The two amendments are rather technical but none the less important. They deal with the period between a decision being made and support being made available.
The background to amendment 224 is that, under proposed new subsection (2B) under paragraph 3(3) of the schedule, people who have lodged “further qualifying submissions” to the Home Office are defined as asylum seekers and will therefore qualify for full support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 in the same way as those making an initial claim for asylum. That enables support to be provided to that group of people, who at the moment are accommodated under section 4 of the 1999 Act. That section is being repealed.
The drafting of proposed new subsection (2B)(b) and (2B)(c)(ii) enables the Secretary of State to prescribe in regulation a period during which he may consider the further qualifying submissions without being under a duty to provide support. During that period, the individual would remain destitute. Such a situation was subject to litigation in the case of MK and AH, with Refugee Action, which was reported in 2012. The Home Office policy of delaying 15 working days before making a decision on section 4 applications was found to be unlawful. The case led to a policy change, so that decisions under section 4 now have to be made within two days for individuals in vulnerable categories and five days for other people. The amendment would ensure that the principles in the MK case are upheld and that the resulting policy remains broadly in place.
Amendment 226 is also technical and is intended to prevent section 95 support from terminating immediately upon notification of a decision on—
Maybe I did. I apologise.
Amendment 225 is intended to prevent individuals and families from being made immediately homeless and destitute on receipt of a decision from the Home Office on their further qualifying submissions. The existing policy allows for 14 days of support if further qualifying submissions are rejected and 21 days if they are accepted. Under proposed new subsection (3A)(b) in paragraph 3(5) of the schedule, however, if no regulations are brought in prescribing the period after which support is terminated, or the individual is not covered by the scenario envisaged in the regulations, support can be terminated immediately.
Essentially, there are three scenarios that are a cause of concern. The first is applicants whose further submissions are accepted and who are granted leave. They would have no time to obtain the documentation they need to apply for mainstream benefits and/or work. Lest anyone thinks that that is a theoretical example, there was the tragic case that a number of Committee members will know of—the case of EG—where support was withdrawn and there was a serious case review, which touched upon the transitional periods when support was not provided under the existing regime. To be fair, I do not think that that was the sole cause of the issue, but it was certainly one of the issues that was flagged up in the serious case review, and obviously everyone wants to ensure that everything is done to ensure that that type of thing does not happen again. EG was a little boy who starved to death in that period. So that is applicants whose further submissions are accepted and are granted leave.
The second group is applicants whose further submissions are treated as a fresh protection claim with a right of appeal. As I understand it, they would have to reapply for support on receiving a decision about their further qualifying submissions, because the Bill provides for the support they were receiving to terminate on the day that the decision is taken. So, as far as they are concerned, there is an interim period.
The third group is applicants whose further submissions are rejected. Until now, they would have had 14 days of support. There is a provision in the Bill—new subsection (3D) under paragraph 3(5) of schedule 6—that provides for support to be continued when
“permission to apply for judicial review is granted”.
Clearly, however, there will be a gap between the decision and any application being made for judicial review, and any permission being granted.
As I say, to some extent, these are technical amendments, but they are important because they deal with periods that until now have been dealt with under policy and guidance, whereby support is not removed during the possible gap period. However, it may be that the Minister can give some assurances that will remove the need for the amendment.
The amendment is a common-sense proposal that will limit a policy that has been shown to be ineffective, costly and inhumane. Personally, I find it extremely frustrating that the Home Office’s own evaluation of the evidence highlights the problems with these proposals—primarily, that they do not work—yet we see the proposals being driven through by the Government regardless. I have to question why the Government are not listening to themselves.
We have heard from local authorities that what these policies end up doing is displacing the cost of support, in some cases from central Government to local government. In other cases, the costs are borne by charities and individuals who give their own income to support asylum seekers.
We have heard once or twice—or 45 times—in the course of our deliberations on the Bill that we have a system that has been shown to be very problematic at the least, and where the accuracy of decision making is at least in question. Given the fluctuating security situation in many countries around the world, the rapid mechanised movements of Daesh being an example, further qualifying submissions could rightly highlight the dangers of returning a citizen to their home country. So it is only right, under our international and moral obligations, that we have scope for further qualifying submissions. We should not be driving people into destitution as punishment for using those, no matter how short the length of time.
If any of us in this room were destitute for one day, we would probably be severely damaged by it. There is a saying that my mother still uses all the time. I do not know if it is a McLaughlin saying, a west of Scotland saying, or just a saying, but it is true that we do not know we are born. I am not seeing many nodding heads—it is not a McLaughlin saying. We do not appreciate what we have got and how it would be so difficult for any of us to go through what we are proposing to put other people through.
If an asylum seeker’s initial case has been decided upon, given the restricted support on offer throughout the case, combined with the length of time for that decision, the risk of grave consequences, including destitution, for those who are not supported for a period after lodging further submissions could be quite catastrophic for that individual and, in my opinion, shameful for these islands. I want no part in that.
That takes me on to amendment 225, which seeks to ensure that those who have received a decision on a claim based on further submissions are not cast into destitution on receipt of their decision. Studies from the Red Cross, the Refugee Council and Freedom from Torture have all found that the existing 28 days for successful claimants is insufficient. The amendment should be treated as a measure to streamline the system. If a claimant is ultimately successful, the grace period will support the obtaining of documentation to begin work. If the claimant is unsuccessful, the proposed grace period will allow the individual to make arrangements to leave the UK and reduce the likelihood of the expense and trauma caused by detention. If compassion is not a motivation, amendment 225 proposes what would be implemented in a system based on best practice and common sense.
We have already had a wide-ranging debate on schedule 6, so I do not intend to return to some of the “in principle” issues of which we have had significant discussion. The two amendments in the group, however, touch on the narrow issue of further submissions and concern how we propose to deal with failed asylum seekers who submit further submissions such that their removal would breach the UK’s obligations under the convention on refugees or under article 3 of the European convention on human rights.
A procedure is set out in paragraph 353 of the immigration rules for dealing with such cases, which broadly results in three possible outcomes for the submissions: outright rejection; rejection, but there is a fresh right of appeal against the decision; or acceptance, and the person is granted leave to remain in the UK. Only about 15% of cases are granted leave to remain. Most are found to be without merit and often merely repeat matters already considered and rejected by the immigration judge who dealt with the asylum appeal.
Under existing arrangements, section 4(2) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is used to support persons who have made further submissions and who require support if they would otherwise be destitute while the submissions are under consideration. Section 4 is to be repealed by the Bill, but we consider it appropriate to retain a mechanism to support those who have lodged submissions, and the Bill does so by amending section 95 of the 1999 Act in order to provide an avenue of support under that measure, subject to the conditions that I will describe.
The system would be wholly unmanageable if a failed asylum seeker were immediately able to access support solely by lodging further submissions and, if the submissions were to be rejected, to continue to receive that support for a “grace period”—21 days for a single person—before that support is stopped. That would be the impact of the amendments.
To illustrate my point, on day one, the failed asylum seeker might lodge the further submissions and be eligible for support. Then, even if the submissions were rejected on day two, they would be entitled to support for at least another 21 days—longer if children were in the household, up to 28 days—during which time they would be able to lodge fresh submissions and so continue the cycle. Therefore, under schedule 6 to the Bill, the arrangements will not work in that way.
Instead, the person will be eligible for support only if the submissions have remained outstanding for a period set out in regulations. We have not made a final decision on how long that period will be, but we expect it to be five working days in most cases, although there may be issues of vulnerability. The shadow Minister, the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, has set out some of the policy framework that will inform that. In effect, the position will remain largely unchanged from current arrangements.
