The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 13 December.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on illegal migration. I hope that the whole House will agree that there is a complex moral dimension to illegal migration. The balancing of our duty to support people in dire need with the responsibility to have genuine control over our borders understandably provokes strong feelings. So it is my view that the basis for any solution should be not just what works but what is right.
The simplest moral framing for this issue, and one that I believe Members on both sides of the House believe in, is fairness. It is unfair that people come here illegally. It is unfair on those with a genuine case for asylum when our capacity to help is taken up by people coming through—and from—countries that are perfectly safe. It is unfair on those who migrate here legally when others come here by cheating the system. Above all, it is unfair on the British people, who play by the rules, when others come here illegally and benefit from breaking those rules. So people are right to be angry, because they see what I see, which is that this simply is not fair.
It is not cruel or unkind to want to break the stranglehold of criminal gangs who trade in human misery and who exploit our system and laws. Enough is enough. As currently constructed, the global asylum framework has become obsolete. Today, there are 100 million people displaced globally. Hostile states are using migration as a weapon on the very borders of Europe. As the world becomes more unstable, and the effects of climate change make more places uninhabitable, the numbers displaced will only grow.
We have a proud history of providing sanctuary to those most in need. Britain helped craft the 1951 refugee convention to protect those fleeing persecution. My right honourable friend
But today, far too many of the beneficiaries of that generosity are not those directly fleeing war zones or at risk of persecution, but people crossing the channel in small boats. Many originate from fundamentally safe countries. All travel through safe countries. Their journeys are not ad hoc, but co-ordinated by ruthless, organised criminals, and every single journey risks the lives of women, children and—we should be honest—mostly men at sea.
This is not what previous generations intended when they drafted our humanitarian laws; nor is it the purpose of the numerous international treaties to which the UK is a signatory. Unless we act now and decisively, this will only get worse. Already in just seven weeks since I became Prime Minister, we have delivered the largest ever small boats deal with France, with significantly more boots on the ground patrolling its beaches. For the first time, UK and French officers are embedded in their respective operations in Dover and northern France. We have re-established the Calais group of northern European nations to disrupt traffickers all along the migration route. Last week, the group set a long-term ambition for a UK-EU-wide agreement on migration. Of course, that is not a panacea, and we need to go much further. Over the last month, the Home Secretary and I have studied every aspect of this issue in detail, and we can now set out five new steps today.
First, our policing of the channel has been too fragmented, with different people doing different things being pulled in different directions. So we will establish a new, permanent, unified small boats operational command. This will bring together our military, our civilian capabilities and the National Crime Agency. It will co-ordinate our intelligence, interception, processing and enforcement, and use all available technology, including drones for reconnaissance and surveillance, to pick people up and identify and then prosecute more gang-led boat pilots. We are adding more than 700 new staff and also doubling the funding given to the NCA for tackling organised immigration crime in Europe.
Secondly, those extra resources will free up immigration officers to go back to enforcement, which will, in turn, allow us to increase raids on illegal working by 50%. It is frankly absurd that today illegal migrants can get bank accounts which help them live and work here. So we will restart data sharing to stop that.
Thirdly, it is unfair and appalling that we are spending £5.5 million every day on using hotels to house asylum seekers. We must end this. We will shortly bring forward a range of alternative sites, such as disused holiday parks, former student halls and surplus military sites. These sites will accommodate 10,000 people, and we are in active discussions to secure them and many more. Our aim is to add thousands of places through this type of accommodation in the coming months, at half the cost of hotels. At the same time, as we consulted on over the summer, the cheapest and fairest way to solve this problem is for all local authorities to take their fair share of asylum seekers in the private rental sector, and we will work to achieve this as quickly as possible.
Fourthly, we need to process claims in days or weeks, not months or years, so we will double the number of asylum caseworkers. We are radically re-engineering the end-to-end process, with shorter guidance, fewer interviews and less paperwork, and we are introducing specialist caseworkers by nationality. We will also remove the gold-plating in our modern slavery system, including by reducing the cooling-off period from 45 days to 30 days, the legal minimum set out in the Council of Europe convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. As a result of all these changes, we will triple the productivity of our caseworkers and we expect to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year.
