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Asylum Decisions (Support for Refugees) — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:25 am on 4th March 2020.

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[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:30 pm, 4th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for refugees after receiving an asylum decision.

The asylum process is anxiety-inducing and arduous, but for many the intense relief of being granted refugee status by the UK Government is only momentary. For new refugees—people who, let us remember, have escaped conflict and persecution—that is often just the beginning of another nightmare. That is caused by the so-called move-on period—the period after which the support they have been receiving from the Home Office will be terminated—which causes unnecessary problems and barriers to integration. I aim to lay out how those could be solved.

I thank Seb Klier at the Refugee Council and Jon Featonby at the British Red Cross for their regular detailed briefings and for nudging me regularly to table questions and seek debates such as this one. I pay tribute to them individually, and to the many individuals and community organisations in my constituency who do so much to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, to solve some of the problems I will explore, and to remove barriers.

Every week, the Red Cross in Bristol works with at least one new destitute refugee. Let us remember that “refugee” means a person who has received their status. I thank the Red Cross for that, but why is that happening? First, the move-on period is 28 days. In that time, a refugee must leave Home Office accommodation, move from asylum support to benefits or a job, obtain a national insurance number in order to do so, open a bank account, receive a biometric residence permit and find somewhere to live. I am in a good job, but I have to say that I would struggle with that. I think most of us would struggle.

To compound all that, refugees are often already traumatised and sometimes—although not always—struggle with English. Some are very isolated, and some are mentally unwell, either as the result of the initial trauma or, often, because of the complex and prolonged asylum process, during which they have not been able to work and have had little access to English classes. Often, they will have been confined by extreme poverty, living off just £37.75 per week. Then, suddenly, in the words of a refugee supported by Bristol Refugee Rights in my constituency,

“it is compulsory today to do everything that was forbidden yesterday”.

Back in 2014, the Red Cross became increasingly concerned about the number of destitute and new refugees requiring emergency care, partly as a result of that problem. It recommended extending the 28-day move-on period; we have been warned about this for many years. In 2017, I and colleagues in the Chamber launched the “Refugees welcome?” report, which was produced by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees following our inquiry the previous year. Among our many findings was a recommendation that the move-on period should be extended to 56 days. Thankfully, the Government took up some of our recommendations—I am grateful to them for that—but, unfortunately, not that one.

The same year, the Refugee Council published its report “Refugees without refuge”. None of the 54 respondents to its survey had secured accommodation within the 28-day move-on period. In 2018, the British Red Cross published its report “Still an ordeal”. The 26 refugees it surveyed had been left without food and shelter after receiving their status. There is not just an unacceptable high risk of extreme poverty; the move-on period creates inevitable destitution.

Just last month, Women for Refugee Women found that women left destitute are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. That is a further consequence of the move-on period. A third of the women interviewed were forced to stay in unwanted and abusive relationships. I thank Women for Refugee Women for its extraordinary hard work, but I am saddened by its findings.

Refugees, refugee organisations, local authorities, health organisations and us MPs—including Government Members—all know that the move-on period is failing to support refugees. My primary request is for the Minister to ask his colleagues to extend it from 28 to 56 days.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the exceptional work she does in Parliament for refugees and asylum seekers. She is right to highlight the need for an extended move-on period, but does she not agree that the circumstances she describes show that we need a cross-Government approach, involving not just the Home Office but the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? They must all come together to meet the needs of this vulnerable group.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She, too, does an enormous amount on refugee policy, as do many colleagues in the Chamber. She is absolutely right that we need a cross-departmental approach. Funnily enough, that was recommended in our report three years ago. Actually, a former Tory MP—I cannot remember his name, but it will come to me—recommended to his Government not only that there should be a cross-departmental approach but that there should be a Minister for refugees to help co-ordinate it.

The Home Office recently took some steps to provide more support for refugees. I welcome that, but their benefit is limited without a longer move-on period. The London School of Economics and the British Red Cross found that extending it to 56 days could save up to £7 million of taxpayers’ money each year. Of course, the consequences of destitution are extra costs to the public purse due to homelessness and impacts on health and employability.