Once submissions are lodged, the person may seek support under section 4(2) of the 1999 Act, but that is normally provided only if a decision on the further submissions and accompanying support application is not made within five working days. Special consideration will continue to be given to cases in which the person is clearly in a vulnerable position, for example because of a disability or in the case of a pregnant woman. In such cases, support is usually granted if a decision on the further submissions is not made within two working days. We expect to continue those special provisions under the new arrangements and will reflect them in the regulations.
A further issue to do with section 95 was raised, and I hope that what I say will be helpful. It does not make sense to place a person on one form of support under section 95 in order to facilitate access to another form of support, for example normal welfare benefits. We work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the process of connecting a person granted refugee leave with access to mainstream welfare benefits works as smoothly as possible. We also ensure that the person is assigned a national insurance number at that point, which speeds up the process of applying for DWP benefits.
It is also important that people on section 95 support have time to secure DWP benefits if they are granted refugee status. In those cases, people receive a grace period of 28 days of further support to enable them to obtain mainstream benefits, and we have been working with the DWP to ensure that that process works as smoothly as possible, for example by updating the documentation a person receives when they are given notice that the grace period has started. We also ensure that the person is assigned a national insurance number, as I have described, and therefore it is an ongoing process. I hope that with that reassurance, the hon. and learned Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
The Minister has dealt in some detail with the situation if the claim is rejected. As I understand it, if it is accepted, the grace period of 28 days will apply, which covers the first category of people. If that is what the Minister is saying, I am reassured by that and will not push the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
To allow destitute refused asylum seeking families to continue receiving basic support (just over £5 a day for their essential living needs with housing provided for those with nowhere to live) until their case is finally concluded, as is currently the case. This aims to protect vulnerable children from being left destitute; ensure immigration controls are not undermined because the Home Office has lost contact with families who are appeal rights exhausted; and to avoid a substantial transfer of costs to local authorities.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 227, in schedule 6, page 93, line 38, leave out from “provided)” to end of line 39, and insert—
‘(a) the heading becomes “Support for asylum-seekers, etc”, and
(b) insert after subsection (8)—
“(8A) The weekly cash payment set out in Regulation 2(2) of the Asylum Support (Amendment No.3) Regulations 2015 No. 1501 for each individual is increased to no less than 60% of the rate of Income Support payable to single adults aged 25 or over.”’
To ensure asylum seekers have the support they need to pay for food, clothing, toiletries, travel and other necessities and thereby try to help ensure that they can properly meet their essential living needs and pursue their asylum applications. The amendment works by amending section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which is the overarching section under which support for persons seeking asylum is provided.
In earlier debates on clause 34 and schedule 6, we have touched at great length on the subject of amendment 226, which is intended to reverse the removal of support altogether. A number of Committee Members quoted from the available evidence. In those circumstances, I do not propose to dwell heavily on amendment 226, but amendment 227 has not been dealt with.
The rates for asylum seekers supported under section 95 of the 1999 Act were originally set at 70% of income support, on the basis that their accommodation and utility bills would be paid for separately. As of August this year, asylum seekers, including children, on section 95 support who would otherwise be destitute now receive the same flat rate of support, as opposed to varying amounts for single adults, lone parents, families with children and so on. That rate set at just £36.95 a week, or just over £5 a day. A number of groups have looked at that rate of support, which is manifestly very low. In 2013, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, which took evidence from 150 local authorities, found that
“the levels of support for asylum seeking families are meeting neither children’s essential living needs, nor their wider need to learn and develop. The levels are too low and given that they were not increased in 2012 they should be raised as a matter of urgency and increased annually at the very least in line with income support.”
The inquiry further recommended:
“The rates of support should never fall below 70% of income support.”
The Home Affairs Committee picked up the theme in October 2013, highlighting
“concerns about the level of support available to those who seek asylum in the UK.”
“This relative poverty of those on section 95 support is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of asylum applicants have not legally been allowed to work since 2002.”
We will come to that issue later. Amendment 227 would ensure that any asylum seeker who would otherwise be destitute received no less than 60% of income support, which is currently equal to £43.86 a week.
I am going to speak to amendments 226 and 227, because they are both fundamental and speak to the humanity that I believe we have in this country.
I shall speak to amendment 226 first. Our immigration system has long recognised the need to afford special protection to families with children. It is heartening to hear the Minister reaffirm that position. However, the Bill will remove those protections by withdrawing support for refused asylum-seeking families with children. Irrespective of whether families should or should not return to their country of origin, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the wellbeing of children is at the forefront of our asylum policy. The Government, by contrast, are seeking to withdraw all support for children when their parent’s application is refused, and to prevent statutory services from assisting children who become destitute.
The consequences of the complete withdrawal of support are severe. We have heard from witnesses that when refused asylum seekers have their support cut off, it both causes illness and complicates existing health problems. Those effects are even more pronounced given that asylum seekers will have been living below the poverty line, on just over £5 a day, for many months or even years while awaiting a decision. The pilot of section 9 of the Immigration Act 2004, which introduced similar measures, clearly demonstrated their negative impact on the health and wellbeing of refused asylum seekers. Refugee Action and the Refugee Council’s study of the pilot revealed that the majority of families with whom they worked had mental or physical health problems that were exacerbated by section 9. Some 80% of parents were found to have mental health problems and some 36% had significant physical health problems.
The risks to children are worsened still further by the potential to force families into exploitative situations in order to survive. Provisions in the Bill would see the criminalisation of illegal workers, the loss of the right to rent, the closure of bank accounts and the freezing of assets. In such an environment I am gravely concerned that exploitation will increase dramatically and that many of the positive steps made by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 may be fatally undermined.
The Bill will inevitably mean the cost of supporting families being passed to local authorities. The costs will be huge. As asylum seekers are overwhelmingly located in deprived areas, those with the least ability to absorb those costs will be faced with the highest bill. The north of England, for example, has about a third of the UK’s population, but Migration Yorkshire estimates that it will face half the cost. It has also highlighted that the societal impacts of such deprivation will be disproportionately felt in the north of England.
The Government’s view is that the changes are necessary to encourage refused migrants to leave, but a huge weight of evidence, including from the Home Office itself, suggests that that will simply not work. Indeed, the Bill is likely to make effective immigration control still harder. When parents think that their children’s life may be at risk if they return home, whether that fear is justified or not, they will generally opt for destitution in the UK as the lesser of two evils. The impact of the removal of support will be the removal of any incentive for failed migrants to maintain contact with the Home Office. The Bill will not only force migrants from the address at which they were known to the Home Office but ensure that migrants do not contact the Home Office again. How is immigration control to operate under those conditions? How is the Home Office expected to track and ultimately remove migrants with whom it has no contact and for whom it has no address? The Bill fails to address those serious questions.
The findings of the section 9 pilot clearly demonstrate the effect on immigration control of removing support. The Home Office’s own report stated that 39% of migrants from whom support was withdrawn absconded, compared with 21% of those who remained supported. Only one family was successfully removed, compared with nine in the control group, and there was no significant increase in voluntary returns. Section 9 almost doubled the rate of absconding, greatly decreased the chances of successful removal and had no impact whatever on families choosing to leave the UK. How can that possibly achieve the Government’s objectives?
We are facing, then, changes that will place families in poverty, cost local authorities and have a disproportionate impact on poor areas. The changes will make it more difficult to remove failed asylum seekers and will do nothing to encourage them to return of their own accord. The Government should reconsider this ill thought out step and support amendment 226.
In the Bill the Government have sought to withdraw the pitifully low level of support currently provided to asylum seekers. The question of if and when the support should be withdrawn has been widely discussed in Committee. Amendment 227 would instead address the support itself, to ensure that it provides the most basic needs for asylum seekers. As currently calculated, section 95 support unquestionably does not do so. Over recent years, Government cuts and a four-year freeze in the rate of the support have seen its value fall well below the level of 75% of income support at which it was originally set. That level in itself was determined as the absolute bare minimum necessary to stave off poverty.
