New Clause 27 - Asylum dispersal strategy

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 4th November 2021.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within 2 months of this Act gaining Royal Assent, publish a strategy on the accommodation of asylum seekers under a relevant provision.

(2) The strategy must cover, but need not be limited to, the following—

(a) ensuring an equitable distribution of accommodation across the regions of England, Scotland and Wales;

(b) the suitability of financial provision provided to local authorities relating to costs supporting accommodated asylum seekers;

(c) the suitability of financial provision provided to local authorities relating to costs incurred supporting individuals after they receive a decision on their asylum application;

(d) the provision of legal advice to accommodated asylum seekers; and

(e) the provision of support from non-governmental bodies.

(3) For the purposes of this section, “relevant provision” means—

(a) section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

(b) Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

(c) Schedule 10 of the Immigration Act 2016.’—

This new clause would require the Home Secretary to publish a strategy within two months of the bill gaining Royal Assent on the accommodation of people seeking asylum who are accommodated by the Home Office.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

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

I thank the British Red Cross for its help with the new clause, which is very simple and is line with what the Government have said they are committed to elsewhere. It would simply entail publishing a strategy to cover Home Office accommodation, and it aims to ensure an equitable distribution of people across England, Scotland and Wales, that financial support is provided to local authorities in areas where people are seeking asylum in Home Office accommodation, and other elements.

Although the Committee has heard that the Government’s intention is to move towards the use of reception centres, it is fundamentally unclear where accommodation is aimed to be and what the Government consider accommodation to be. I intend to table an amendment on the specific issue of what is and is not an accommodation centre on Report, especially with some of the sites being used as contingency accommodation, including a hostel in my constituency that Public Health England suggested should not be used for accommodation for the Everyone In scheme. The Home Office chose to override that advice and use it for refugee and asylum seeker accommodation. The Government now seem to think that dispersal is broken, and they want to open a parallel system of accommodation, but they want to use what they refer to as “reception centres”. I hope the Minister can provide some clarity on that and on whether the Government feel that they need to use the 2002 Act. Perhaps the Minister can clear up this messy situation.

Napier barracks has become synonymous with this issue. Its use has just been extended for five years, with the Home Office using a special development order to do so. In his letter to the Committee on 21 October, the Minister said Napier is not classified as an accommodation centre. I think that is a mistake, and I hope the Minister can explain why the Home Office is using a special development order, when the High Court has ruled that the standards and operational systems at Napier barracks are unlawful.

As things stand, we do not know what is and is not accommodation according to the Home Office. We have reports and court rulings on unlawful and unfit accommodation. We do not know where reception centres will be or the types of accommodation that the Government intend to provide while seeking to move away from dispersal in communities where service providers have argued that it is better for integration. That is why a strategy is required, and I hope the Government accept that they need to move towards a more co-ordinated approach.

On dispersal, the British Red Cross has said there is currently nothing in legislation that says people supported under sections 95, 98 and 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 have to be accommodated in any particular way. Dispersal is not underpinned in the current legislation, so a strategy would help clarify the situation for the Home Office and the rest of us.

Like hotels, Napier and Penally barracks were seen as contingency accommodation—temporary measures because of a lack of suitable dispersal. The Government need to get the dispersal system in place. We do not know what the Government reception centres would look like or where they would be located, nor have the Government said whether people would be accommodated for the entirety of their asylum process. It is proposed that the centres would “provide basic accommodation” and

“allow for decisions and any appeals following substantive rejection of an asylum claim to be processed”,

but we are conscious of the delays in the asylum system, and it is possible that people could be living in the centres for several months, potentially in remote locations. I hope that the Minister will outline whether children are intended to be placed in those centres.

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

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my comments on earlier clauses, when I confirmed that children would not be placed in those accommodation centres.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

That is helpful, but it has been brought to my attention this week that a 16-year-old is in a Home Office accommodation hotel in my constituency. I do not know whether that is an age-disputed case for the Home Office, but there is clearly a mismatch between the Government’s intent and what is actually happening.

Rewan has been living with his two sons, aged 11 and 18, in a hotel room for 10 months. His sons cannot study, and although he is desperate to get work, their living circumstances do not allow for that. Umar was told in October 2020 when he moved into a hostel with his wife and four children—aged 7, 9, 13, and 14—that they would be there for a matter of weeks. They are still there. That is what is happening on the ground and why a strategy on dispersal is required. Dispersal is better in the local community: through work with the local community, and by using dispersal accommodation, people are better able to make connections and start feeling part of a city. As Asylum Matters states:

“Providing support for people seeking asylum, including finding suitable accommodation, should be carried out in partnership with local government and local community groups.”

That is not what we are seeing.

For the almost 700 recent arrivals in Southwark, there was absolutely no in-advance co-ordination with the council; the Home Office alerted the council only after opening accommodation. Bearing in mind that accommodation would have been commissioned and procured in advance, there was ample opportunity for discussions to ensure that support was in place, but the Home Office failed to engage. In fact, when I asked the Home Office what resources the council would receive to support the hundreds of new people, it wrote back saying, “We have given some money to the clinical commissioning group.” That is not part of the council.

