee Action noted that there are no current data on levels of employment rates of refugees and the number accessing ESOL classes. Before we even consider how to improve refugee integration, we need to know where we are as well as where we are trying to get to.
The Government already recognise the importance of outlining targets for refugees. The Government have produced a statement of requirements for local authorities for those resettled under VPRS. This captures a wider theme that emerged during the course of the report: the harm caused by the current two-tier system. I have seen first-hand the hurt and confusion caused to those who have not come through VPRS when they see the greater resources for ESOL and other provision available to those who have. Unequal treatment is causing resentment and actively impeding integration for those arriving under both schemes. There is of course something helpful in having a variety of parallel schemes: it becomes apparent what works. Best practice for VPRS is already being shared horizontally between local authorities. My hope is that the report will help the process of sharing best practice across all levels of government and all parts of the UK.
The work of discovering, implementing and sharing best practice needs a champion in government. The decision to end the role of Minister for Syrian Refugees was regrettable, particularly just as the legislative agenda threatened to sideline refugees. We are fortunate to have many Members across both Houses and all parties who are passionate about welcoming refugees, including the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Yet, as my brief outline hopefully demonstrates, improving integration is an incredibly complicated task. It will involve at least the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and DCLG. Meaningful improvement across this number of departments will not take place naturally. If we are serious about leading the way in responding to the global refugee crisis, we need a Minister to head it up.
It was noteworthy how many agencies we heard from that operate in the voluntary sector. Refugees themselves offering evidence also spoke highly of the support that they received from such organisations, nationally and locally. It was heartening to see evidence of the work of churches during the course of the inquiry. Churches have been and plan to be at the heart of welcoming refugees to our country. We do so to join in the work of the one whom the psalmist describes as,
“a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows”,
“sets the lonely in families”.
We are a welcomed people who desire to welcome others. We join faith and other communities in being committed to playing our part in improving the welcome offered to refugees. We are not simply asking the Government to do something for us, though obviously the report recommends specific action from them. Instead, the report is an invitation to work with us so that the whole of British society can benefit from the full contribution of those who have chosen, and have been chosen by, Britain.
In conclusion, will Her Majesty’s Government appoint a Minister for refugees? Will they implement the report’s call for a national refugee integration strategy? Will they seek to ensure that, when people are given refugee status, their experience will consistently be one of support and welcome rather than the varied and often distressing experience that is the reality for too many at present?
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate. I hope Her Majesty’s Government find the recommendations that he has outlined uncontroversial. While I still have questions for the Government, this is actually a good end-of-term report for the Home Office as far as I am concerned.
There is, however, also anecdotal evidence from NGOs on the ground that locally hired UNHCR staff are not accurately recording the vulnerability of refugees who have different faiths to themselves, preventing some of the most vulnerable from accessing the resettlement schemes. Can Her Majesty’s Government please ensure that, as religious minorities were targeted by Daesh, those refugees coming to the UK should at the very least reflect the religious make-up of Syria and Iraq prior to the conflict? The United States is encountering the same problem, so something is amiss with the assessment of the UNHCR. A change of policy without better implementation by the UNHCR—of which DfID unfortunately gave such a poor report in its multilateral assessment—will not achieve the result that Her Majesty’s Government want to achieve through changing the scheme in this way. There are also suggestions that these other nationalities—such as the Yazidis, who are almost exclusively Iraqi—will qualify for our amended scheme only if they fled into Syria and then had to flee again from Syria. Can my noble friend please confirm, perhaps by writing to me later, that Yazidis who fled IS but went directly into Turkey will now qualify under our amended scheme?
I am also pleased that the report by the all-party group and the Asylum Advocacy Group from July 2016, Fleeing Persecution, which looked at how the Home Office assesses claims for asylum here in the UK based on religious persecution, has been taken seriously by the Home Office. We are working with them to retrain caseworkers on handling religious persecution asylum cases here in the UK. Religious persecution is one of the seven grounds for those applying for asylum here on which a claim can be made, but it is perhaps the most complex. A baptism certificate, if you are a Shia Muslim convert to Christianity in Iran, has a totally different evidential weight than one from a local Anglican church which may mean little more than that you had a layer of the wedding cake to use up. The APPG looks forward to working with the Home Office asylum team on this task over the coming weeks and is grateful to the NGOs, faith leaders and academics who are helping the Home Office in this task.