Section 95 support is currently £36.95 a week, or a little over £5 a day. With that money, asylum seekers must pay for food, clothing, toiletries, transport and all necessities. Asylum seekers’ situation is made even more precarious by the fact that they often arrive in Britain with nothing at all and in many cases are already malnourished and in poor health.
Repeated studies have found that section 95 support fails to meet basic needs. Research in 2013 by Refugee Action found that 70% of those surveyed were unable to buy either enough food to feed themselves, or fresh fruit and vegetables, or food that met their religious or cultural needs. Similarly, all respondents to a research survey by Freedom from Torture stated that their income was insufficient to meet their basic needs. Both surveys indicated that asylum seekers usually had to sacrifice one essential need to meet another.
A 2013 cross-party inquiry found that support was not meeting children’s basic needs. Children seeking refugee protection are some of the hardest hit by the lowest levels of support. Children under 19 recently saw their weekly payment under section 95 slashed from £52.96 a week to £36.95. That will leave a single parent with one child struggling to survive on an amount that is less than 50% of income support, despite the fact that children require extra support, especially to fully meet their social, educational and health needs. Even prior to the cuts, all lone parent respondents to Refugee Action’s research survey reported that they could not buy items for their children’s education and wellbeing, such as toys, books or stationery. No children should be forced to live in poverty as a result of Government policy, especially not those seeking protection from persecution.
One of the stated justifications for keeping asylum support rates low was that both section 95 support and section 4 support were only temporary. However, in the second quarter of this year, roughly 60% of the 29,586 pending asylum cases had either been waiting over six months for an initial decision or were awaiting further review. The Home Affairs Committee has already raised concerns about the impact of living off asylum support for extended periods of time.
In complying with a 2014 High Court judgment, the Government calculated the level of support necessary to meet asylum seekers’ most basic needs, based upon expenditure data from the Office for National Statistics for the lowest 10% income group in the UK. However, the Home Office saw fit to revise those figures downwards. In doing so, it introduced a subjective element to the calculation and ensured that support levels are vulnerable to political or budgetary pressures. Amendment 227 would introduce a level of support based on ONS data for the current financial year and ensure that it was adjusted according to the consumer prices index each year. Without those adjustments, support will continue to be eroded and asylum seekers will be pushed deeper into poverty.
Uprating asylum support levels would ensure that those seeking protection were able to meet their most basic needs. The level proposed in amendment 227 can hardly be described as profligate, amounting to only the absolute minimum necessary to stave off poverty. It is vital that we act now to address what amounts to state-enforced poverty. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to more and more vulnerable people being driven into increasingly desperate circumstances.
I always find—I am sure everyone will agree—that when looking at legislation it is important to remember who we are talking about and think through who will be affected by legislative changes. I will focus on one reason why amendment 226 is so important. I want to share with the Committee the story of Zara, whom I came to know extremely well, though not as well as my sister came to know her.
It took a long time for the trust to build up with Zara. She was extremely religious, came from a middle eastern country as an asylum seeker and had been refused asylum. She was therefore destitute. She came to trust my sister and, in her broken English, eventually managed to tell her what she needed. I do not want to say the words I am going to say, but I am going to say them anyway. What she needed was sanitary towels. She shared two stories—this came later, after more trust was built up—of cringe-worthy, humiliating experiences that she had gone through because she was destitute and had no support.
Once, when Zara was coming off the bus—and before anyone complains that if she had money for bus fares she had money for hygiene products, those bus tickets were given by a Glasgow charity that helps people with getting about—she heard a little boy saying something to his mum. She could not quite make out what he was saying, but he was pointing at her, and she realised was bleeding. Any woman would feel the horror and humiliation of that, but she was extremely religious and that was just the end for her.
Another experience came when a charity had made it possible for Zara to have three nights’ accommodation in the home of a very kind person. The Committee will be able to imagine what I will say. She bled through the night—because of her erratic lifestyle she had no idea that her period was about to come—and she was horrified when she woke up in the morning, went to clean the sheets and discovered the blood had seeped through to the mattress. There was no way of hiding from that very kind person, to whom she was extremely grateful, what had happened.
As I listen to the story, my heart is being ripped out, but I think what disturbs me most is having to justify someone going on a bus, as if that is an extravagant luxury. Is that what we have come to?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I gave the justification I did because in this Committee I think I am getting to the stage when I can read the minds of some of the Conservative Members. As they did not intervene I explained how Zara managed to get on a bus.
I want to make it clear that I appreciate how uncomfortable people in this room might feel at hearing me talk about bleeding and sanitary towels. I would not normally do that; I am normally discreet, easily embarrassed and notoriously squeamish. I feel extremely uncomfortable standing here forcing myself to talk about periods, bleeding and sanitary towels, and repeating myself again and again. I am doing it because I want everyone to feel uncomfortable; I want us all to feel that discomfort, because we need to realise that whatever we feel now is a minuscule fraction of what the women I am talking about experience.
To continue reading minds, some Members might think that there are charities and good Samaritans, and ask whether help could not be got from them; but it was so painful for Zara to ask for that help. There are charities that go out to offer help, but they are primarily focused on putting a roof over someone’s head, and, if they cannot do that, on feeding them, because food is essential and hygiene products are not. They are essential only to someone’s mental wellbeing, and the charities obviously must concentrate on keeping people alive.
Again, to use telepathy—it is working well—Conservative Members may be thinking that the simple solution would be just to go home. That is all very well, but as we have heard so many times, a significant proportion of the decisions made about people are wrong. It may therefore be assumed that a significant proportion of the people who some Members may think choose to stay here and humiliate themselves with having to ask for sanitary products have no choice.
I cringe when I talk and think about Zara. I do not imagine that anyone in the room is not cringing, and I understand that, but we can do something about it. In this amendment, we are not asking for money for fripperies; we are asking for money for absolute essentials, so that people can, first, stay alive; and secondly, and just as important, are allowed their dignity. Anyone who votes against this amendment today must be honest with themselves and know that they are consciously and deliberately denying that dignity to these women and to many others. I appeal to the Minister and to Government Members to defy their Whip and vote aye—vote in favour of dignity for everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.
I apologise to the Committee if I repeat some of the comments that have already been made by my hon. Friends, but I feel we can never hammer home enough the points that we are trying to make today.
I will mainly speak to amendments 226 and 227. Amendment 226 would provide a very basic level of support—just over £5 a day—for destitute families who have been refused asylum. These amendments have three aims: to make sure that vulnerable children are not left destitute; to ensure that families continue to engage with the Home Office; and to head off the danger that the removal of asylum support will in practice see a massive transfer of responsibilities and duties of care from central to local government.
The first point is the most simple and in some ways the most powerful. To be entirely blunt, cutting support will mean that innocent families and their children will go without food or shelter. The Minister noted last week the importance of considering the best interests of children. As a civilised and compassionate nation, we cannot ignore the impact that withdrawing support would have on children’s welfare, health and wellbeing, or the very real dangers that they could be exposed to as a result of their family’s destitution. Without a safety net, families will resort to extreme measures, often turning to illegal work that drives them into the embrace of criminal gangs.
Removing support is also entirely counterproductive, in that it does not have the desired effect of encouraging families to leave the UK. Witnesses at the Committee’s evidence sessions told us the same thing time and time again—you do not get people to leave the country by cutting off their only means of support. All it does is give them every incentive to disappear and to stop engaging with the Home Office. Families will do that because given a choice between destitution in the UK or returning to a homeland where they believe they may be killed or tortured, they will choose the former as the least worst option. When we consider some of the absolutely desperate steps that people have taken to reach the UK to begin with, and that they have risked their lives to make the journey to Britain, we should not underestimate what they will do to stay here.