I had a really useful discussion with the Local Government Association, which said that it would welcome a dispersal strategy and that it wants people to be able to work. There are workplaces that are desperate to take people on, but they cannot get them in. A proper dispersal strategy should look at employment levels in certain areas. Moving people into areas with high levels of employment, rather than into the cheapest accommodation across the country, would actually benefit the workforce and the economy. That strategy would be adopted by any sensible Government, so I do not hold high hopes.

I will give some background stats: in December 2020, around one in five people in Home Office accommodation were living in a hostel, B&B or hotel—triple the December 2019 figures. In Southwark, there were 1,022 people in dispersal accommodation in June, but, as I have just said, hundreds have arrived since then. The Red Cross suggested:

“The Home Office should, as a matter of urgency, address the supply of suitable asylum accommodation, and work with local authorities, devolved governments”,

and it pointed out an increase in the demand for asylum accommodation and a rise in the number of people living in inappropriate places. The increase in decision-making delays since 2018—prior to the pandemic—has resulted in people staying in asylum accommodation for far longer, which is something the Minister has just said he is determined to tackle, so a strategy should be welcome. The situation is unsustainable and only a strategy to build out of it will address the problem.

In April, we had a Backbench Business debate on accommodation, focusing on the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee reports into asylum accommodation. The NAO reported last July that the system the Government have adopted caused costs to escalate by 28%, and saw a 96% increase in short-term and more expensive accommodation. In November 2020, the Public Accounts Committee warned of a system in crisis, and it recommended:

“The Home Office should, within three months, set out a clear plan for how it will quickly and safely reduce the use of hotels and ensure that asylum seekers’ accommodation meets their individual needs.”

It would be great to hear from the Minister on how that clear plan is being developed. The new clause would help to address the problem that the Government have created.

The time involved comes with escalating costs to the Home Office and the taxpayer. Will the Minister update us on average times and what he is doing to tackle them? I have two examples from Bermondsey and Old Southwark. I have raised the cases of an Eritrean woman and a Mongolian man who have both been seeking asylum since 2017. Not only do they not have decisions four years later, but the Home Office cannot even give a timeframe for when their cases will be concluded. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today when and how the Home Office will cut the horrific backlog that his Government have created.

At the end of September 2020, there were 3,621 Sudanese, Syrian and Eritrean nationals who had been waiting longer than six months for a decision on their application. The grant rate across those countries was 94% in the most recent stats. That is an incredibly expensive waste. A strategy, as outlined in the new clause, would help address the underlying costs and focus Ministers’ and civil servants’ minds on cutting delays and lowering the cost to the public purse.

Earlier this year Tim Farron asked the Home Office what the Government were doing to engage with local authorities to understand why offers for dispersal were not matching demand, and to ensure that there was true collaboration. He received a letter in response from the Home Office that stated:

“We remain fully committed to working towards the agreed change plan once we have been able to move people out of hotels and into more appropriate Dispersal Accommodation.”

I hope the new clause helps the Minister with that aim. I commend it to the Committee.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I want to pick up on a few of the points that he raised. In relation to Napier, as I have said previously, we have seen several improvements recently: offering all residents covid vaccinations and personal cleaning kits, the introduction of NGOs on the site to provide assistance and advice, free travel to medical appointments and dentistry services or for meetings, sports and recreation. Those significant improvements have been made since the court judgment was handed down.

Hotels are provided as a contingency because of the lack of availability of other accommodation, but it is important to make the point that those are not accommodation centres. On the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children situation, it is difficult to comment on individual cases and a hotel in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—I do not have the specifics to hand—but I can say that, broadly, the UASC, but not other children, would be accommodated in a hotel. That is my understanding of the situation.

On a broader point, we had a significant debate on new clause 2 and dispersal accommodation, where I set out the steps that the Government are taking to try to address that. That is being considered, and I refer Members to what I said before.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

The Minister says that things have improved since the court judgment and that, for example, NGOs now have more routine access. The hostel accommodation in Bermondsey and Old Southwark was open for three months before the first visit of Migrant Help on site. I am just not convinced that the Minister has given an accurate portrayal of the current picture and the real situation in a real building affecting hundreds of people in my own constituency.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My hon. Friend is making excellent points. The Minister says there have been changes at Napier barracks since the High Court judgment, but those changes happened because of the High Court judgment, and they perhaps would not have happened had the Government not been taken to court over the use of Napier barracks and the conditions there. That is why we do not trust the Government to make the right judgment calls on the quality of accommodation, and why my hon. Friend’s new clause is important.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government routinely dodge using the term “accommodation centre” because they do not want to set up an advisory group. If they went through the formal process of designating something as an accommodation centre, an advisory group would help to resolve some of the problems that we have seen at Napier and in the hostel accommodation in my constituency, where they had an almost inevitable covid outbreak.

The Minister has not committed to a strategy. We are seeing a longer process, with routine delays for applications and appeals. We are seeing damage to people’s lives. We are seeing damage to the economy because people cannot get a job and make more of a contribution as quickly as would be possible if there were a strategy and a plan. We are leaving the taxpayer with a massive bill for the Government’s failure. Therefore, we will press new clause 27 to a vote.

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

Division number 71 Nationality and Borders Bill — New Clause 27 - Asylum dispersal strategy

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.