New Clause 2 - Dispersal policy and asylum accommodation arrangements

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 4 November 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations—

(a) ensuring that the proportion of supported asylum seekers accommodated in each government region will reflect each region’s share of the United Kingdom population; and

(b) requiring each Local Authority to accommodate a share of supported asylum seekers, with the share of supported asylum seekers to be agreed between the local authorities in each government region.

(2) To the extent that the implementation of these regulations results in additional expenditure by a local authority in the United Kingdom, the local authority may apply to the Secretary of State for funding to meet that expenditure.”

This new clause will make the dispersal and asylum accommodation scheme mandatory for all local authorities and require all local authorities to make a contribution towards supporting asylum seekers and require the Government to fully fund any additional expenditure.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Opposition urge the Government to adopt a mandatory dispersal and asylum accommodation scheme that will require all local authorities to contribute towards supporting asylum seekers and the Government to fully fund any additional expenditure for those authorities. Having listened to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North speak about his local authority taking its fair share of asylum seekers in dispersal asylum accommodation, I can honestly say that, on this and this alone, I agree with him, and I know he will have no difficulty in supporting our new clause.

Local authorities currently volunteer to participate in dispersal arrangements. The Home Secretary has reserve powers to ensure that local authorities co-operate in the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers through sections 100 and 101 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The current dispersal system is unfair and inefficient, with the majority of asylum seekers housed in disadvantaged local authority areas while dozens of councils support none. This has led to some councils that have been incredibly generous and kind in taking asylum seekers, such as that in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, feeling undermined by councils that have not and threatening to leave the Government’s voluntary scheme.

In the Committee’s evidence session on 21 September, I asked the leaders of Kent County Council and Westminster City Council, Councillor Gough and Councillor Robathan, whether they thought that all councils should have to take their fair share of asylum seekers. Both agreed that they should as they spoke about the pressures on services for their local councils. In August, the Local Government Chronicle ran a story about council leaders demanding a fairer distribution of refugees, in which Coventry City Council leader George Duggins said:

“All local authorities need to take their fair share of the dispersal programme—no opting out, no excuses”.

It also included Walsall Council leader Mike Bird saying that the dispersal of asylum seekers was

“an issue for the whole of the country, not just the urban areas”,

and Stoke-on-Trent City Council leader Abi Brown, whom I am sure the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North will be familiar with, saying that it was “really sad” that many councils had still not pledged to take any Afghan refugees, adding:

“How do we counter this if there isn’t some national scheme?”

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The hon. Gentleman rightly quotes the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council. My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and I agree that other parts of our United Kingdom should step up to the plate and do much more. I reiterate and put on the record that I support Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which is currently looking to withdraw from the voluntary dispersal scheme because it is unhappy with how it works at present. Therefore, while I have a lot of empathy with what the hon. Gentleman’s new clause seeks to do, I will—reluctantly, in some ways—not vote for it. However, I would absolutely like to work with the hon. Gentleman and Opposition and Government Members to make sure that the scheme becomes much fairer and works for other parts of our United Kingdom.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I look forward to having that conversation with the hon. Gentleman after the debate, because we need a fairer system; too much of the burden is clearly being put on some local authorities and not enough on others.

Local authorities are vital partners in providing suitable accommodation and support for people seeking asylum. The system works best when central Government, the devolved Governments and local government work together, alongside the voluntary sector and community groups. This requires local authorities to be fully on board with plans to accommodate people in their area. However, figures have shown that more than half of those seeking asylum or who have been brought to Britain for resettlement are accommodated by just 6% of local councils, all of which represent areas with below average household incomes.

The new clause would ensure that local authorities across the country are treated fairly and given the resources that they need to support asylum seekers. That will fit well with the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and will be an opportunity to rebalance the asylum system and ensure that all local authorities take their fair share, not just those that sign up to the voluntary scheme. If the Government do not support the new clause, perhaps the Minister can advise what their plans are for providing dispersal and asylum accommodation, when many councils are rushing for the exit as they feel that they have done their bit.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:15, 4 November 2021

I have said a lot about asylum accommodation in previous years and months. I agree that there are huge problems with the asylum accommodation system, such as over-concentration, too often poor-quality accommodation, a lack of funding for the local authorities that actually step up to the plate and volunteer to undertake the task, and a lack of control and power for those local authorities. Too often they play second fiddle to the companies and organisations contracted to the Government.

I support broadening dispersal, but I am not on board at this stage with mandating it. Repeatedly, local authorities, whether in the west midlands, Glasgow or elsewhere, and other organisations such as the Home Affairs Committee, on which I sit—we have had a couple of reports on this issue—have listed all the things that the Home Office could engage with and undertake to improve the system. I know from speaking to authorities that if the Home Office did those things and increased the powers and financing of local authorities, more would come on board. If the Home Office did that, I do not think that mandation would be required.

If the Home Office fixes its end of the bargain and local authorities are still not getting on board, at that stage I would have no choice but to support mandation, but I do not think that we are at that stage yet. I, too, will quote Abi Brown, who was very measured in her comments when local authorities from the west midlands were writing to the Home Office. She said:

“This is about trying to open up a discussion about how the asylum dispersal system works. So far it’s been very frustrating trying to get the Home Office to engage with us on this issue. We want them to talk to us about how the system can be improved, and we’ve made a number of suggestions in the letter.”

She went on to say:

“This isn’t about party politics, it’s about parity.”

I absolutely agree with that. There is a growing consensus that the Home Office has to up its game on how the dispersal system works. That is what we have to look at, rather than mandating local authorities.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I agree with some of the intention behind new clause 2. It is right that all parts of the UK make a reasonable contribution to ensuring that adequate accommodation is available for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, but it is important to recognise that not every area of the UK has appropriate services or affordable accommodation to appropriately support them. Additionally, some local authorities have very few asylum seekers accommodated by the Home Office in their areas but support large numbers of other migrants. For example, the Home Office does not accommodate many adult asylum seekers and their children in Kent or Croydon, but both local authorities support large numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

It is also important to note that not all asylum seekers are accommodated by the Home Office. The proportion varies over time, but historically around 50% find accommodation with friends or family. That group often live in areas where there are few supported asylum seekers, but they still require access to the same health and education services. It is not therefore sensible to have a rigid set of rules that require destitute asylum seekers to be accommodated in areas in direct proportion to the population of those places. The other factors that I have described must be taken into consideration.

Since the introduction of part 6 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, successive Governments have employed a policy of seeking the agreement of local authorities prior to placing asylum seekers within an area. However, the legislation does not provide local authorities with a veto on the placement of asylum seekers in their areas. If a local authority objects to proposals by our providers to use accommodation not previously used to house asylum seekers, the Home Office can consider and adjudicate on the matter.

A lot of work has none the less been done on increasing local authority participation in asylum dispersal since 2015. Prior to 2015, there were around only 100 local authorities participating. There are now around 140. We have established the local government chief executive group to bring together senior representatives from local authorities, with the aim of expanding the dispersal system and improving the process for the people who use it. We are planning a wider review of the dispersal process and will be consulting local authorities and others.

The local government chief executive group is working collaboratively to evidence any additional costs to local authorities by the dispersal proposal and to identify the appropriate funding mechanism. In light of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am sorry, but I suggest that we vote on the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 67 Nationality and Borders Bill — New Clause 2 - Dispersal policy and asylum accommodation arrangements

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.