The welcome by the Church of England through its involvement in the community sponsorship scheme—as outlined by the right reverend Prelate—is encouraging, but I would be grateful to know if Her Majesty’s Government are seeking to learn from Canada, a fellow Commonwealth country, which seems to have a very effective resettlement process and integration strategy. I trust that the recommendations from this report from the APPG on Refugees will be accepted by the Home Office. Like many people, my closest friends include many from west Africa, the Caribbean and Singapore who came here for work or education, became naturalised and stayed. But the richness of my community now also includes those who have fled persecution in the Horn of Africa, were given refugee status and then became naturalised. Their gratitude for the education and healthcare provided here to them and their children is truly humbling. If Her Majesty’s Government are minded to create a Minister for refugees, can they give serious consideration to locating that Minister in DCLG, not the Home Office? As President Macron stated, there is a profound difference between economic migration and fleeing persecution. Let us keep this separate in government departments and hopefully separate in the minds of the great, generous British public.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate on the report of the inquiry of which I was also a member and also to Jonathan Featonby of the Refugee Council, who provided outstanding support, as well as those who gave evidence, particularly refugees themselves. I will focus my remarks mainly on one of the most serious impediments to refugee integration, which arises at the point that they receive refugee status. This should be a time of relief and joy. Instead, because of the well-documented problems created by the 28-day move-on period, it is all too often a time of despair—despair born of anxiety, homelessness and destitution. Remember: some of those affected are survivors of torture who are likely to be particularly fragile in terms of both physical and mental health.
A recurrent theme in the evidence that we received was that the period is too short to enable refugees to move seamlessly to mainstream social security and housing support. When I have raised this issue before in your Lordships’ House, the response has tended to be that the problem lies mainly in the failure of refugees themselves to claim quickly. Of course, this can be a factor, but the evidence presented to us makes clear that 28 days is simply not enough time for many to make the transition, even if they claim immediately. All too often there are delays in receiving the documentation that newly recognised refugees need to access financial support and housing. One of those key documents is the national insurance number. Sami, a refugee from Iraq who gave oral evidence, told us that his was sent to his Home Office accommodation the day after he was evicted from it.
A concern raised by a number of organisations was the anticipated impact of the rollout of universal credit. Typically, UC is paid only after six weeks from the date of claim. This is because it is paid monthly in arrears and eligibility starts only after a seven-day waiting period and is premised on the assumption that new claimants are moving from paid work and have wages and/or savings to tide them over. So, even where the transition to mainstream social security goes without a hitch, the 28-day move-on period is incompatible with the six-week wait for UC. The report recommends that DWP ensures that the first payment is made within the moving-on period and that refugees are added to the list of groups exempt from the seven waiting days. Can the Minister tell us, or ask DWP to write to explain, what steps they are taking to prevent this problem arising?
The Minister knows of my concerns because she kindly met with me back in December. The decision to instigate an evaluation pilot through which assistance is provided with the transition to mainstream social security was welcome. However, it is now over 16 months since the noble Lord, Lord Bates, rejected an amendment to the Immigration Bill of 2016 to extend the move-on period with the promise that, if the evaluation showed it did not provide sufficient time, the Government would return to Parliament with a proposal to amend the regulations. According to a recent written reply, the pilot is currently being reviewed and key stakeholders will receive an update shortly. I trust that concerned parliamentarians count as key stakeholders, but I press the Minister for assurance that the evaluation will be properly published, as stated in her Written Answer to me on
“will bring forward a change to the current … move-on period”,
if it is shown to be necessary. Our inquiry recommended that it be extended to at least 50 days and then kept under review. We would welcome the Government’s response to this and the related practical recommendations in our report.
In the past, the Home Office has itself emphasised the importance of the move-on period for the longer-term integration of refugees. Other barriers to integration documented in our report include: inadequate support to learn English, other than for resettled Syrians; restrictive family reunion rules, identified recently by the UN refugee representative as one of the biggest obstacles to integration; and, we warned, the recently announced automatic use of safe return reviews. The Government are committed to publishing a new integration strategy following the Casey review; can the Minister give assurance that there will be an explicit strategy for refugee integration, as called for in our report and by the right reverend Prelate? Will serious consideration be given—as he also asked—to establishing a Minister for refugees to drive that strategy? Otherwise, I fear that, despite all the invaluable support provided by local communities, the current highly damaging two-tier system identified in the report will continue, and it will not be possible to remove the very big question mark from the title of our report, Refugees Welcome?