Removing support forces these families to find other ways to survive, and makes them easy prey for criminal gangs who will ruthlessly exploit their vulnerability for profit. One of the aims of the Bill is to tackle illegal employment, and the very welcome Modern Slavery Act in the last Parliament was intended to help to fight terrible crimes such as human trafficking. By removing support for failed asylum seekers, the Government may undermine both those aims, by gifting the criminals who prey on desperation a new group of people to target and exploit.
The Government seem to think that by encouraging people to leave the UK they can make savings, but their approach just will not have the effect that they intend. If they want to save money, they will do it by engaging people in the process of return. Some 40% of returns are voluntary, and even those that are not voluntary are made much easier when we have records on people and consequently know where to find them. Keeping people on the books costs money, but nothing compared to the alternative. The best way to save money is to conclude cases as quickly as possible, and encouraging people to drop off the radar by removing their support does the exact opposite.
Last week, the Solicitor General stated that he would write to me with full details of how judicial reviews would be funded. Obviously, I am yet to receive such details and I wonder if he could provide them today or before the end of the week.
I thank the Solicitor General for that.
There is a further cost issue to consider, which is the impact the proposed change would have on local authorities. Last week, the Minister and I had a long discussion about the ongoing dialogue with local authorities. I stand by what I said last week. I am not convinced that discussing with local authorities the impact of these burdens that will be placed on them once the Bill is already in place is the right way to do things.
Asylum seekers who find themselves destitute will be scooped up by local authority services—statutory homelessness services, child protection services under the Children Act 1989, mental health services, adult social care services and so on.
I wonder whether it would be helpful if we were clear about our language. The hon. Lady used the phrase “asylum seekers”, and said that they will be forced to turn to the services she listed, but we are talking about failed asylum seekers—people who have exhausted their appeal rights. By that process, they have been deemed not to be refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said:
“National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection.”
We have a system for a reason, and the hon. Lady’s use of the phrase “asylum seekers” in that sentence is not accurate.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I made that error last week, too. I apologise again; I should have said “failed asylum seekers”, but what I am saying still stands.
Can the Minister clarify something? We had a long discussion last week, but I am still not entirely sure—this may be my fault, and I may be missing something—how the Bill fits with the ethos of other legislation in this country, which protects vulnerable people. I hope that the Minister can explain for my benefit—I am quite a simple character, and I like things in straightforward terms—how the Bill fits with the ethos of other legislation.
I feel strongly that this measure will potentially be a disaster for local authorities, which are already overwhelmed by funding pressures and will soon have a duty of care for other people as well. Asylum seekers are generally more concentrated in urban areas and areas of higher deprivation—the places where local authority budgets have been most dramatically cut in recent years. I do not need to remind the Committee that in the top 10 most deprived areas, the cost is 18 times higher per resident than in the 10 least deprived. If the Bill is passed, those local authorities will face a big surge in demand for such services. How will they pay for that? Will the Minister let us know whether he is going to offer them any funds?
Section 95 support cost the Home Office £45 million in 2014-15. Given that councils will have to process failed asylum seekers, assess their needs and so on, the process is likely to become much more expensive. The people concerned are spread across dozens of local authorities, which will entail duplication of work. What options do local authorities have? Should they cut services elsewhere, put up council tax or abandon their legal duties? The Bill’s lasting legacy may be to effect a massive transfer of responsibilities from the Home Office to local authorities, with no accompanying transfer of services or resources. On top of all the challenges that councils face, they will now be asked to do the Home Office’s job. The Government are washing their hands of failed asylum seekers and passing the buck to somebody else.
We must think of the human cost of causing families to live in the most dreadful poverty and separating children from their parents. When a family cannot feed their children, it is considered neglect. Children’s services will have to step in and take those children into care. I do not know what will happen when the time comes for the family to return. Will the child or children get returned to their family’s care? I have worked in child protection with a large number of families who have fled war and persecution, and I cannot stress enough the long-term damage that the separation of a child or children from their family can do to their and their parents’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. At the end of the day, it is the migrants who will suffer, and our constituents will too, with public services pushed beyond breaking point as their local authority is forced to clean up the Home Office’s mess.
The Home Office must know that that is about to happen. When the section 9 pilots were trialled a decade ago, the Home Office said that they placed “significant demands” on local authority resources. I believe strongly that the Government are on the brink of making a terrible mistake that will simultaneously undermine efforts to process asylum seekers quickly and heap unmanageable new duties on some of our country’s most deprived local authorities. I urge Government Members to accept our amendments to avoid this disaster.
The amendments would allow destitute refused asylum seekers to continue to receive the basic level of support.
On amendment 226, I should point out that what we mean by the basic level of support equates to only £5 in change a day and to housing being provided for those who have nowhere to live. I have to ask whether any of us could afford to live, to eat and to raise a family on that minimum level of support. I would think not. Amendment 227 aims to expand on that by ensuring that asylum seekers have the support they need to exist, although, again, providing only very basic support.
The oft-quoted 2005 Home Office pilot study concluded that the removal of, or reduction in, support provided to asylum-seeking families had no significant influence on removing people from the UK. In fact, the year-long pilot reported that the power to remove support from families
“did not significantly influence behaviour in favour of co-operating with removal…This suggests that the section 9 provision should not be seen as a universal tool to encourage departure”.
Therefore, even though the Bill in general has a poor evidence base, I would direct Members to the evidence that does already exist, which proves that removing all support from a family will have no impact on removing them any sooner from the country.
We have to ask why we are willing to leave people, including children, in such a perilous position. The Still Human Still Here coalition suggests that removing all support could have the opposite effect from the one intended, making it harder for people to be removed from the UK. Receiving continued support will encourage families to continue to stay in touch with the appropriate authorities. That point was expanded on during our evidence sessions by Judith Dennis, from the Refugee Council, who said:
“We think that the Bill is incompatible with the processes for families to engage with the Home Office if they want to return or have come to the end of the asylum process—these measures would not be compatible with that. The Bill will shift responsibility to local authority children’s services, which have a duty to support children in need. We do not think that it will achieve the desired outcome, partly because families will inevitably lose touch with the Home Office—there will be no incentive for them to keep engaging with the Home Office to try to resolve their situation.”––[Official Report, Immigration Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2015; c. 5, Q1.]
The amendments aim to correct that by proposing that people be given basic support—and let us be clear that amendment 227 would only increase support from just over £5 a day to just over £6 a day. However, it does set a baseline of 60% of income support, which will, we hope, ensure that families receive the necessary support, but also that they continue to engage with the Home Office.
As a father, I do all I can to ensure that my kids have whatever they need, and I am sure all parents in the room and beyond feel the same. We would not accept our kids losing support, so why should we be content for the children of failed asylum seekers not to receive, at the very least, the basic level of support that we would want and demand? When it comes to children, we should not care where they are from or what their immigration status is—we should just help them when they need our help.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the evidence we received was unanimous on this issue? That was the case right through to the supplementary evidence we received from Lord Green, of Migration Watch UK, who said:
“As regards to the treatment of failed asylum seekers with children, we are clear that they have no right to remain in the UK and should leave but, where children are involved, we believe that the process should take this into account.”
Unless the amendments are accepted, we will not be taking them into account.
Absolutely. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think I referenced Lord Green’s evidence on children in an earlier sitting.