What is the justification for 56 days? First, since refugees mostly are not allowed to work while waiting for an asylum decision, most of them will need, at least initially, to apply for universal credit. There is the first problem: clearly, the inbuilt 35-day minimum wait before the first day of universal credit is incompatible, by seven crucial days, with the current move-on period after someone’s asylum is over and they are granted refugee status. As I said, I have a reasonably good job and I may be able to manage for seven days, but it would be a struggle. People are suddenly put in that position, with no money, perhaps no relatives to turn to—whereas I would have that—and probably no one else to call on. Those seven crucial days can be seven days without food.

In some instances, the delay in receiving benefits may be much longer. Mariam from Women for Refugee Women gave me permission to quote her. She said:

“The asylum support stopped in January, but my benefits didn’t start for nine months. I had no money, I was lucky to have a solicitor who gave me some cash. I also relied on charities for food. Being destitute after getting asylum isn’t something I had expected.”

I know that my colleagues in the Chamber have come across that too. A cash grant—just once, upon receipt of status—would help so much. That is something else I would like the Minister to consider. Charities such as Aid Box Convoy in my constituency do wonderful work finding things such as cookers, clothes, bedding and nappies—we probably all have charities like that in our constituencies—but one small cash grant could make such a difference.

A 56-day move-on period would also align with the time local authorities are given to work with house- holds at risk of homelessness under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. That is another example of the cross-departmental work that my hon. Friend Kate Green called for. The Government could also encourage the establishment of a private rented sector scheme for refugees, to recognise not just the general problems that most people might face when suddenly plunged into the private rented sector, but the specific barriers faced by refugees.

Those changes might give new refugees the ability to move on rather than, as one refugee in Bristol described it to me, running from “pillar to post”. The complications of the system are compounded by a lack of Government funding and organisational capacity. Support agencies are often open only part time, and advice agencies are often full. During such a critical time, losing a week waiting to speak to the right person could make all the difference between someone being destitute and not.

That is the situation if there are minimal complications. If there is an error in someone’s biometric residence permit, which is their formal identification—even if there is an incorrect spelling, which happens—their 28 days are not automatically restarted. That is another really simple and, I would argue, cost-free change that the Minister could agree to: if a mistake is made by a Government agency, the refugee should not have to pay the price, and the 28 days should be automatically restarted.

As an example, K is a new refugee in Bristol. She fled both sectarian violence and domestic violence with her 15-year-old child. She was granted status—she is here legally—on 6 September 2019, but she contacted the Red Cross in Bristol shortly afterwards as there was a spelling mistake on her biometric residence permit. She failed to receive her updated permit by 7 October and she was at risk of homelessness. At that point, she met the homelessness prevention team at Bristol City Council, but without identification she was unable to open a bank account. The earliest she could receive an advance universal credit payment, intended to cope with such gaps, was 30 October, 54 days after receiving her refugee status. Hon. Members can see where I am going with this: 56 days would have meant she was not in destitution or at risk of destitution. Between 16 and 30 October, K and her child were destitute and, although they received support from the Red Cross, it could have been so easily avoided.

We must also change the administrative barriers that delay new refugees from moving on. Recently, another constituent and his family were granted further leave to remain. Their 28 days began and they tried to apply for local authority housing. Unfortunately, they were not sent an eviction notice from their asylum accommodation, which must be done in the form of a letter, and without that letter they could not apply for housing. My caseworkers Michelle and Sheila, whom I thank from the bottom of my heart—what they do is extraordinary, and I am sure all hon. Members present speak highly of the work that caseworkers do in our name—did all they could to speed up the process, but even so the family received the letter with just eight days to go. Their ability to live had rested on those bureaucratic nightmares. That does not do us proud. As a country we should be proud, and we have a right to be proud, of our tradition in welcoming refugees. I know Government Ministers agree. We have that right to be proud, so why let those bureaucratic nightmares creep in when they are fixable?