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate. I share the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge: some progress has been made, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that. However, further progress still needs to be made.
The report states that,
“the evidence we received shows that experiences of the asylum system can have a detrimental impact on future integration for those who are granted refugee status”.
This a holistic approach: you cannot separate the asylum process from the granting of refugee status. I shall concentrate my remarks on those who seek asylum on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Many of the problems experienced by this group were highlighted in the excellent report by Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group entitled No Safe Refuge. When I attend UK LGIG events and ask people who have been granted asylum what that means to them, they do not talk about work or integration but about personal freedom—being able to be who they are and love who they wish, and getting back a sense of decent humanity and self-worth. However, that joy tends to turn to frustration quite fast once they become aware of the problems created by the way they have been treated by the asylum system, because for those who have been granted refugee status it tends to tie at least one hand behind their backs, and in some cases two.
I highlight three key issues. The first is detention of LGBTI people seeking refugee status. They say that it feels as if they are being put back into the closet, because they are held in detention with people from their homeland, some of whom hold very homophobic views. They also say that it affects their mental health and puts them back in that regard. Those who are granted refugee status want to integrate but do not feel they can totally be themselves, because they do not know what is going to happen round the corner, given the way they were treated when in detention. Because the Government have done that, they wonder whether there is something intrinsic in British society which means that the Government put them in a vulnerable position when they are seeking safety because of their sexuality. There are real issues in that regard.
Secondly, the length of time taken in decision-making is also highlighted in the report. The longer a decision takes, the more likely it is that the person will lose the skills and knowledge they may have, which will keep them independent once they are granted refugee status. Only this week, I met a wonderful Syrian couple, two young men who have waited 18 months for a decision. The Government accept that they are gay and that they are a couple: they have been given accommodation together. However, when you talk to them, they say, “I just want to work and be able to live independently”. They cite little things and say, “I cannot have a bank account. That takes away my independence. I cannot even open an Uber account because I do not have a bank account and a bank card, so I cannot get around and be independent”. The longer the decision takes, the less likely the applicant is to integrate easily.
The third issue concerns the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme. It is accepted that there will be LGBTI individuals among those vulnerable people. However, I cannot ascertain how the Government are recording whether any LGBTI person has been accepted on that scheme. Will the Minister confirm how many people have been accepted on the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme based on their sexuality or sexual orientation?
I have three questions. First, will the Minister commit to look at the detention of LGBTI individuals? The impact of that is traumatic, can be grave in terms of integration and can leave individuals scarred for life. Secondly, will she commit to look at the case of the two Syrians I have mentioned, not in terms of determining their case but looking at the human impact that a long period of 18 months can have before someone is granted refugee status? Rather than a statistic, it is a real human life example, which could make for better policy. Thirdly, will she review the way that the Syrian vulnerable persons scheme is working, or not, for LGBTI individuals? That clearly needs to be done. If the Minister and the Government commit to doing that, we can take this issue forward, help people integrate and play a bigger part in the life of this country and meet their full potential.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing this report before the House. It is a positive sign that my noble friend the Minister of State is replying to the debate. Most of all, I thank the authors of the report, who have opened my eyes and shone a light on what happens to successful asylum seekers in the UK.
In the UK there was quite rightly a public outcry on behalf of refugees after the tragic death of the child refugee, Alan Kurdi. These deaths are unfortunately all too common. As happens in Britain, the Government listened, reacted and committed to accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees in the lifetime of the Parliament. That is a very significant number, given the total number of asylum seekers is normally around 40,000 per year.
This report is timely because it has identified a two-tier system that has been caused because of the creation of a best practice—as we have heard from the right reverend Prelate—that a government focus on the resettlement programmes, especially the Syrian vulnerable people resettlement programme, has brought about. This two-tier system has now been recognised in both the APPG report and the report of the Home Affairs Committee in the other place published in January this year. The Government should be congratulated on their continuing commitment to the resettlement programme, working closely with local authorities across the UK. However, this excellent report from the APPG raises the plight of the four-fifths of refugees seeking asylum in the UK who are not part of the resettlement scheme and whose only choice is to seek asylum once they arrive in the UK. One of the great ironies of that is that 10% of all those seeking asylum are Syrians. That underlines the two-tier process that we have that some people of the same nationality can have two very different experiences.