Fifthly, and most significantly, a third of all those arriving in small boats this year, almost 13,000 people, are Albanian, yet Albania is a safe, prosperous European country. It is deemed safe for returns by Germany, France, Italy and Sweden. It is an EU accession country, a NATO ally and a member of the same convention against trafficking as the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of Albania himself has said there is no reason why we cannot return Albanian asylum seekers immediately. Last year, Germany, France, Belgium and Sweden all rejected almost 100% of Albanian asylum claims, yet our rejection rate is just 45%. That must not continue, so today I can announce a new agreement with Albania and a new approach.
First, we will embed Border Force officers in Tirana Airport for the first time ever, helping to disrupt organised crime and stop people coming here illegally. Secondly, we will issue new guidance for our caseworkers to make it crystal clear that Albania is a safe country. Thirdly, one of the reasons why we struggle to remove people is that they unfairly exploit our modern slavery system, so we will significantly raise the threshold someone must meet to be considered a modern slave. For the first time, we will require a caseworker to have objective evidence of modern slavery, rather than just a suspicion. Fourthly, we have sought and received formal assurances from Albania confirming that it will protect genuine victims and people at risk of re-trafficking, allowing us to detain and return people to Albania with confidence and in line with ECAT. As a result of these changes, the vast majority of claims from Albania can simply be declared clearly unfounded, and those individuals can be swiftly returned. Lastly, we will change how we process Albanian illegal migrants, with a new dedicated unit, staffed by 400 new specialists, expediting cases within weeks. Over the coming months, thousands of Albanians will be returned home, and we will keep going with weekly flights until all the Albanians in our backlog have been removed.
In addition to all these new steps, let the House be in no doubt that, when legal proceedings conclude on our migration and economic development partnership, we will restart the first flights to Rwanda, so that those who are here illegally and cannot be returned to their home country can build a new life there.
However, even with the huge progress that we will make with the changes I have announced today, there remains a fundamental question: how do we solve this problem once and for all? It is not just our asylum system that needs fundamental reform; our laws need reform too. We must be able to control our borders to ensure that the only people who come here come through safe and legal routes. However well intended, our legal frameworks are being manipulated by people who exploit our courts to frustrate their removal for months or years on end.
I said, ‘Enough is enough’, and I meant it. That means that I am prepared to do what must be done, so early next year we will introduce new legislation to make it unambiguously clear that, if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here. Instead, you will be detained and swiftly returned either to your home country or to a safe country where your asylum claim will be considered. You will no longer be able to frustrate removal attempts with late or spurious claims or appeals, and once removed, you should have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship.
Furthermore, if our reforms on Albania are challenged in the courts, we will also put them on a statutory footing to ensure that the UK’s treatment of Albanian arrivals is no different from that of Germany or France. The only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes and, as we get a grip on illegal migration, we will create more of those routes. We will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those who are most in need so that the UK remains a safe haven for the most vulnerable. We will also introduce an annual quota on numbers, set by Parliament in consultation with local authorities to determine our capacity, and amendable in the face of humanitarian emergencies.
That is the fair way to address this global challenge. Tackling this problem will not be quick; it will not be easy; but it is the right thing to do. We cannot persist with a system that was designed for a different era. We have to stop the boats, and this Government will do what must be done. We will be tough but fair, and where we lead, others will follow. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I am grateful that the Government made an additional Statement in the other place on the truly dreadful incident in the channel in the early hours of this morning. It is tragic, but it is also an immensely distressing event and our thoughts are with those who have lost their lives, their families and their loved ones who have received that unimaginable news today, and with those who were rescued from the freezing conditions. Our immense thanks go to the first responders, the emergency services, who show enormous bravery in saving lives—not just this morning; they regularly take these risks. It is a painful reminder of the importance of tackling criminal gangs that make a profit from the misery and loss of life that we have seen this morning.
On Friday, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury led his annual debate on the UK’s asylum policy. It thoughtfully captured and reflected on the challenges faced. This is an area that requires honesty, responsible policy-making and, of course, compassion. We regret that the Government’s record so far has not lived up to those expectations. However, there are proposals in the Prime Minister’s Statement that we welcome. I have to say that we have heard so much of the rhetoric before. Today’s terrible news emphasises why this issue has to be tackled with urgency and why we need effective, workable and decent policies on immigration, asylum and refugees.