By comparison, resettlement schemes are a measure that the Government and everyone else should be proud of. The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme offers a fantastic model and is on target to successfully resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees. I recently met Anne James, the commissioning manager on the Syrian resettlement programme at Bristol City Council, who spoke highly of the scheme and her interaction with Government. I was really impressed by the operation and support of the initiative. For resettled refugees under such schemes, the dedicated caseworker, who supports their needs, is a lifeline. We should look to that process as a best-practice approach.

As the APPG pointed out in its report three years ago—and, to be fair, as the sector pointed out years before—the gulf between our asylum process and the resettlement process makes for a two-tier system. There are asylum seekers who are granted refugee status and are here legally, and there are those who come via the resettlement route whose status is already granted, but the route a refugee takes does not make them more or less deserving of support. Rather than making them feel welcome, the asylum process leaves new refugees fighting to overcome what feel like impossible barriers. Those barriers could be removed, and the resettlement scheme shows us how we could do that.

There are other fantastic models open for adoption by the Home Office and the Government more widely. Colleagues could talk at length about the community sponsorship scheme, the city of sanctuary approach and other community and local initiatives that provide wonderful and welcome examples of how we can do this really well. My constituents want to welcome refugees who have a right to be here, and I am sure the Minister’s do, too. I am sure most of us also want to prevent, as far as possible, situations in which desperate people feel that they have to take dangerous journeys because they have no alternative, having been cramped in a refugee camp among millions of people in countries such as Lebanon, Greece or Turkey. They feel absolutely desperate, so it is no wonder that some make dangerous journeys to countries that they feel might welcome them. We should be proud that we are seen as a welcoming country, but we should make every effort to allow more of those safe and legal routes offered by resettlement.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I have a couple more requests of the Minister. The Government could change by regulation, and very quickly, the right for asylum seekers to work. At the moment, it is limited. After six months of applying for refugee status, some can apply for employment in certain categories, which unless I am very much mistaken still includes that of ballet dancer. To my not very certain knowledge, there are not many people setting out from Syria saying, “I want to be a ballet dancer.” These people have got skills and want to work from the moment they get status, but if they face prolonged delays in the asylum process, that weakens their skills.

Ministers have also talked to me about wanting people to be able to return home when conditions are safe. We could talk about refoulement, preventing further traumatisation and the damage of sending people home when it is not safe, but, if it is safe for people to return to their country of origin, we want them to have kept up their skills, not lost them through prolonged periods of unemployment. Alternatively, the Home Office could meet its own service standard of six months, and do so properly, efficiently, fairly and transparently. That would help. The Government could also establish the scheme I mentioned on private renting. They could provide cash grants and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, there could be co-ordination between Departments.

The moment someone receives their refugee status should be one of celebration. It should be a time when refugees feel able to move on, if possible, from the horrors they have left and the difficulties they have had to face. Instead, all too often, the contradictions of Government policy and the cuts to various services—I have not even mentioned cuts to English language services—leave refugees facing new problems such as homelessness and destitution, and, as Women for Refugee Women has said, vulnerable to harms such as exploitation and abuse. We are and should always remain proud of being a welcoming country to people fleeing conflict, but we have a choice about how we treat people. We can choose to treat them with dignity or to put them at risk of destitution. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Seven colleagues wish to speak and we will start the winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm, so please share the time at about six or seven minutes each.

Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton 2:46 pm, 4th March 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and look forward to doing so again in future. I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing this important debate, which gives us an opportunity to speak up for those refugees who have received an asylum decision, because they are experiencing difficulties.

We are not providing enough support to asylum seekers after they receive their decision, and the results can be disastrous. In particular, I will talk about the incompatibility of universal credit and the asylum support system. We know that, in its current form, universal credit is deeply flawed, especially in its ability to cope with applications from more vulnerable individuals. Whenever I have met refugees, whether in communities or detention centres in the UK, or overseas in my former role as shadow Secretary of State for International Development, I have always been struck by their sheer resilience. That should not blind us to the fact that they are among the most vulnerable people in the world. They have not only been uprooted from their lives and families but have often experienced extreme trauma.