As we have heard, the report correctly identifies the crucial moving-on period—the point at which the clock starts ticking for the successful applicant with 28 days left in Home Office accommodation and before Home Office financial support comes to an end. That is the period in which a successful asylum applicant has to find accommodation, a job, seek benefits or enter education. It is clear from the APPG report that too much is currently left to chance. The timing of the arrival of the assigned national insurance number, the biometric residence permit and the letter informing the asylum seeker that they have been successful do not appear to be co-ordinated. In the report, there is an example of a successful asylum seeker who received notice to quit his Home Office accommodation but then did not receive notice that he had been successful in his appeal for asylum for a further fortnight. What should be a moment of vindication and hope for the successful asylum applicant becomes one of confusion and, for some, apparent freefall in the system.
I would be grateful to hear from my noble friend the Minister how the Home office can further co-ordinate this moving-on period with other departments and local authorities to ensure a seamless move from Home office accommodation. It is difficult to envisage how this could happen without a dedicated resource to support these vulnerable people and ensure that there is cross-departmental access for such a team. The best practice used for the resettlement programmes has surely provided an opportunity for the expertise gained within the Home Office to be deployed.
The Government have trialled successfully the community sponsorship scheme from Canada, and I would hope that they would also look to other international examples of where refugees have been successfully integrated and been able to fulfil their education and make an active economic contribution to their new state. We cannot allow vulnerable refugees to fall through the net and end up homeless in abject poverty, therefore creating significant and, importantly, more expensive responsibilities for the state further down the line.
The Home Office has demonstrated the ability of central government to work closely with local authorities to ensure that vulnerable people are properly cared for in this country. The report we have from the APPG points in several important ways to how we can ensure that those same vulnerable people receive sustained support, co-ordination and management.
My Lords, like other contributors to this evening’s debate, I welcome the report from the APPG and thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for bringing this Question for Short Debate this evening.
Like the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, I found the report and the contributions eye opening. This is clearly an issue which ought to be much more the subject of public thought and debate than has been the case. We have talked about the Syrian refugees who were being brought to the United Kingdom, and the former Prime Minister was clear about bringing people over from the camps. That was a laudable aim, but we have not talked sufficiently about what we do to integrate refugees once they are given that status.
“We must ensure refugees can live with dignity and self-sufficiency, as close as possible to their home countries, to deter them from making dangerous onward journeys, and to enable them eventually to return home and rebuild”.
That all sounds absolutely laudable. However, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that those individuals and their families who are not rehoused, rehomed or resettled near to their home countries and who make it to the United Kingdom and are granted refugee status are indeed able to live with dignity and self-sufficiency?
Being awarded refugee status, as noble Lords have said, ought to be the start of something new and hopeful, but for many refugees that is not the case. As my noble friend Lord Scriven pointed out, the starting point for most asylum seekers is not being accorded refugee status—as is the case for the Syrians under the resettlement programme—but may be a detention centre. The very name “detention centre”, for somebody fleeing for their life, sounds like an unfortunate place to start. We then ensure that those people, who might be highly skilled, talented, and who might have been professionals in their own country, cannot work; that has been brought up on a regular basis by my noble friend Lord Roberts, and I suspect that it may come up again this evening.
We do not allow asylum seekers to work and we give them a small amount of money; are we really treating them with dignity? Once they are accorded refugee status, as noble Lords have already pointed out, they have 28 days to claim benefit, which they will not get for six weeks, and to get new accommodation, which will be difficult. If you do not have references, do not speak English and you have just arrived and have no contacts, how do you do all those things? Finding accommodation is difficult at the best of times for people who speak English and know how to work through the rules and regulations of this country. If you are new and you do not have advice, how do you do that?
It is extremely worrying that the APPG report talks about the difficulty of getting ESOL training and about the apparent cuts, despite a government commitment to increase provision of language training. Could the Minister tell the House what provision is being made and how far the provision of English language training is being thought about as part of a strategy for integrating refugees?
Finally, on health, the report notes the difficulty of getting access to GPs. That is very much the start of primary care. However, if people have fled difficult situations, they may have mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder or a whole range of complex medical issues that need to be dealt with. Many of those are difficult to talk about, even in one’s mother tongue. If you do not speak English fluently and do not have the ability to express yourself in English, what provision is the NHS able to give to ensure that refugees are able to get adequate training and that interpreters are available? It is a second best, but at least it would be of some benefit in getting adequate healthcare.