There has been a complete collapse in decision-making by the Home Office, with only 4% of people who made small boat crossings being processed last year, an ever-growing backlog of almost 150,000 cases, huge pressures on accommodation, rising costs, and people waiting in limbo, sometimes for years, for basic initial decisions to be taken. Staffing problems have been made worse by inadequate training and appalling attrition rates. In Home Office-provided accommodation, we have witnessed disease outbreaks and child safe- guarding failures. While these problems have grown, the backlog waiting for government action has increased by over 300%—I repeat, just in case Hansard thinks I have made a mistake, that it has increased by over 300%—in the past five years. We have had talk of wave machines, a public disagreement between the Home Office and the Navy about push-back of tiny vessels, and a costly £140 million Rwanda policy that Home Office officials were unable to sign off as being evidence-based or value for taxpayers’ money. Not one single person has been transported to Rwanda.
Last year, a previous Home Secretary promised that the Government’s new plan for immigration was the answer, but clearly it was not. We were promised that the then Nationality and Borders Bill was the answer, except the Prime Minister’s Statement admits that it was not either. In truth, that Act removes protections for victims of modern slavery while hardwiring extra delays into the asylum system. The Prime Minister is right now to notice the scale of the Home Office backlog and that initial decisions need to be made in days and weeks rather than taking years.
However, I hope the noble Lord, Lord True—the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House—can help me. Just a few hours after the Prime Minister addressed Parliament yesterday with the promise to clear the backlog, that was downgraded to a promise to clear some of the backlog, with cases up to only June 2022 being in scope when the Nationality and Borders Act is commenced. Is the Lord Privy Seal able to tell the House today how many thousands of cases currently in the system the Government expect still to be waiting for an initial decision in a year’s time? Can he explain why it is harder to clear cases that have been handled under the new systems that were brought in by the Nationality and Borders Act? I fail to understand that.
We welcome proposals for fast-tracking claims, which we have been calling for and have been recommended for some time by the UNHCR. Many of our closest neighbours and allies already use such systems. We also welcome the additional caseworkers, who are badly needed to address the backlog. Could the noble Lord say something about whether that intention to double the number includes the 400 specialists for the dedicated Albanian scheme or whether that is additional? However, I am sure he will be aware that staffing issues are about not just numbers and recruitment but the quality of training and the current high staff turnover. What is being done to change the training and experience of staff to ensure confidence in the accuracy of decisions and that expertise is retained?
At the heart of everything we are discussing are the criminal gangs putting lives at risk and making profit from misery. We have long promised a major new unit in the National Crime Agency to tackle the criminal gangs and to work across borders to secure prosecutions. It will be funded by the £140 million the Government are currently spending on the failed Rwanda policy. The noble Lord the Leader will be aware of how these gangs advertise and, in effect, recruit their victims. Is he confident that the Government are doing enough work internationally—that is the only way to tackle this issue—to identify and close down these gangs, and to bring prosecutions wherever possible? Much of this is advertised on the internet. Surely it must be possible to do far more than is done at the moment.
Can the noble Lord also give more information on the proposed operational unit for small boats? How will this differ from what is in place already? How will that unit link into the wider work on cross-border immigration crime? If he can say something about the level of funding promised, that would be very helpful.
On accommodation, the Prime Minister said that alternative sites would be brought forward “shortly”. I know that is a bit like “in the fullness of time” and “when resources allow”, but can the noble Lord say something about the timescale? With Napier barracks and more recently at Manston we have seen the chaos and health risks inflicted on staff, local communities and those seeking asylum. It is not just about the provision of accommodation but about the wider system that it sits in.
A crucial point I would like the noble Lord to say something about is how safeguarding procedures are being changed to address some catastrophic failures of Home Office safeguarding that have led to children in Home Office care going missing and just disappearing from the system. We have sought an update on this for some time and we have not received satisfactory answers, so if he can find anything today or ensure that Ministers can write to us we would be very grateful.
The UK has a proud record of being at the forefront of tackling modern slavery. That is a result of years of cross-party working and a proud legacy of a former Conservative Prime Minister. The modern slavery system protects adults and children from being trafficked into the UK into unimaginable situations, and secures prosecutions of vile people traffickers. I recall a personal case of a constituent who was trafficked and the life she led before she was rescued from that situation. When the Prime Minister says, rather too casually, that he wants to remove what he called the “gold-plating” in our system, what exactly does he mean? Is there an assessment of the impact that will have on victims, particularly children, including on the ability to secure prosecutions? I would like some detail about what “gold-plating” means in practice.