If the clause is left unamended, it will see us punishing children for their parents’ actions. If pursuing the goal of removing all forms of support is intended to cut the costs to the Government, the clause also fails on that account. We have received countless pieces of evidence suggesting that removing all support will see us simply pass the costs from central to local government. That was articulated during an evidence session by Stephen Gabriel, who said:
“if the Home Office stops supporting those families, that will potentially have a negative impact on the local authority. That could be a challenge for the local authority.”––[Official Report, Immigration Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2015; c. 71, Q162.]
Liberty has further made the point that, despite assurances from the Government, it seems inevitable that
“some costs will be transferred to local authorities because the…removal of accommodation and support, from children in particular, risks violations of the Article 3 prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Given all that, and given the strength of feeling evidenced in a number of contributions to the debate, I hope Government Members will give the amendment serious consideration.
We have obviously had a wide-ranging debate on the amendments. In many respects, it has repeated some of the in-principle issues Opposition Members highlighted in respect of schedule 6. I therefore do not intend to spend a huge amount of time repeating the arguments we debated last week.
Amendment 226 seeks, in essence, to maintain the pre-existing arrangements. Under the current provisions in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, failed asylum seeker families continue to receive Home Office support as though their asylum claim and any appeal had not failed, with the onus on the Home Office to demonstrate non-compliance with return arrangements before support can be ceased. The amendment would maintain that position. We believe that is wrong in principle and would send entirely the wrong message to those who do not require our protection. It would also continue to undermine public confidence in the asylum system.
The current position needs to change. Failed asylum seekers are illegal migrants. Our focus should be on supporting those who have not yet had a decision on their asylum claim and who may need our protection, rather than on those who the courts have agreed do not need our protection and should leave the UK. Instead of indefinitely supporting failed asylum seekers because they have children, we need a better basis of incentives and possible sanctions. We, together with local authorities, can then work with these families in a process that secures their departure from the UK, and schedule 6 to the Bill will deliver that.
Home Office support will, of course, remain available if there is a genuine obstacle to the family leaving the UK. Opposition Members sought again to highlight the 2005 pilot, but I have already indicated the differences between these arrangements and the pre-existing arrangements. We have reflected carefully on those experiences and taken account of them, in order to provide a different approach. If failed asylum seekers decide to remain here unlawfully rather than leaving voluntarily, they should not automatically continue to receive Home Office support simply because they have made a failed asylum claim. We need a better basis of incentives, and we believe the Bill will deliver that.
That is why the arrangements have been framed as part of a continuing process in respect of those whose asylum claims have not been upheld by the courts, in terms of the notification periods and further safeguards that exist.
The hon. Member for South Shields has highlighted on a number of occasions the position of local authorities and whether this measure will transfer costs and obligations to them. I have responded to that previously. We propose that Home Office support will continue to be available to a failed asylum seeker with a dependent child or children while there remains a legal obstacle to their departure from the UK—for example, outstanding further submissions, documentation not being available or practical obstacles such as medical reasons. Human rights issues should not be engaged by the cessation of Home Office support, as any risk of destitution could be avoided by the family’s departure from the UK with assistance with the required travel costs or by their compliance with the conditions of Home Office support—for example, in applying for any travel documents required to facilitate their departure. The package of measures will be subject to the new burdens assessment process in the usual way. I say to the hon. Lady that a system has been put in place to ensure that issues related to the transfer of burdens are properly factored in and addressed.
Schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 provides for a process whereby local authorities assess human rights-related issues such as destitution. That will continue to apply. Equally, our duties in respect of children under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 will still apply. We are discussing with local authorities the practical implementation of streamlining some of the processes in schedule 6 to those in schedule 3 to the 2002 Act, to ensure that they operate efficiently and effectively. That feeds into the concept of family returns, which I spoke about previously, and the considered fashion in which we are approaching this. This is not come automatic cliff-edge point, as the provisions will apply to those who have a negative asylum decision subsequent to the Bill being in place. Therefore, it forms part of the overall removal strategy that I have previously explained.
I cannot remember his exact words, but the Minister seemed to say that families are choosing, and refusing, to go back to where they came from, and therefore they cannot get support. Without going into the arguments of whether they can go back, do the children of those parents have any choice? Can the children choose to go back to where their parents came from, or are they at the mercy of decisions made by the adults around them? If the answer is that they are at the mercy of those adult decisions, do we owe them anything?
I understand how the hon. Lady seeks to argue her points and I know how strongly she feels on these issues. If one follows the line of what she has just said, it would be impossible to deport any families who are here illegally. She indicated that because someone had a child, it is not the child’s fault that the family are about to be deported; therefore the family cannot be deported. I respect her position in articulating that, but I cannot agree with it.
On a point of clarification, I was not saying anything of the sort. I said that while they are here and those children have no input into the decision making, should we support them or punish them as well, because of the decisions of their parents?
The hon. Lady says that if parents who are deliberately trying to frustrate the system have children, the state should automatically continue to support them. The point of the measures is that, on the basis of remaining obstacles, support will continue for all of the family in that situation.
That is why we have the family returns process. We have assisted return, where families are actively encouraged and assisted to leave while we put the family returns process in place, which has the humane nature of supporting people to see that they return. Obviously, where there are barriers to removal, support will remain, as I have already indicated.
We have heard the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, but she has a topsy-turvy way of looking at the issue. Surely, parents have the primary duty of care for their children. The hon. Lady and the amendment seem to suggest that parents can abdicate that responsibility but expect the state to step in to have a greater level of care and concern for their children. That is loco parentis gone bonkers.
My hon. Friend makes a clear point on where support should be provided. We do have duties in respect of section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. Under section 55, child welfare does not require—if a failed asylum-seeker family decides to remain here unlawfully when they could and should leave the UK—that they should automatically and indefinitely continue to receive support simply because they have made a failed asylum claim. That is the nub of the argument. I appreciate that there is a fundamental difference in the Committee. I note that hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye to give way. That is the nub of the argument and it seems there is a difference on that principle.
The Minister is talking about people who have barriers to returning being exception, but regardless of the arguments about whether the adult is able to make that decision, the barrier to the child returning may be the parent’s decision. In that case the child will have barriers, but will not be an exception because the parents are not seen to have barriers.
On abdicating responsibility, I thought that if a parent was deemed to do that—I am not arguing that asylum-seeking parents are doing that—the state was supposed to take over. I thought that was what the legislation that the hon. Member for South Shields mentioned was about. Is there a duty on the state to take over if responsibility has been abdicated?
I think the hon. Lady is confusing certain issues. As I have already indicated, certain obligations exist under schedule 3 and also under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. We are discussing in detail with local authorities the interrelationship between such backstop support powers and how the different regimes fit together. That needs to be done in the joined-up fashion of understanding that if families are here unlawfully, they could and should leave and there needs to be encouragement through the returns process to ensure that they do. It is in that considered way that we propose the provisions, although hon. Members may disagree with our approach. That is, however, the stance that we seek to take, given the factors I identified and the interrelationship with local authorities I indicated.
Let me turn to amendment 227, which seeks to set the level of the cash allowances given to asylum seekers at 60% of the income support rate for people aged over 25. That would raise the amount provided from £36.95 to £43.86 a week.
The cash allowance is only one element of the support package provided to ensure that asylum seekers are not left destitute. That package needs to be seen as a whole. Accommodation is provided free and comes fully furnished and equipped with bed linen, towels and kitchen utensils. Utilities such as gas, electricity and water are also provided free. Recipients receive free healthcare and schooling for their children. The cost of travel to appointments to pursue an asylum claim—to attend asylum interviews, appeal hearings and meet legal advisers, for example—is also provided separately.