In sum, there is a question about how we treat asylum seekers before they are given refugee status and how we treat refugees once we have given them asylum. Under the Geneva Convention on Refugees we have a duty. But there are also moral obligations: duties of hospitality. Do Her Majesty’s Government believe that they are delivering on those?
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate, and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for introducing it.
Two reports have been published over the last few days: one is Refugees Welcome?, which we are discussing now, and the other, from the British Red Cross, is Can’t Stay, Can’t Go. Both show that UK immigration and settlement policy is just not fit for purpose. The battles we have fought over the years are still unresolved: the right to work, adequate benefits, indefinite detention and fair treatment of young asylum seekers on reaching 18 years of age. It has been mentioned that there will be a revisiting of asylum decisions after five years, which will mean that, after that period, people who have come here and have been granted asylum can be placed in a situation where they could well be deported. Can the Minister give an assurance tonight that that is not so? The whole immigration process is a labyrinth of confusion—it is time for a complete overhaul and to listen to all concerned organisations so that they can contribute and their voices will be heard in any future legislation.
Tonight is also an opportunity to say thank you to all those have worked to exhaustion and often put their own careers on hold to meet the needs of those fleeing war and destruction. The refugee camps would not exist or function without them. We are eternally in their debt—not only major charities but many smaller bands of people who have really gone to extremes and sacrificed in order to man these refugee camps. At home, too, we have scores of communities where people have opened their hearts and their homes to refugees. A host of projects have assisted with integration. They have done and are doing an incredible job to put ordinary people here in the UK in touch with people who have come from areas of great deprivation.
I happen to be associated with a fairly new organisation, the Citizens of the World Choir. It has people from 16 different nationalities, from A to Z—I thought that Aleppo in Syria would be good for A and that Z could be for Zimbabwe—and these people sing together with people from this country who have been here for many years. So you have many new projects. One of the youngsters who sings with this choir came to see me only today, and I asked him, “What is your dream?”. He wants to be a footballer, so I am thinking of getting together a refugee football team. Perhaps some of your Lordships would like to volunteer to assist with that. We could have young people from different nationalities working together, enjoying themselves together and being given a wee bit of hope at a time of great darkness in their lives. The choir went to sing at the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen a week ago, and he said to me, “You know, that was the greatest day of my life”. He is from Afghanistan. We take things for granted. But this is about hope and about giving people a little bit of enjoyment at a difficult time. You see how they appreciate it. I mentioned before how people in Aberystwyth welcome asylum seekers. The asylum seekers gave flowers to the people of Aberystwyth.
Canada has been mentioned once or twice. It has accepted 40,000 refugees. Only last week I saw that there was a baptism in Calgary at which the child was named Justin Trudeau, after the Liberal Prime Minister. There is so much appreciation. People have open hearts—much more so than Governments. Here, we speak about choirs and sports teams and about so much that is done, and we say thank you to those people who have made sacrifices to help folk to integrate. We are all God’s children. They have shoes and these people also have shoes. It is not a case of “you” or “me”; we are all God’s family. Let us ask the Government to abandon their fear of critics. There are critics at the extremes who would deny any positive work with refugees. Let us take the lead from reports such as the one we are discussing this evening and take away the question mark in respect of Refugees Welcome? in this country.
My Lords, I have one brief question about access to higher education, which relates to the recommendation at paragraph 139 of the report. During the passage of the higher education Bill, I was assured that the Government would give people with humanitarian protection refugee status to enable them to get student support immediately. Is that going to happen?
My Lords, I too add my congratulations to those already expressed to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on securing this debate and on the report of the inquiry, of which he and my noble friends Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lord Dubs were members.
As the report says, very little time has been given to considering what happens to refugees once they have been granted protection by the UK Government. Accordingly, the inquiry set out to ascertain to what extent refugees are welcomed into the UK. As has been said, the evidence to the inquiry indicated that a two-tier system has developed for refugees. Those who arrive through a resettlement route are provided with accommodation and receive support in accessing services and finding employment; for those who have gone through the asylum system, there is no such support.
Significantly, the inquiry report states that that has not always been the case, as between 2008 and 2011 the Government funded a programme to help newly recognised refugees through what is known as the move-on period, offering a year of support. However, the programme was ended in September 2011 and instead, after receiving a positive decision on their application, newly recognised refugees are now given just 28 days before the financial support is cut off and they have to leave their accommodation.