Finally, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dubs for his work on safe routes. Safe, managed, legal routes are the most effective way to prevent those seeking asylum—not economic migrants—making desperate, dangerous crossings, and to break the business model of people smugglers. The Home Office should, as a minimum, review family reunion routes and safe routes for unaccompanied children. The Prime Minister suggests that safe routes will be considered but not until other parts of the Statement are complete. I do not understand that. Surely it would be far more effective if this was part of a comprehensive, holistic approach.
When we talk about the numbers of those crossing the Channel, about asylum seekers and refugees, we should never forget that each is an individual with hopes and aspirations for their future, and that in so many cases they are being abused and conned by criminal gangs. If action to prevent such dangerous crossing is to be effective, there needs to be a whole package of measures, and it has to be a package of measures that understands why they take those risks.
My Lords, the tragic deaths of four migrants attempting to cross the channel in a small boat overnight are horrifying and heartbreaking. They underline the importance of sorting out not only the channel crossings but the immigration and asylum system as a whole.
There are a number of distinct but related questions covered by the Prime Minister’s Statement. First, how do we deal with the surging numbers of Albanians who are using this route, the vast majority of whom are straightforward economic migrants? The Government set out a five-point plan, including the deployment of Border Force officers in Tirana and the appointment of 400 staff dedicated to expediting Albanian cases. Time will tell whether these measures are effective, but I suspect it is unwise to suggest, as the Government do, that there are effectively no victims of modern slavery emanating from Albania. It is naive to think that the current reality of retrafficking will be eliminated, and it must be hoped that the new Home Office staff receive some better training than appears to have been the case with many recently appointed asylum and immigration caseworkers.
The second question is: how do we deter and deal with those crossing the channel who are not Albanian? The Government are going to improve policing in the channel by appointing 700 new staff and yet again tinkering with the management structure for the operation; they hope that this will disrupt the criminal gangs involved, and for those who do reach our shores, they are going to restart flights to Rwanda. Even in the unlikely event of these policies being effective, they are not going to deal with a large part of the underlying problem: they will not deal with the problem of genuine asylum seekers.
So far this year, some 40% of those making the crossings are from five countries: Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iran, of whom the overwhelming majority will be granted asylum because they are genuine asylum seekers. To deter these people from boarding a dinghy, we need to establish safe and legal routes. The Prime Minister says that the Government will do this, but the law at present means that, with limited exceptions, it is simply not possible to enter the UK legally as an asylum seeker. So, exactly how are the Government going to establish safe and legal routes?
The third question is: how do we deal with the huge backlog of asylum and other immigration cases? In the short term, the Government are going to find cheaper places to accommodate asylum seekers by using, amongst other things, surplus military sites. Having seen the amateurish approach adopted by the Home Office in its plans to use the disused RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse as a reception centre—now thankfully abandoned—I have literally no confidence in Home Office officials to manage this process effectively. What additional management resources are now being deployed by the Home Office to ensure that these new facilities are properly chosen and managed?
In order to deal with the backlog itself, the Government are doubling the number of caseworkers; as long as these new officials are properly trained this is very welcome, but I fear that, even with them, it may be slightly hubristic to claim that the backlog will have been cleared within 12 months. In the meantime, the Government are showing no movement on allowing asylum seekers to work, this is wrong-headed in every respect. They want to work, the country is crying out for workers of all types, so why will the Government not let them work?
In terms of the overall approach, the Prime Minister says:
“No one—no one—can doubt our generosity of spirit.”
Given the “hostile environment” policy, the whole raft of blood-curdling Statements by current and former Home Secretaries and the shameful slowness to deal with some of the most vulnerable groups of asylum seekers, not least from Afghanistan, I am afraid I doubt the generosity of spirit shown consistently by this Government. Far from generosity of spirit, their whole approach has been mean-spirited and unwelcoming. Moreover, this alleged generosity is now to be tempered by having an annual cap on asylum seekers. The Prime Minister says that this is to be set by Parliament, but he means that it will be set by the Government—by this Home Secretary, with the Prime Minister’s blessing. This is not generosity of spirit; it is Scrooge at his worst.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness opposite for their comments. Amid all the criticisms and expressions of disappointment at things that have happened so far, there was a sort of implied acceptance, perhaps with a mild element of doubt from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, of the Government and, mostly notably, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who, I can say from the closest possible quarters, from the moment he became Prime Minister has personally gripped this issue and gripped it in a way that is in line with his characteristic, compassionate, competent and clear-headed approach. I can say from the closest possible quarters.
