Before I set out the committee’s main findings, I will say something that I hope will set the tone for this debate: destitution is first and foremost a humanitarian issue. People who are destitute are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and they deserve our compassion and support. A human response—one that seeks to protect them—treats them with dignity, fairness and respect.
In truth, we found the subject matter of our inquiry difficult. Much of the evidence that we heard was harrowing. We visited Shakti Women’s Aid and heard from Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid and were deeply affected by the harrowing stories from the women there. Our report concerns lives that have been shattered through torture, exploitation, abuse and fear—hidden lives, but they are no less valuable than our own. We seek a new preventative approach—one that focuses on new beginnings.
Our report, “Hidden Lives - New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland”, asks a lot of the Scottish Government; it also calls on the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments to work together. We want a better life for those who come to the UK seeking protection and sanctuary but who instead become destitute, fighting at the very least for existence and, at the very worst, for survival.
Our report is wide ranging, as the particular aspect of destitution that our inquiry considered had not been looked at before by a Scottish Parliament committee.
We have made a large number of recommendations. Time will not permit me to cover them all, but I am sure that members of the committee will highlight other aspects of our work. I will focus my contribution on some specific findings: the harmful impact of destitution; destitution as a by-product of the asylum process and as a result of fleeing domestic abuse; no recourse to public funds and women escaping from domestic abuse; the importance of independent advocacy to address destitution; and the need for a national anti-destitution strategy.
First, I take the opportunity to thank the British Red Cross in Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, the Scottish Refugee Council, Scottish Women’s Aid, Positive Action in Housing and Engender, which made an impassioned and well-evidenced plea for the committee to consider the issue.
As a committee, we succeeded in reaching a consensus on almost all our conclusions and recommendations, which is a great achievement, given that the subject matter covered reserved and devolved areas and diverse political views. However, on agreeing our report, a couple of members held different positions: one member dissented from the recommendation in paragraph 41 of our report that asylum seekers should be allowed to register an initial claim, or a fresh claim, in Scotland rather than have to travel to England, and wanted further background information; and two members dissented from paragraph 207, which concluded that the Immigration Act 2016 risks exposing more people to destitution, as it provides for cuts to be made to asylum seekers’ support and gives power to compel local authorities to participate in wider dispersal.
In conducting our inquiry, we were keen to hear from those who had experienced destitution, which is why we enlisted the assistance of the organisations that I mentioned. Notably, individual testimony represented a significant proportion of the 107 responses that we received. We express our gratitude, in particular, to those who shared their real-life stories, the organisations that worked hard to help us gather that valuable information and everyone who provided written and oral evidence. I pay special tribute and say a special thank you to Olivia Ndoti, who courageously gave oral evidence to us, sharing her personal experience of destitution and her fight to gain accommodation and financial support for her and her son.
News of our inquiry was far reaching, so much so that we received correspondence—heartbreaking correspondence—from an asylum seeker in Turkey whose family were facing destitution. The evidence gathered for the inquiry provided an unequivocal insight into the issues associated with destitution. A key theme to emerge was the significant detrimental impact that destitution has on the individual in terms of their mental health; their ability to access healthcare, including maternity services; and their ability to maintain prescribed treatments. Health practitioners also face difficulties in treating those suffering. The Glasgow psychological trauma service told us:
“When clients are destitute, or at risk of destitution, the impact on mental health is significant. Clinicians and service users described worsening mental health problems ... Destitution also increased clients vulnerability to further trauma and re-victimisation and interfered with clients getting the health treatments they needed.”
It was also important for us to understand why destitution occurs. The risk of destitution is present at numerous points in the asylum and refugee system: at the pre-asylum application stage, during the asylum process; and post decision, irrespective of whether a decision is positive or negative. Other reasons were linked to issues of domestic slavery, domestic abuse and threat of retribution from wider family members—women who had entered the country on a spousal or student visa and, on fleeing from their partner, found their immigration status was insecure.
During our visit to the British Red Cross, we heard from parents who feared that their children would be taken away. Some recounted being told by social work staff that the only way that staff could help was to take their children into care—a terrifying thought for any family. On a personal level, as a former social care worker, I found those accounts deeply concerning.
We found inconsistency in the interpretation and application of child protection legislation, and we have asked for local authorities to review their training and guidance to ensure that there is no room for ambiguity. Destitute people are less able to access their rights and then to challenge any decisions.
We heard about gate-keeping practices by public authorities and, worryingly, about efforts to gain support being described as a “gruelling fight”. The Scottish Refugee Council advised that, of the 60 per cent of initial claims that are refused, 20 per cent go on to be successful. Being destitute makes it more difficult for people to re-engage with the asylum system to make a fresh claim, thus prolonging their destitution.
Kirsty Thomson from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association told us that the complexity of the legislation and processes and the ability to access specialist legal advice mean that there is a deficit in access to justice. Advocacy is crucial in helping people to access support to address their destitution, so we have asked the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and our third-sector partners to provide a fully-funded, independent advocacy service for those who are destitute. I know that that is a huge commitment, but if we help people at the earliest stages, we will not have to pick up the pieces in the later stages.
We feel strongly that women who are fleeing domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status should be given access to safe refuge accommodation and provided with the financial assistance that they need to survive. We should be ashamed that abused women have to use pillowcases as nappies for their children because they have no access to funds. We have asked for the Scottish Government to negotiate with the UK Government on this issue in particular and, in the meantime, we have asked for a crisis fund to help those who are most at risk.
Core to addressing the issues that are set out in our report will be the development of a Scottish anti-destitution strategy to inform a national approach to mitigating destitution. I am not sure whether the cabinet secretary is in a position to offer a commitment on that today; I will understand if she is not, but we hope that she will agree that that would be a positive step forward.
The committee calls on the Scottish Government to embrace a preventative approach to destitution. We all know that prevention is better than cure and that, when we are there early enough and we help people at the earliest stages of their destitution, they do not take out from the service as much as they would need in the later stages.
A preventative approach will benefit Scotland. People will be spared the harmful effects of being trapped in a cycle of trauma—we must remember that we are talking about people who have come from trauma and are seeking sanctuary here. Opportunities to exploit people for domestic slavery or criminality will be reduced. We released our new strategy on human trafficking today and a preventative approach will help with that, because people will not be forced into dangerous situations. Public services will not have the same demand on them to pick up the pieces at later stages, and non-governmental organisations will be able to return their focus to core business. Ultimately, those who have had a positive experience of Scotland will integrate better, and so will their children.
It is my pleasure to move, on behalf of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee,
That the Parliament recognises that destitution has a detrimental impact on people, affecting their mental health, their ability to access health care, and also increases their risk of exploitation and abuse; thanks those who shared their personal experience of being destitute with the Equalities and Human Rights Committee; notes that destitution can also impact on families, communities and on the provision of support from non-governmental organisations and public authorities, and notes the findings and recommendations of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s 3rd Report 2017 (Session 5),
Hidden Lives New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland
(SP Paper 147).