Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 27th February 2013.
I absolutely agree. The sooner that people are able to get back into a regular pattern of work, so that they can support their family and themselves and give themselves some dignity and a sense of contributing to the country that they have chosen to make as their home albeit under difficult circumstances, the better that is for everyone concerned. Furthermore, the quicker they can integrate, the quicker they can learn English, while from a financial perspective it will cost the country a good deal less to support them. That seems to be a logical and sensible thing to do, and I strongly urge the Minister to look at doing it.
In our inquiry, we intended to look specifically at support rates, which is what I have spent most of the time discussing. Before I finish, however, I want to say something about some of the other things that we found that were equally shocking, such as the way in which families are treated by their housing provider. The families have multiple moves, not only dispersed once but moved repeatedly, with appalling living conditions and cases of disrepair, as well as a lack of privacy and of hygiene. The multiple moves, as I said at the outset of my remarks, affect not only family budgets because of the need to buy a new school uniform every time but children’s school life, and their ability to make friends and to settle. We must remember that the children have fled their own country; they have fled war, violence and persecution, with all the trauma involved, and yet, when the family arrive here, we move them over and over again, often with little notice or little information to allow parents to prepare their child emotionally. What family would want to be moved and uprooted with little notice and without some information so that they can discuss with their child what is to happen? They get no information in advance about where the local schools are or about the area, and no support to allow them to register at a new school or with the doctor. They are basically plucked from one place and dropped into another with no support whatever to allow them to integrate. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high among this group. It would not be an expensive problem to fix. We could provide support for families if a move is necessary, and we could try to move families with young children less often.
One mother and her four-year-old daughter told us that they moved 11 times in five years. She explained that, as a consequence of what she fled from in her own country, she spent the best part of 10 years moving house, first within her own country, then in this country, effectively fleeing from house to house, being moved by the UKBA. She said, “I’m tired.” I am not surprised she is tired, and I am not surprised that it is so difficult for her children. Moves are often made with no appreciation of the impact on children. Families and local authority representatives told us that contractors do not always turn up when they say they will, so belongings, such as a children’s cots, are packed up and no notice is given of when the contractor will eventually turn up.
The impact on pregnant women is even worse. I have referred to the deeply upsetting report, “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter”, which the Refugee Council and Maternity Action produced this week. They submitted evidence to our inquiry that the impact of dispersal on women’s lives is catastrophic if they are pregnant. The four weeks’ protected period that UKBA agreed to introduce is an advance, but still woefully inadequate. Women are moved away from their partners so they may have no one with them when they give birth and no one to look after their other children. A single mother in the study reported that she was separated from her partner so she had no one to look after her children and she considered leaving her children with a local shopkeeper before she went into labour because she had no other options for child care. Midwives told us that it makes their lives incredibly difficult because they are unable to provide continuity of care.
We would not expect any British woman to experience such conditions, but these women have specific extra difficulties and they should receive more support, not less. Many have suffered female genital mutilation and sexual violence in their own country as well as torture, which exacerbates the risk of flashbacks when giving birth. They have a much higher rate of maternal death than we expect in the general population. They make up 12% of all maternal deaths, but only 0.3% of the overall population. Those figures are staggering and worrying, and the Government must get to grips with them.
Again, it is not expensive to fix the problem. There is no reason for repeatedly moving these women, and that could be stopped. I strongly encourage the Government to examine the matter to ensure that women are treated decently and that their children have a chance to thrive. We know that what happens in the first few weeks and months after childbirth is important for their children and attachment. That is why the Government are putting health visitors in Sure Start children’s centres. We know that post-natal depression and so on have an impact on attachment, and a long-term impact on children’s ability to thrive and what happens to them in later life. Other Departments know that, so why does the Home Office not accept the evidence that is driving Government policy everywhere else? It must work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. The situation is simply not good enough, and it could be changed.
My final point, which is perhaps the smallest and the cheapest to fix, was the most shocking for the panel. Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. People may be in the shower and if they are Muslim women they may not have adequate head covering. It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.
I have gone through the details of the report. Some of our recommendations would save the Government money, some would cost a small amount, some would be more popular than their current policies, all would be more humane, and none would encourage more asylum seekers to come here. These changes would be win-wins for the Government if they implemented them.
Any change is risky and difficult, but the Minister is very capable and I am sure that he is on top of his brief. If anyone is politically shrewd enough to appreciate the points on offer, I am sure that he is. He does not strike me as a Minister who has come to his brief wanting to tread water, and I strongly encourage him to take note of the points that the cross-party parliamentary inquiry made.