It is easy to throw criticisms. I could say, perhaps, that the other parties have not been as supportive of some of the measures that Governments have tried to take in the past. However, what we need to do now—and, frankly, I think that the public expects this—is to address the abuses that are going on. The noble Baroness was quite right to stress the bestial nature of the organised crime involved in this. I am grateful for what she said about the terrible events in the channel last night, when, at three o’clock in the morning, authorities were alerted to an incident concerning a small boat in distress. After a co-ordinated search and rescue operation, as many noble Lords will know, led by HM Coastguard, it is a great regret that there have been four confirmed deaths so far. Investigations are ongoing, and we will provide further information in due course. I agree with the noble Baroness that this was a truly tragic incident, and our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who have lost their lives. I join the noble Baroness in expressing our utmost sadness and heartfelt sympathy to them, as well as paying tribute to the agencies dedicated to saving lives at sea. Day in and day out, Coastguard, RNLI, Border Force—all those involved—work with unsung dedication, seeking to save the lives of people put in peril not by this Government or any other Government but by ruthless, organised criminality.
I was asked a large number of questions; I do not think I will be able to answer all of them in the time allowed, but clearly we will seek to respond in detail to anything that was not answered.
The noble Baroness was a bit disparaging about the Rwanda partnership, as was the noble Lord, Lord Newby. The Government’s intention is to make our migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda work, so that, yes, we can send people who make dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys to the UK to a safe third country. That will allow us to remove many people who travel to the UK illegally. We are continuing to plan for this policy, but of course there is pending ongoing litigation in the courts. We are expecting a judgment from the High Court shortly, and fully believe that the courts will find the policies legal, and that claimants can be removed to Rwanda without breaching our international treaties.
On numbers and clearing the backlog, I do not believe it right to say, as the noble Baroness did, that there was a sudden change in policy. It was perhaps not fully understood. It was made very clear in the briefing I have that, with regard to the pledge and intention to clear the backlog of those who came into the process before
I welcome the support for extra staff. I have the Home Office Minister sitting alongside me, and I am sure he will have heard what has been said about the need to provide proper and full training. The new small boats organisation will bring together military and civilian institutions in a single operation. We believe that will provide greater coherence, and work towards that is under way. I shall have to write to the noble Baroness about the particular issue on safeguarding children, although, again, my noble friend from the Home Office will have heard that.
On legislation, which the noble Baroness also asked about, as the Prime Minister said, the intention is to introduce legislation next year. The Prime Minister indicated some of the core objectives of that legislation, which would mean that those who entered this country illegally could not expect to remain. However, these matters are still under consideration and proposals will be laid before your Lordships, I hope at an early date. I am not giving any commitment as to when it will be, but there will be legislation, as the Prime Minister said yesterday.
I was asked about modern slavery by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who were both kind enough to refer to the fact that my right honourable friend Theresa May pioneered the action in this area. Modern slavery is a problem; it remains an issue, and the Government are determined to tackle it and deal with it. As for gold-plating, there are aspects of the decisions made in relation to modern slavery that will be considered, such as the evidential basis and points where there has been clear evidence of modern slavery. I may not be using the correct words, but the core process or structure of the legislation is not affected.
On safe routes, I agree profoundly with what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said. The Prime Minister made it very clear that, while being firm on illegal immigration, we wish to maintain safe and legal routes. That is a matter of ongoing consideration. In fact, by cracking down on illegal immigration, we will be able to be more generous with those who really need our help, and we will introduce new safe and legal routes for those at risk of war and persecution to come and seek refuge and protection in the United Kingdom. We will consult on the cap or quota, which has been referred to, for those coming through our safe and legal routes, and on how the cap will be decided, incorporating lessons from what we have done in great community partnership through Homes for Ukraine.