Will the Minister confirm to members of the Committee who seek comfort from the fact that we have just discussed provisions that apply to asylum seekers who have exhausted their process, that we are now discussing something that applies to all asylum seekers, including, for example, a Syrian who has got to this country in the last few months by whatever means? I take into account what he said about accommodation, but in relation to the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, the rates in the package are £1.23 a week for toiletries and 69p for healthcare. Given the particular examples that she gave, which made people feel uncomfortable, perhaps Members would like to go to Boots this afternoon and see what they could get for that.
The hon. and learned Gentleman wrapped up two points. He said that the package would apply to Syrians applying for resettlement here, but that is a separate regime. [Interruption.] He used the pejorative term of Syrians, so it is important to understand the support provided through resettlement when refugee status is accepted, because then there would be entitlement to mainstream benefits. We are talking about the mechanism for those of all nationalities who have claimed asylum in the country but whose claims have not yet been determined.
The Minister will know that I deliberately did not give that example. I said a Syrian who had arrived in this country from Europe or somewhere—not on the package. Any Syrian who is now in Europe and arrives in this country not under the resettlement regime will come on to this regime. That is the example I was giving.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for that clarification, because he had not given that clarity initially and it is important to understand the different regimes that operate for those with refugee status and for someone who has come here and claimed asylum. It is helpful that he explained his intent. That is why I said what I did about how asylum support rates are intended to operate for all nationalities of people claiming asylum in this country.
I come on to the second point about the amount of cash, having already indicated to the Committee all the other support mechanisms provided to those seeking asylum fairly and appropriately. The cash amount is provided with reference to a specific legal test set out in section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The allowance is there to cover what is described as “essential living needs”.
The Home Office reviews the level of the cash allowance each year but the way that review is conducted changed in 2014. Following a judicial review, the Home Office put in place a new assessment methodology designed to give full effect to the findings of and the valuable guidance given by the court. It is important to understand how the rates are set in the context of what the court said and the guidance that it provided. First, a careful assessment is made to identify all needs that are essential and not covered through some other part of the package.
The needs identified in this way are: sufficient food to eat healthily, adequate clothing, provision to cover toiletries, household cleaning items and non-prescription medicines, sufficient provision for travel and communications for everyday purposes and to maintain interpersonal relationships and a minimum level of participation in social, cultural and interpersonal relationships. That is a term of art and an essential need identified by the court. Having identified all these particular needs, an assessment is made of how much money is required to meet each of them. This is done through a mixture of market research into the cost of the particular items and analysis of Office for National Statistics data about expenditure on the items by people in the lowest 10% income group of the UK population. This approach resulted in the allowance for a single asylum seeker being set at £36.62 per week in 2014, rising to £36.95 per week from April 2015. In 2015 we also decided that providing £36.95 for every person in the household—in other words for the asylum seeker and each dependant—would be sufficient to cover the essential living needs of all family groups. This is because of the economies of scale available to large households and is an approach taken by other European countries as well.
I recognise that many organisations representing asylum seekers and children disagree with the changes, but none of these groups has provided detailed evidence to show that the findings of the review are wrong.
I am looking at a letter sent out in July at the time of the consideration of the review and there are some adjustments. I am looking at an adjustment in relation to food and non-alcoholic drinks which was set under ONS expenditure data in 2013 but was increased after reasonable adjustment. So there is no mindset of trying to adjust down, but of seeking a fair and appropriate approach in respect of the attributable costs.
The hon. Gentleman was seeking to impute that there was a preordained mindset to adjust everything down. I have already given him an example where there has been an adjustment up. It is that fair assessment, subject to reasonable adjustment, based on the twin tests of ONS data and market research data on costs, which produces the figure. I say to him again that concerns have been expressed by various groups representing asylum seekers and children, but none has provided detailed evidence to show that the findings of the review are wrong. We will continue to assess, we will hold a further review of the allowance levels for 2016 and we would welcome detailed evidence and submissions about the level of the allowance. That is the right forum to address any perception that the allowances are not adequate.
We also do not consider that seeking to apply this to a level under income support is appropriate. It is not referencing the essential living needs test. This was debated by the other place on 27 October, when a motion to annul the regulations that implemented the findings of the most recent review was rejected. I recognise that there are differences of view on this but, on this detailed analysis, on some of these specific items, I would welcome further submissions to show whether the evidence that has been presented to us needs further reflection. Obviously we would consider that in setting the levels for 2016, but I urge that the amendment be withdrawn.
The two amendments go to the heart of one of the most important provisions. On the withdrawal of support from certain categories, I will not rehearse the powerful argument showing that all the evidence says that this will not achieve the desired objective and in all likelihood will push people into destitution and exploitation. That is why it is such a fundamental issue.
A lot has been said already about the daily rates. It is true that the food and non-alcoholic drink rate is up from the ONS data to £24.96. That is just over £3.50 per day for the very many weeks and months that it takes for a decision to be made about someone who is seeking asylum and may have come from any number of countries, fleeing persecution. All the other rates that have been adjusted, have been adjusted down.
All the others that have been adjusted have been adjusted down. Some have not been adjusted. I will happily take an intervention if I am wrong about that. Clothing and footwear has gone down from £4.62 to £2.51, and travel from £3.62 to £3. That is 45p or so a day for travel. I do not know in which city people are expected to live for these weeks or months, but travelling for 45p a day is not an easy task. There are not many bus fares that can be bought for that even in one direction. On those adjustments down, the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central put was not whether this was a preordained decision but whether that downward trend could be justified. That question was not answered.
The amendments go to the heart of this part of the Bill and I will press them to a vote.
Amendment proposed: 227, in schedule 6, page 93, line 38, leave out from “provided)” to end of line 39, and insert—
“(a) the heading becomes “Support for asylum-seekers, etc”, and
(b) insert after subsection (8)—
“(8A) The weekly cash payment set out in Regulation 2(2) of the Asylum Support (Amendment No.3) Regulations 2015 No. 1501 for each individual is increased to no less than 60% of the rate of Income Support payable to single adults aged 25 or over.””—(Keir Starmer.)
To ensure asylum seekers have the support they need to pay for food, clothing, toiletries, travel and other necessities and thereby try to help ensure that they can properly meet their essential living needs and pursue their asylum applications. The amendment works by amending section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which is the overarching section under which support for person seeking asylum is provided.
Amendments made: 98, in schedule 6, page 96, line 4, at end insert—
‘( ) After subsection (7) insert—
(8) A tenancy is not a Scottish secure tenancy (within the meaning of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 (asp 10)) if it is granted in order to provide accommodation under section 95A.
(9) A tenancy which would be a Scottish secure tenancy but for subsection (8) becomes a Scottish secure tenancy if the landlord notifies the tenant that it is to be regarded as such.””
This is a minor and technical amendment. Under housing law in Scotland, those supported under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 are not treated as though they have a secure tenancy. The amendment ensures that the same applies to those supported under the new section 95A of that Act.
Amendment 99, in schedule 6, page 98, line 15, leave out from beginning to “Omit” in line 21 and insert
“In the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006,”
I beg to move amendment 228, in schedule 6, page 100, line 16, at end insert—
‘(43A) The Immigration Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(43B) After section 3(9) (general provisions for regulation and control) insert—
“(10) In making rules under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must have regard to the following.
(11) Rules must provide for persons seeking asylum, within the meaning of the rules, to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment and that permission must be granted if—
(a) a decision has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within six months of the date on which it was recorded, or
(b) an individual makes further submissions which raise asylum grounds and a decision on that fresh claim or to refuse to treat such further submissions as a fresh claim has not been taken within six months of the date on which they were recorded.
(12) Permission for a person seeking asylum to take up employment shall be on terms no less favourable than those upon which permission is granted to a person recognised as a refugee to take up employment.””
This proposed amendment would provide for asylum seekers to be able to work if their claim is not determined within the Home Office target time of six months.