The inquiry found that, allied with the lack of support in accessing the social security system—asylum seekers are unable to work for at least 12 months—and the housing market, the shortness of the 28-day move-on period leaves many newly recognised refugees homeless and destitute. On top of that, there are delays in receiving the documents needed to register for social security support, and wrong or incomplete advice is given at jobcentres. In addition, with no payments being received for at least six weeks after an application is submitted under the national rollout of universal credit, the 28-day move-on period will not be long enough even for those refugees who receive all their documentation promptly.
The inquiry report recommended that the move-on period should be extended to at least 50 days and that a national refugee integration strategy, overseen by a Minister for refugees, should address the issues which newly recognised refugees face during the move-on period and which are highlighted in the report.
The inquiry report also concluded that there was a regrettable lack of a government cross-departmental strategy setting out how all refugees can be successfully integrated into the UK, not least covering the area of support in learning English, the lack of which can have an adverse impact on people accessing other areas of support, securing employment and taking a full part in community activities. The inquiry report made recommendations to address this issue, including an increase in funding for classes in English for speakers of other languages.
The report also drew attention to particular issues and barriers faced by some groups of refugees—not least women and children—such as exploitation and violence, greater delays in accessing support due to the non-allocation of a national insurance number, the shortage of available childcare and a lack of both education and experience of an educational environment. Again, the inquiry report includes recommendations to address these concerns.
Other issues raised in the report, and in respect of which recommendations are made, cover the causes of the difficulties for some refugees in being reunited with family members and the negative impact that this can have on their prospects for integration, as well as their state of mind. In addition, there is the impact that some aspects of the asylum system and the process itself can have on their future prospects of successfully integrating.
The inquiry report was published in April, so I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some idea of the Government’s thinking on its analysis of the experience of new refugees in the UK and the recommendations made to address the issues identified.
As has been said, the report draws attention to good work that is being done in welcoming refugees. However, as it says:
“Refugees want to integrate. They want to contribute their skills, qualifications, experiences and knowledge. They want to be with their families. They want to be safe”.
It is surely in everyone’s interests that all reasonable steps are taken to enable those goals and objectives to be achieved for those who have been granted protection by the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate and all noble Lords who have taken part in it. We are grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees for its report and the opportunity to debate it this evening.
As the report highlights, the point at which someone is granted protection or resettled in the UK and the time thereafter can be absolutely critical to the integration process. This is more important than ever given the Government’s commitment to resettle 23,000 refugees on top of our long-standing resettlement schemes, as my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning pointed out. This commitment to resettle refugees involves not only central government but the work of local authorities and local sponsorship groups.
Last year—noble Lords referred to this—the Government launched the community sponsorship scheme, a pioneering initiative that enables community groups to welcome and support vulnerable refugee families into their communities. Many noble Lords referred to the Canadians. I met with some of them last night when I was in Manchester celebrating their community sponsorship scheme in Trafford—one of the first ones launched. I was delighted to meet a little boy who spoke perfect English with a Mancunian accent. He told me that he did not support United—who of course are based in Trafford—but supported City. He was a delightful child. Meeting the people last night was proof that community groups provide warm and welcome support for refugee families, including in housing, English language tuition, access to local services, employment and self-sufficiency.
All refugees in the UK should and do have broadly the same entitlement to public services and mainstream benefits as British citizens. However, integration goes far wider than that. It also involves a respect for our laws and values, and a willingness to participate in the society to which the new refugee has become connected.
The report touches on some important points and I shall try to respond to them in turn. The first, widely mentioned, point is the “move on” period, about which |I know the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is particularly concerned—but others also referred to it Where an asylum seeker and any dependants supported by the Home Office are granted asylum, humanitarian protection status or another form of leave to remain, Home Office support continues for a period of 28 days —something of which noble Lords are well aware. The purpose of the 28-day period is to allow newly recognised refugees and those granted leave to remain the time to obtain employment or to apply for any mainstream welfare benefits to which they may now be entitled.
We are aware that some refugees have not been able to access these benefits before the 28-day period elapses, and this is why the Home Office and DWP have been working together to establish a new procedure to ensure that recognised refugees are able to access welfare support as soon as possible. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, pointed out some of the impediments.