We should not forget that the United Kingdom has been extraordinarily generous—the most generous in recent political history. We have a proud history of supporting those fleeing persecution. Since 2015, we have resettled 450,000 vulnerable people here, including 144,000 from Hong Kong, 20,000 from Syria, approximately 20,000 from Afghanistan and around 150,000 Ukrainians. We will continue that compassionate stance towards others.
I was asked about accommodation. This is obviously the subject of ongoing discussion. The Prime Minister gave some indication, and it was referred to, that we will look for different approaches and different methods of doing it. We are spending £5.6 million a day— £6.5 million if you include Afghan refugees—on accommodation. We are accommodating 112,000 people at the moment, and I think it reasonable that consideration be given to alternative sites, particularly for those under discussion in this Statement. That is what we will do and as we consult and decide, further information will be given to your Lordships.
Against the background of the generosity I have described, I do not think the hostile environment mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is correct. It is true that we have learned lessons from the Windrush scheme and what happened in relation to Windrush, but we believe it to be reasonable that bank data and other data should be used and considered to identify illegals.
I was obviously asked specifically about Albania, which has been the centre of discussion; indeed, it is very well known that large numbers of Albanians are coming in. I would like to say how grateful we are to the Government of Albania for their support; I think that is the fruit of our good diplomatic outreach on these matters. The deal gives us assurances that we will be able to return alleged victims of modern slavery safely to Albania. They will be provided with protection and support in accordance with obligations under ECAT.
There is a dedicated processing task force. We believe Albania is a safe country, and 100% of Albanian applications are rejected by those vicious nations Germany and Sweden. Germany and Sweden are liberal nations and reject 100%; we reject only 44.6%. I think it perfectly reasonable that, with the co-operation of the Albanian Government, we take action to address this problem, which, like many others involved, has grown, changed and morphed, and the Government are responding to it.
In his response to the Statement, the UNHCR made it clear that the designation of safe countries such as Albania must not lead to the blanket rejection of asylum applications because an assessment of the merits of individual claims is still required. Yesterday, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked specifically about protection for those fleeing domestic violence. The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Blidworth, did not reply to that part of my noble friend’s question. Will the noble Lord the Leader of the House do so now please and provide an assurance that there will be a proper assessment of risk and vulnerability in all cases?
My Lords, my noble friend is sitting alongside me and the easiest thing for me to do, rather than turning to him and asking him now, would be to ask him later. I regret if the reply has not been received. I am sure he has asked for guidance on the subject, and we will ensure we get a reply to the noble Baroness on that specific point.
My Lords, there are a number of aspects of this Statement which I welcome, not least that there are going to be increased numbers of people processing and that the aim is to process within weeks rather than months and get people through the system much more quickly. But there really has been quite a problem, not least at Manston, where at one stage 4,000 people were staying in a centre designed for 1,600. As they were being shipped out around the country, a whole lot were delivered into Luton, in my diocese, with no warning. Even the local authority was not able to help. So my question is: what lessons have been learned? Can we be sure that we are really communicating well with local authorities, so that we can work on this together, give people dignity and try and process them as quickly and effectively as we can?
The answer, I hope, is yes. I would say that, would I not, as a former leader of a local authority? I think that local authorities have a very important role to play here. I think that was very much part of the Statement that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made. There will be mistakes and there have been mistakes; the Prime Minister was absolutely clear about that. There is no silver bullet either to these matters. Our collective duty is to toil to address what is a real problem—and is perceived to be a real problem by the majority of people in this country —but to do so in a humane and practical manner. That is what I would wish to be the sense that informed the Government of which I am a part, and that is how I perceive my right honourable friend.
I welcome what the right reverend Prelate said about the number of case workers; yes, we are seeking to double that number, so that we can clear the asylum backlog by the end of next year. I agree that we need to process claims in days or weeks, not months or years. That is not acceptable, which is why we are doubling the number of case workers to 2,500, and also radically simplifying the casework process, with shorter guidance, fewer interviews, less paperwork, and specialist casework by nationality, because the needs and responses by nationality are sometimes different. So I hope that we will go forward in that spirit, as the right reverend Prelate asks.
