I thank and congratulate Sarah Teather on securing this debate on the important issue of unfairness and injustice. My contribution to the debate is based on my personal knowledge of the subject, my previous work and the casework at my constituency surgeries. I have a large caseload. The views expressed in the report resulted from hearing many experts. The hon. Lady has mentioned many issues that we all face in the community, and I may repeat what she has said, because she expressed the views of many people and many MPs from their experience in their constituencies.
This country has a long-standing tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence, but unfortunately we are in danger of failing refugees and asylum seekers by giving them inadequate support. It is our duty to provide assistance to those in need, especially to young children and families who have already suffered through war and persecution. Unfortunately, there are many tragic examples of asylum seekers in this country living in terrible conditions due to the low support awarded to them. Some families cannot put food on their tables; some are living in cold, unhygienic, overcrowded and unsafe accommodation; and other people are separated from their families and regularly moved around the country.
The cross-party parliamentary inquiry on asylum support, of which I was a member and which was chaired by the hon. Lady, produced a comprehensive report that examined support for asylum-seeking children and families and made recommendations. One key concern outlined in the report is the discrepancy between support for asylum seekers and families receiving mainstream benefits. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and the support that they are entitled to under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is considerably less than current income support, which is a minimum level to meet essential living needs.
The situation is detrimental to the well-being of asylum seekers, leaving families hungry and struggling in atrocious conditions. Some children on asylum support are living on as little as £5 a day. As part of the inquiry, we heard tragic stories of parents going hungry, so that they could feed their children, and having to choose between buying food and buying warmer clothes for winter. Parents should never have to go hungry to feed and clothe their children because they cannot afford to; income support for asylum seekers is clearly insufficient if that is the case.
The situation is even more difficult for families with a child or a parent with a disability. Without access to mainstream benefits, families seeking asylum are also not entitled to benefits such as disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility assistance. That leaves asylum-seeking families with disability significantly worse off than families who are able to access mainstream support. Some families are only getting about a quarter of what they would get under the mainstream system. As it may cost up to three times more to raise a disabled child, it is unreasonable for such families not to receive an allowance to meet those extra costs, especially when they already have difficulty making ends meet. Parents raising a disabled child will also require extra support to help them with their child’s education, health and social activities. Unfortunately, once again, the asylum support system does not recognise those additional needs and forces parents to struggle with such challenges unassisted.
The same is true for children caring for a disabled parent, as they are not entitled to supplementary carer’s allowance or any extra assistance. As the hon. Lady has said, the inquiry allowed us to hear about an 11-year-old girl who cared for her disabled mother. It was not unusual for her to have to miss school to take her mother to hospital appointments and help with the shopping and cleaning. Sadly, as her mother was unable to sign in for her support every single week because of her disability, they would sometimes have to go without any money. Had that mother and daughter been given additional support, they would not have had to struggle in that way and the girl would have had an uninterrupted education.
The lack of support for refugees with additional needs is particularly evident and worrying for children affected by HIV. Such children need warm, clean accommodation and high-quality food and health care, which, in most cases, they will not have access to through their asylum support, leaving them vulnerable to serious illness. In addition, mothers who are HIV-positive should not be breastfeeding, but are not given supplementary funds for formula milk, putting their babies at risk.
Refugees who are fleeing war and persecution should be given an extra layer of protection, but in such cases, some of the most vulnerable are those who receive the lowest support. It is clear that the particular needs and additional costs of living for families where there is a disability or illness must be taken into account to determine financial support for asylum seekers. It is unacceptable for parents and children with disability to be left without the support that they desperately need. Asylum-seeking families should be able to access disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility allowance, so that they are able to live without fear of going hungry, cold or scared.
In this country, we put a lot of emphasis on English language skills and knowledge, which I feel is most important. Everyone needs to learn, so that they can fully participate in the system, but it is also the responsibility of the system to recognise the other social and practical skills that such people bring with them, so that they can be used. Not only could people then offer their own skills, but it could be ensured that they contribute more effectively to society after they come in. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will address how we can best use the skills that people carry with them.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the chance to contribute to this important debate. I hope that the Minister will listen to the contributions made by all Members this morning, as well as what is said by people who have expertise in the field, who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with many cases, and that he will read the recommendations made in the report. I also hope that he will help the families and children who are going through the most difficult period of their lives and take them out of the poverty trap. Furthermore, let them live and move in society with dignity and respect.