Recognised refugees are contacted by Home Office staff at the point they are granted refugee status, and if they need assistance an appointment is made for them with the DWP vulnerable persons service. This service assists individuals with their benefits application and with other matters, including setting up a temporary Post Office account for their benefits payments to be paid into if they do not yet have a bank account.
The noble Baroness also mentioned that a full evaluation is being undertaken, and the initial results are promising. We are committed to ensuring a smooth transition from Home Office support to mainstream support and have previously stated in this House that if our evaluation shows that the current 28-day move-on period is not enough, we will look again at the appropriate time period. I confirm once again to the noble Baroness that we will keep Parliament and this House updated on that.
On access to employment, noble Lords will be aware that asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK unless their claim has been outstanding for at least 12 months through no fault of their own. Those who are allowed to work are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list published by the Home Office. This policy is designed to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and those lawfully resident here, including those granted refugee status.
Those who are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, including those who are resettled to the UK, have immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market. Finding work is a key stage of becoming a part of your new community. In particular, it allows individuals to move towards becoming self-sufficient. We are aware, however, that for refugees it is particularly difficult to find employment, not least because of the language barriers referred to previously. I will explain how we seek to address that through provision in language skills.
In our approach to skills training overall, we aim to create a fair balance between the investment made by government, the employer and the individual. Adults who are granted refugee status are as eligible for funding from the Skills Funding Agency as any other resident and are not subject to the normal three-year qualifying period. The Government have to identify how to prioritise public funding and we think that this is an appropriate balance that is supportive of refugees. At the moment, it is too early to tell how access to the labour market and skills training will work out for refugees who arrive through the resettlement programme. Many of them will be here because of vulnerability and this may affect the length of time needed and the support needed for them to access the labour market when compared with others.
Language skills are clearly key to participation in the labour market and the ability to speak English is also a key enabler to successful integration. The basis of our work in this area is the support that the Government provide for learning English to speakers of other languages, known as ESOL, as part of a wider strategy to improve adult literacy in England. Colleges and training providers have the freedom and flexibility to determine how they use their adult education budget to meet the needs of their communities. They are required to plan which ESOL courses they deliver locally, within their resources, and through this they can meet the needs of newly recognised refugees. We do expect those attending to make a contribution to some of the cost of ESOL training, but not to all the costs. In fact, we meet 50% of the costs, and all the costs where people need ESOL training to get off benefits and into work.
We also recognise that voluntary and community-based groups can play a valuable role in helping individuals improve their English. Again, I have seen this at first hand in Manchester. They provide support, access to more information, a stronger sense of belonging, and the opportunity to help others and to increase personal skills, all of which are opportunities that should not be underestimated, and we welcome this involvement. On top of that, we are doing more as we learn about the experience of the groups who are arriving for resettlement and who have been identified as having particular vulnerabilities. We are tackling some of the difficulties that they face in attending English language classes. To support local authorities with addressing these difficulties, an additional £10 million has been provided so that they can deliver additional English language training for those arriving under the resettlement programme. A proportion of the funding, up to 25%, can be used to increase infrastructure, for example on training teachers and tackling barriers to accessibility.
Recognising that the need for childcare is a particular barrier to accessing ESOL, we have made additional funding of £600,000 available to local authorities in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, and £500,000 in 2019-20 to enable them to provide additional childcare. We are also providing funding for regional ESOL co-ordination via strategic migration partnerships to promote best practice and map provision, along with support for authorities to commission services and co-ordinate volunteers.
I will turn now to children, as they get a special mention in the report. All children are entitled to free primary and secondary education. This is because the Government recognise that children are children first and foremost and we do not distinguish based on immigration status. Children in full-time education will receive English language support in schools. Further financial support for English as an additional language can be provided and the decisions are made at a local level.
Turning now to the findings of the report on family reunion, we support the principle of family unity and recognise the role it can play in supporting integration. The UK already has several routes for families to be reunited safely. We have reunited more than 23,000 refugees with their immediate family in the last five years and continue to do so. As the report highlights, the point at which someone is granted protection or resettled in the UK and the time thereafter can be critical to the integration process. It is more important than ever, given the UK Government’s commitment to resettling 23,000 refugees on top of our long-standing resettlement schemes.
I am aware that time has moved on and that I will not be able to answer all the additional points which have been made in the debate. I thank all noble Lords for taking part. There are some specific questions which have been put to me, but in 12 minutes I cannot go through them all. I hope that I have outlined the points made in the report and I will write to noble Lords in due course.