My Lords, I very much welcome this Statement. It shows that the Government are trying in a number of different areas to grasp this very difficult problem. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the delivery of these various policy objectives. I particularly welcome the speeding up of the initial decision-making, and the increased training and number of caseworkers. But I wonder whether the Leader of the House can help us with this: even once the initial decision has been made, there very often follows a long and tortuous process, with repeated appeals in the courts. I know that the Minister will not be able to give details of the legislation that is likely to follow next year, but can he help as to whether it is likely to bear on the question of repeated appeals, often using different grounds, to try to speed up the process so that the matter can be determined, one way or another, as quickly as possible?
I think that my noble friend, with his typical ingenuity, invites me to anticipate what will be in the legislation when it comes. What I would say, obviously, is that the labyrinthine nature of the process—which arises from a desire, let us not forget, to protect vulnerable individuals—is something that the Government and this House legitimately need to look at. I talked of change and the way that things have evolved: the original impact assessment for the Modern Slavery Act, which was a great reforming piece of legislation, anticipated 3,500 modern slavery victims a year. In the first three quarters of this year, there have been about 12,500. It is quantity, as well as the nature of the process, that means that claimants wait for a long time. The average now, which is not acceptable, is 531 days for a conclusive grounds decision: that is up from 68 days in 2014. So we do need to streamline the system in many ways.
The Prime Minister omitted from his Statement yesterday any sense of what Albania is getting from this agreement. Now, there is significantly greater detail in the joint communiqué between the UK and Albania, but could the Minister be clear that the UK has promised to invest more in the country, through civil society, education and direct foreign investment programmes, which are mentioned in the communiqué? How much has been pledged and is Albania expecting from the UK?
My Lords, I think the agreement with Albania was very welcome on both sides. I cannot give the House a specific number or figure, but I will take the noble Lord’s question away. Obviously, there has been a very positive joint communiqué, which has been published. We will be providing specific support to the Albanians to bolster their mechanisms to deal with these problems. We will provide investment in additional protection services. We will provide support to Albania on investigating trafficking, in accordance with the obligation under Article 4 of the ECHR. We will provide support for bolstering cyber and communications security to reinforce Albanian operations. We will also continue to co-operate with Albania, as is made clear in the communiqué, in promoting socio- economic development and creating skills and jobs for young people. These things are very important. We have reaffirmed our intention to do direct investment in strategic sectors in Albania. What I do not have is a specific overall figure, but I can assure noble Lords that the good intentions of both parties are there and I hope they will bear fruit in all those spheres—both in security and in the other parts of co-operation.
My Lords, perhaps I might follow the earlier remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who reminded us of the aborted attempt by the Government to accommodate asylum seekers at Linton-on-Ouse in north Yorkshire. Would the Minister accept that, with the Prime Minister saying that military bases will be used in future, almost all the military bases that might become available are likely to receive the same passionate local opposition as did the project at Linton-on-Ouse? Because there will, I guess, be that opposition, I wonder whether the Government might think of trying to accommodate these asylum seekers in cruise ships that have served their time and have recently been used for commercial tourism but are likely to be moved to scrapyards. They might well be suitable for a short time to accommodate asylum seekers, rather than military bases.
My Lords, I accept what my noble friend says about the challenge of finding accommodation and the challenge that sometimes our charity is dispersed rather than immediate in geographical terms. If we are to solve this issue, we do have to identify sustainable sites. We have already identified sites to accommodate 10,000 people, and we are in active discussion to secure these and more. Through these discussions, our aim is to add thousands of places through this type of accommodation in the coming months.
However, my noble friend has a point: it is important to work in partnership with local areas, but the Government are thinking flexibly. There has been reference to disused holiday parks and Ministry of Defence sites, such as he mentioned. The private rented sector could certainly have a significant part to play and, coming directly to his point on vessels, we are testing the feasibility of securing a suitable vessel or vessels as an alternative to hotel accommodation, building on the Scottish and Dutch examples of using cruise ships. But that is part of a potential programme of action; our first step is not starting there. We are looking at the other forms of accommodation that I mentioned, but I have to be honest with the House: the point my noble friend made is one which, among other things, is under consideration.
Can I ask the Minister about one sentence in the Statement? It is at the top of page 7, and says:
“It is frankly absurd that today illegal migrants can get bank accounts which help them live and work here”.
