I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for securing this debate. As has been said, it comes at a time when we have just seen a human tragedy in the English Channel—a reminder of the dangers of the channel and the fact that people’s lives are at risk every day in these makeshift, flimsy, small boats.
The number arriving in small boats remained relatively small until about two years ago. While clamping down on those coming in the back of lorries has been a factor, Brexit meant our exiting the Dublin III regulation, so the UK no longer has an agreement with any EU member state to return individuals who had set foot in those countries first prior to claiming asylum in the UK. Not only did we exit the Dublin III regulation, the Brexit deal failed to agree any working alternative or alternative safe and legal routes.
In addition, there is both underresourcing and significant staff change at the Home Office, as noted in the most recent report, I believe, of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders. There just are not enough staff to process the asylum applications and this contributes to longer and longer wait times. Some 87% of cases were dealt with in six months in 2014; that had fallen to 20% by 2019.
The reason for this situation is a cut in resources for legal and general support for Home Office officials deciding cases. Everything, frankly, is down to bare bones. A better-resourced system could vet better and more quickly and progress cases through the system either to granting asylum or to enforced removal. A lack of resources means poor case management and mistakes being made and delays created. It serves neither those making claims nor, indeed, the general public.
No doubt, those involved in human trafficking are aware that first, the UK has no extradition treaty to replace Dublin III and, secondly, that once here, individuals will be in the creaking system for some time, perhaps for more than a year or, indeed, several years.
I want also to repeat some of the figures that have already been quoted because, while asylum cases have increased recently, as have been said, asylum cases peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002, falling to just under 18,000 in 2010 before rising again to just above 35,500 in 2019. However, as has been pointed out, that figure is well below the 2002 one.
As has already been said, asylum seekers made up about 6% of all immigrants to the UK in 2019. While I think the figure mentioned was of 98% of those arriving by boat in the English Channel being recorded as claiming asylum, they are, in fact, largely people coming from war-torn countries rather than economic migrants, as we are sometimes led to believe.
According to other statistics from the Library, to which reference has already been made, the percentage refused at the first stage was at a high of 88% in 2004, falling to 59% in 2014, and again to 48% in 2019. So 52% of all asylum applications are approved or accepted at the first stage. However, as of June this year, 125,000 cases were logged in the system, and that is the highest since records began in 2011, and more than twice the figures for 2014. The thing to note is that any problem with caseload is less than that of other countries, which appear to be handling them rather more efficiently. In 2020, there were six asylum applications for every 10,000 individuals in the UK; the EU 27 average is almost twice that, at 11 applications per 10,000.
This is a serious problem. First, it does not best support asylum seekers, because those in genuine need of protection and support are left in a state of uncertainty longer than necessary. Secondly, those who are not bona fide asylum seekers are not best served by delaying their return, creating false hope. Thirdly, it badly lets down the public and their legitimate expectations of the system and arrangements.
The Home Secretary has been in post for more than two years, and has repeatedly committed to stopping channel crossings in small boats by making the route unviable. I am not sure whether she thinks she has been particularly successful. The reality is, of course, that we have seen unprecedented numbers making the journey in small boats, with a very high figure indeed for this year alone. The Home Secretary’s approach has, frankly, failed to deliver, and perhaps it is time it needs a change of approach.
The Government need an effective deal with the French authorities, they need to establish safe and legal routes and they need to reopen the Department for International Development, the department that addresses why people flee their homes in the first place. There seems some confusion in government quarters as to whether or not the Government believe that the arrangements they have with the French authorities are giving value for money. We are told of the figure of £54 million. At times, we read of Ministers saying the French are not doing everything they should, but at other times we have Ministers telling us how many trips across the channel have been stopped by the French authorities. I should be interested to know from the Government’s response today whether they believe they are getting value for money in what they are paying to the French or not, as there seems to be a degree of confusion in the comments made.
The reality is that we need meaningful action to support genuinely vulnerable people, to improve the somewhat chaotic and perhaps less than humane asylum system and, of course, to bring criminal gangs to justice. We need binding targets to process cases more quickly, so that people in need of help are not left in limbo, in a state of uncertainty. We need to push for action on international deals and agreements, including to stop gangs in France and elsewhere profiting from people’s desperation. I wonder whether sufficient attention, despite what the Government maintain happens, is actually given to dealing with those gangs, who are the cause of the trouble, as opposed to various schemes to stop their victims—because that is what they are—who are left crossing the English Channel in small boats. It is far better, I should have thought, to deal with the problem at source, which is the criminal gangs who encourage those trips to be made and make considerable sums of money out of it.
We need improved support for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking and tougher sentences for perpetrators. We need to re-establish our country’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international aid to help to tackle the forces driving people from their homes in the first place. For as long as we do not address that problem, we will get these large movements of people, some fleeing persecution and no doubt some on economic grounds seeking a better life. Finally, we need action to establish safe and legal routes, such as by re-establishing the Dubs scheme to help unaccompanied children to escape war zones. In their response, the Government might wish to comment on whether they agree that the action that I have suggested needs to be taken or whether they disagree with what I have said.