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.