The amendment follows amendment 227 in that it would provide for asylum seekers to be able to work if their claim was not determined within the Home Office target time of six months. One of the injustices here is that those who have to exist on the low rates that the Committee has just discussed must do so under a system that prohibits them from working.
More than 3,600 asylum seekers currently wait more than six months for an initial decision on their cases. They are the individuals surviving on just over £5 a day, as we have just discussed. As things stand, they can apply for permission to work only if they have been waiting for more than a year for an initial decision. If that permission is granted, they are allowed to seek employment only in an occupation listed on the shortage occupation list.
This system has changed over the years as a result of a number of challenges and different policy decisions. The evidence that not allowing people to work deters them from coming to the UK is extremely hard to maintain when the position in other EU countries is taken into account. Some 11 EU countries grant permission to work after six months or less, if a decision has not been made on the asylum application. All those countries have had policies in place for many years. The recast EU reception conditions directive reduces the period an asylum seeker can be excluded from the labour market in an initial decision to nine months. Some 27 EU states have more generous policies than the UK as a combined result of those provisions.
This simple amendment would put people who have had to wait more than six months for their decision in a position where they can work, which is what many of them want to do. The net result for the taxpayer is likely to be a saving rather than a cost.
I would like to build on my hon. and learned Friend’s well made argument. I thank the Regional Asylum Activism Project for Yorkshire and Humberside for their help.
Despite often arriving in the UK with a host of skills and experiences gained in their country of origin, hardly any asylum seekers are allowed to work while their claim is being assessed by the Home Office. Only asylum seekers who have waited over 12 months for an initial decision on their case are eligible to apply for permission to work, but even those granted permission to work are not allowed to work in a self-employed capacity, set up a business, or take up a job that is not included on the highly specialised shortage occupation list. The current restrictions on accessing employment for people seeking refugee protection stops many highly skilled, experienced and educated individuals from contributing to the UK’s economy and society. For example, refugees started Marks & Spencer and brought us fish and chips and the Mini. People seeking refugee protection today will include, among many others, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, scientists and solicitors. Fundamentally, allowing asylum seekers to work will make economic, social and political sense.
First, on economics, if asylum seekers were granted permission to work, they would be able to contribute to the UK economy immediately through income tax, adding directly to the UK’s coffers. Equally, amounts spent on asylum support would decline, resulting in a net benefit to the economy. That has been recognised by the European Commission, which states:
“Mandatory unemployment… imposes costs on the State through the payment of additional social welfare payments.”
Government research has also recognised that delayed entry to the labour market, loss of skills and confidence, and difficulty getting qualifications recognised in this country can cause problems even when status is granted, leading to high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Allowing people to work while waiting for their asylum claim decision will not only allow them to start rebuilding their lives free from persecution, but allow them to start the journey towards meaningful employment as soon as possible.
Secondly, the indirect costs of enforced poverty are significant. Without the right to work, people in the asylum system are forced to rely on Government support to survive, but with asylum support rates set at £5.28 a day—barely 50% of the income support equivalent—many in the asylum system are forced into institutionalised poverty. As I and other hon. Members have said, extended periods living in poverty have huge impacts on physical and mental health and self-esteem. For some, a reliance on Government support is considered shameful, as they are unable to support themselves and their families; that concern has been raised by the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people. Research from the University of Leeds and the University of Salford found that the experience of poverty was a key factor in pushing many individuals in the asylum process into exploitative and precarious working conditions. I suggest that providing those in the asylum process with the legal permission to work is in line with the Government’s commitment to ending modern day slavery.
Thirdly, the rationale for the current policy does not hold up. The reasons for restricting permission to work for asylum seekers hinge on the idea that it will act as pull factor, but it is important to remember the conclusions of research the Home Office commissioned in 2002:
“There was very little evidence that the sample respondents had a detailed knowledge of: UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK.”
That was confirmed by a review of the 19 main recipient countries for asylum applications in the OECD in 2011, which concluded that policies that relate to the welfare of asylum seekers did not impact on the number of applications made in destination countries. All but one of the countries that granted permission to work to people seeking asylum received fewer asylum applications than the UK in 2012 and 2013.
A change of policy to allow asylum seekers the permission to work is long overdue. In 2007, the Joint Committee on Human Rights described the denial of the right to work for asylum seekers as part of a “deliberate policy of destitution”, which was breaching human rights. In 2013, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people called for parents and young people to be given permission to work while their claims were being decided. Thirteen local authorities have passed motions condemning the destitution of people seeking asylum. To date, 71 current Members of this House, of all political persuasions, have signed Still Human Still Here’s declaration on permission to work. They join the Trades Union Congress and a broad coalition of organisations, from Refugee Council to Crisis, Doctors of the World to The Children’s Society, in their call for people seeking refugee protection to be allowed to live in dignity, not destitution.
Allowing asylum seekers permission to work will enable many to support themselves through the asylum process. We should grant permission to work to all asylum seekers if they have been waiting more than six months for an initial decision, up until their protection needs are recognised or a safe route back to their country of origin has been negotiated. For this reason, I urge the Minister to support the amendment.
This is clearly a debate that has been going on for some time. I know there are differences of opinion on the time period that should or should not operate for those who have claimed asylum in this country. The amendment would radically change existing permission to work arrangements for asylum seekers, allowing permission to work where an asylum claim is still outstanding after six months instead of 12 months, removing the caveat that any delay must not be of the asylum seeker’s own making and lifting all restrictions on the type of employment available. Those are the three elements that have been advanced by Opposition Members.
The amendment would enable persons to take any employment of their choice, rather than be restricted to those on the shortage occupation list published by the Home office. The arguments made were initially about compliance with some of our EU obligations and what other EU partners are doing—I will come on to that—and then, separately, what those who are working could contribute. Also, some evidence was adduced on whether permission to work is a pull factor. Let me deal with each in turn.
On the issue of the EU, our current position is consistent with our obligations under the EU reception conditions directive, which sets out the minimum benefits and entitlements afforded to asylum seekers while they await a decision on their claim. That is reflected in part 11B of the immigration rules, but we decided not to opt in to the recast reception conditions directive requiring member states to grant automatic access to the labour market for asylum seekers after nine months, regardless of a decision at first instance being taken, because we considered the Commission’s proposal could undermine our asylum system by encouraging unfounded claims from those seeking to use the asylum system as a cover for economic migration.
It is important to understand that asylum claims cover a range of different circumstances and scenarios. Someone might have claimed asylum at their point of arrival, or been smuggled into this country and then claimed asylum. Someone may already be in the UK, having come via a lawful route, and circumstances change in their home country, so they might claim asylum, or they simply seek to stay here and they use an asylum claim as a means of extending their stay in this country. Sadly, that is the reality of some of the asylum claims that we seek to respond to within the system.
The amendment poses a challenge. Should we be taking steps that are more consistent with our EU partners? I think that in the UK it is right that we should form our own decisions, based on our assessment of our asylum system and what we judge is in the best interests of this country, while supporting the processing and the proud tradition that we have had in this country of granting asylum in this country.
On the labour market issues, an argument was advanced in the context of the asylum support budget, but that argument does not take into account the potential to open up the resident labour market in a way that could blur the distinction between economic migration and asylum. I genuinely worry about measures that blur that distinction. People could apply for asylum but not engage with the process, with the deliberate intent of delaying the process so that they can then be granted the benefit of being able to work after the end of the six-month period. We are concerned that this may lead to an increase in asylum applications that would divert valuable resources away from ensuring that those genuinely in need of protection are recognised quickly, enabling them to integrate and begin rebuilding their lives. That is the approach that we have taken in seeking to ensure that the processing of asylum claims is much better than it was when this Government came in.