I have changed my mind since I was Immigration Minister at the Home Office—pragmatically, because we have lost 630,000 workers from this country in the last four years. I think anybody who is here for over three months should be allowed to work. The Home Office rightly points to the pull factors. It is easier to work illegally in this country than anywhere in Europe and there is no ID system, but the other point is this: what about the national insurance system?
When I was at the DSS, I sat in while that department’s staff were interviewing people who had come here about their national insurance number. I was introduced as a researcher, not a Minister, and I know the effort they go to. While the Prime Minister may say that we do not want them to have bank accounts to help them work here, as far as the public are concerned, they take the view that the more those who come here work, and pay tax and national insurance, the better. Maybe that would be while they are going through the system for a year. There would be less strain on public resources and it would be a positive assistance to this country—which has, as I say, lost 630,000 workers in the last four years, and nobody really knows why.
Obviously, the Government in their other policies would like to see people who are not economically active coming back into work. I must take issue with the noble Lord, who I often find myself in agreement with. Illegal working is not a victimless crime. It destabilises society and, although there are extensive controls in place, it remains, as he acknowledged, a primary pull factor for illegal migration. There is evidence that some of these criminal gangs are offering places to people whom they are trafficking, something which we need to stop. Businesses that employ workers illegally undercut their law-abiding competitors and may damage the local economy. There is tax fraud, carelessness about food standards and health and safety, and exploitation of the vulnerable, which we all detest. The fairness in protecting the public from that is important.
We are unrepentant that we intend to use instruments. We are increasing our ability to disrupt, investigate and prosecute the gangs. We will increase the number of investigators by 50%, which is 200 new people, and the number of illegal working raids led by Immigration Enforcement by a further 50%. We will look at data sharing with banks and building societies to stop illegal activity, as well as the issue of driving licences and illegal renting. The Government were considering and discussing how we can use these measures and entry points to economic activity to identify and catch unlawful migrants. In many cases, when we catch unlawful migrants in these activities we will catch the vicious traffickers who lie behind bringing them here illegally in the first place.
My Lords, the large number of claims of modern slavery, larger than those in the impact statement of 2015, is a sign of the success of that legislation, because it means more crimes are being uncovered and reported. My question is about the Prime Minister’s comment that, although he recognises that we need to talk to the UNHCR and the Red Cross—which have such an important front-line role in dealing with asylum seekers from conflict and dangerous areas—regarding safe and legal routes, that cannot be done until there is control of the border. Why is this sequential? Are not safe and legal routes part of the whole issue of controlling the border?
Both the Prime Minister and I have expressed the importance of safe and legal routes. We are seeking to take a range of actions at the same time. The Prime Minister was absolutely clear in his Statement that safe and legal routes are the other side of the coin to dealing with unsafe and illegal routes, which we are dealing with.
References have been made to the UNHCR statement, but I have read the whole statement and there was no sense of general condemnation of what the Government are doing. It commended and welcomed some things and it disagreed with others. Do not forget that the UNHCR has its own partnership with the Government of Rwanda to voluntarily relocate vulnerable migrants from Libya to Rwanda under the emergency transit mechanism. We must not think that this black and white, or good and bad; there are grey areas in this, and the UNHCR is using some of the mechanisms that have been criticised.
We are reforming modern slavery laws. They are important but they have been abused. When I referred to the numbers, I was indicating simply that there are larger numbers of people to process. We will seek to further tighten the modern slavery system by shortening the recovery and reflection period from 45 to 30 days, and we will clarify the reasonable grounds test. For example, as I said earlier, we will require a caseworker to have objective evidence of modern slavery, rather than mere suspicion. Our determination to secure protection generally for those who are victims of modern slavery did not begin with but is embedded in the unique Act that was introduced in this country by my right honourable friend Theresa May. That is something for which we will continue to strive and work.
My Lords, I hope it is every part of the whole package that has been put together—the Prime Minister announced it as a package, in a measured way—from internal policing to the creation of the small boat operation in the channel, to a range of checks and other measures. I have not been asked about it, but the Prime Minister attaches enormous importance to good diplomatic efforts and co-operation with other nations. Successful relations with President Macron have already led to good benefits, as has the re-creation of the Calais group. There is a very big operation under way, and I hope that it will all be brought to bear against the ruthless criminality to which the noble Viscount refers.