A great deal of attention has been given to the administration of asylum claims, to the extent that the Government made a public commitment to decide all straightforward asylum claims lodged before 2014 by 31 March 2015, and all straightforward claims lodged after 1 April 2014 within six months. We have met that commitment. We have changed the approach. We are actually dealing with straightforward asylum claims in a more efficient manner, so that they are not languishing and being extended, and about 85% of cases are straightforward.
If that is the case, presumably the amendment presents no risk or significant worry to the Government. Does the Minister accept that the longer somebody is out of the labour market, the more difficult it is for them to integrate—to get back into the labour market, to contribute to society and so on? Is there not an assumption of failure or refusal underlying the Government’s position, when in fact a very large number of asylum applicants are successful and we all share the objective of seeing them successfully integrate into the labour market?
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was underlining about the need to see that asylum claims are processed as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, I do think that the amendment would blur the lines and might well lead to spurious or inappropriate asylum claims being made, perhaps by people already in this country coming to the end of their stay, whether they came as visitors, students or via other routes. That is a real challenge. The amendment would undermine the integrity of what we all believe in: providing protection to those who are fleeing persecution, ensuring that we have a system that is efficient, effective and focused on making those decisions and seeing that people receive support as recognised refugees at the earliest opportunity. It risks more claims, of whatever character, being made.
We also have to bear in mind the resident labour market. It is argued that if you give an asylum seeker the right to work, you are, in essence, denying a job to someone who is already living in this country lawfully. Because of the implications of that we judge that it is right to have a system that recognises that if there is delay—we judge that 12 months is the right period—people can work, but they should not be seeking to frustrate or delay the system; that test has to be captured as well. It is about shortage skills, those that are needed. That is why the focus is there, otherwise we get into a blurring of issues in relation to economic migration. We must do our utmost to ensure that people in this country who have the skills and the ability are able to access the job market.
I hear the Minister’s argument. Does he know—if he does not, perhaps he will write to us—the average length of time that an asylum claim takes? From the casework that I get, it seems to be considerably more than 12 months normally, so does his argument stack up? What is the difference between six months and 12 months if the average is 18 months?
I can tell the hon. Lady that 85% of cases are straightforward and we have a service standard of dealing with those within six months. We dealt with a big backlog earlier this year—that is why I make the point about the effort that has gone in. Many people in the asylum processing system will say that asylum processing is probably in as good a place now as it has been in for many years, but of course I look for further improvements; we do not sit back. Equally, it depends on some of the pressures in terms of changes or increases in the numbers of those who are claiming asylum. We are very vigilant in monitoring how we are dealing with this. I can say to the hon. Lady that 85% of cases are straightforward and that our service standard is to deal with those within six months. Obviously, it is difficult to know what proportion of the people in her constituency may be in the situation she describes; it is difficult to draw that parallel. However, I hope that it is helpful at least to set out the approach that we are taking and that balance in terms of how asylum claims are dealt with.
We judge that the current policy strikes the right balance. Asylum seekers are provided with support and accommodation, but if their asylum claims are undetermined for 12 months for reasons outside their control, they can apply for permission to work. We believe that that is a fair and reasonable policy that we should keep. For the reasons that I have outlined, we ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
The Minister puts forward a number of good reasons for the decisions to be made within six months and prays in aid the service standard, which is to be supported, but the real question is: how many cases are actually decided within the service standard? We all have examples of where they are not. We know that the number is roughly 3,600. I am sure that the Minister did not welcome the ombudsman’s report published this morning, or at least reported on this morning, about the very high level of complaints upheld by the ombudsman, particularly in relation to immigration decision making. That does not mean that things are not moving in the right direction, but it does mean that very many cases are not decided within the six-month period.
The point that I was making about the service standard for dealing with the 85% of cases that are straightforward was that that has been met. I do not know whether that is helpful to the hon. and learned Gentleman in relation to his point.
I am grateful to the Minister for that, but it still leaves outstanding the 3,600 cases in which people have not had their decision made within the six-month period. The Minister says that there is a concern that if there is a change in the current regime to a six-month regime, that may lead to adverse consequences, but as I understand it, that is simply unevidenced. Whatever research has been carried out in this area, it is unevidenced. It is a fear, but it is an unevidenced fear. The reason why I cited the EU provisions was not so much to argue that we should necessarily align ourselves with the EU position and should not take our own position as it was to say that it is much more difficult to make the argument that a six-month regime would operate as a pull factor if other countries are operating that regime at the moment.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the evidence that has been cited is from prior to the current migration crisis and that many EU countries are reflecting on their support and other mechanisms for providing asylum, precisely because of a number of these factors?
I do accept that, although I think that anyone in this Committee would be hard-pressed to say that the migration crisis of this summer was linked in any way, shape or form to whether someone could work after six months or after 12 months.
The reason why I intervened on the hon. and learned Gentleman was that his hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, I think, had alluded to the timing of the reports. The point that I was trying to get across—I will make it briefly in this intervention—was that, sadly, we do see people traffickers, through social media and other means, seeking to set out the position of certain member states and what people are entitled to and, in a very deliberate way, encouraging people to try to come to other European countries.
The Minister was intervening on me. I take that intervention; I have no quarrel with it in any way, shape or form. This is an important point, because there is a real fairness and justice in allowing people to work if they want to work, rather than surviving on £5 a day. Most people would agree on that. The concern expressed by the Minister is that if the period is too short, it can have adverse consequences, which is a serious point that needs to be debated.
My hon. and learned Friend will note the enthusiasm with which the Minister is intervening on him. Does he share my hope that the Minister might intervene to provide some more evidence regarding the pull factor? In his earlier comments, the Minister said he would outline exactly why the Government thought that was not the case, but he has conspicuously failed to do so. Now would be a good opportunity for him to do that.
In fairness, knowing the Minister, I think that if there was a sound evidence base, he would have referred to it already and the fact that he has not speaks volumes. There has obviously been a discussion about the migration crisis this summer and the impact—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but I thought it might be useful to the Committee—I did say this right at the beginning—and particularly for new Members to say that Members are not restricted to one speech. As this debate has developed, if more Members want to catch my eye, that is quite appropriate.
Thank you, Mr Bone.
Clearly, as a result of what has happened this summer, there will be discussions about all aspects of the framework across the EU in relation to migration, but at this point, I was only praying in aid the EU provisions to counter any suggestion that the change proposed in the amendment would act as a pull factor when so many other countries in Europe have operated a different system for some time. In the crisis this summer, although there may be individual examples of traffickers exploiting pretty well every provision that they are capable of exploiting, I would have thought that the vast majority of cases had absolutely nothing to do with whether people can work after six or 12 months.
The amendment ensures that the transitional arrangements allowing certain persons to continue to be supported under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 also apply to their dependants.
Amendment 101, in schedule 6, page 100, line 38, at end insert—
‘( ) On and after the day on which paragraphs 1 and 2 come into force, section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 has effect in relation to persons within sub-paragraph (1) as if in subsection (11)(b) the word “not” were omitted.”
This amendment provides the flexibility to provide in regulations for those who continue to be supported under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 under the transitional arrangements to receive support in the form of cash or vouchers.
Amendment 102, in schedule 6, page 100, line 38, at end insert—
‘( ) In this paragraph “dependant” has the same meaning as in Part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (see section 94 of that Act).”
The amendment ensures that the transitional arrangements allowing certain failed asylum-seekers to continue to be supported under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 also apply to their dependants.
Amendment 104, in schedule 6, page 101, line 11, at end insert—
‘( ) In this paragraph “dependant” has the same meaning as in Part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (see section 94 of that Act).”—(James Brokenshire.)