My constituent Zeynep fled torture to claim asylum in the UK. After a long-drawn-out process, she was finally granted asylum in October last year. With the help of a charity, she applied for universal credit, but when her asylum support was withdrawn 28 days later, her claim was still pending. She was left with no support and quickly forced to rely on food banks and handouts to survive. The acceptance of her asylum application should have been a moment of celebration; instead, it became the moment she was pushed into absolute poverty.

Zeynep’s is not a case in which individual errors were made, leading to delay. The asylum support and universal credit systems worked exactly as they were supposed to. Universal credit claimants must wait a minimum of five weeks before receiving their first payment, which means there is a deliberate gap between the end of asylum support and that payment. In the best-case scenario, that means enduring weeks without money for basic necessities such as food, rent or heating. That is the best-case scenario. The reality of universal credit is: never expect the best-case scenario.

A Salvation Army study published in 2018 found that only 14.5% of people who applied for universal credit did not have any problems. It found that a key barrier to claiming universal credit was an inability to apply digitally, and a lack of knowledge about how to claim.

People who have recently been granted asylum are particularly likely to experience those difficulties, and therefore have greater difficulty claiming universal credit. For many asylum seekers, having received a positive asylum decision, the first thing they need to do is claim universal credit. They need the essential support of basic funds while they look for work or if they fall ill, as well as for paying rent. If they have had to scrape by on the tiny amount provided through asylum support, they will urgently need more support, but they tell me and many of my colleagues that the system is not fit for purpose.

The current system is failing refugees, just as it fails many other vulnerable groups. The acceptance of an asylum claim is often the end of a long and difficult journey, which we must acknowledge. Being recognised as a refugee, and being given the right to live and work in the UK, should be a moment of celebration, but the risk of poverty and homelessness faced by refugees following such a decision means that, for many, it is a moment of great risk and often hardship. I hope the Minister will agree with me that the current situation is untenable and must change.

We need to listen to those on the frontline, including experts such as the British Red Cross and others, when they tell us that asylum support must be extended to at least 56 days. We need to honour our international obligations not just to allow refugees in, but to ensure that they can survive, and access food and shelter. We are not currently doing that. Will the Minister agree to look again at the support provided to those granted asylum when they claim universal credit, and at removing the barriers they face when making those claims?

When we welcome refugees into this country, pointing them in the direction of a food bank must not be the first thing we do. We are one of the richest countries in the world. We can do better than that, and, for the sake of those who come to our country seeking a better life, we must do better.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:52 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing the debate, and on the characteristically powerful way in which she opened it and made the point so effectively. She is right, as is my hon. Friend Kate Osamor, that gaining refugee status should be a moment for celebration, but that for too many it is a ticking clock towards homelessness and destitution.

Sheffield was the UK’s first city of sanctuary. We made a very positive statement that we wanted to welcome those fleeing persecution and war, and to give them a good reception in our city. I am proud that that movement has spread all over the country. We have some of the most organised and best co-ordinated support charities and organisations helping refugees and asylum seekers, but even in our position the 28-day move-on period is not sufficient to prevent homelessness and destitution.

In preparation for today’s debate, I spoke to two local charities about the issues that refugees in Sheffield face at the end of the move-on period: City of Sanctuary, which provides general support, and Nomad, a charity that particularly helps those who face homelessness and that tells me it has seen a steady increase in the number of refugees who are forced to become rough sleepers.

As my colleagues have indicated, there is much that could be done. City of Sanctuary has called for the Government’s urgent guide for refugees to be provided in a range of languages, because many of those granted refugee status are likely to face language barriers in accessing services. It is not on that the guide is currently available only in English.

Refugees also face barriers when opening bank accounts, which they need immediately for payment of wages or to gain access to social security. Banks do not provide interpreters, and many newly granted refugees do not have a support network of trusted English speakers who can help. City of Sanctuary also found that online forms and mobile banking apps do not recognise occupancy status, which is often the situation for those who have been living in asylum accommodation. I ask the Minister, will he commit to working with the banks to resolve those issues?

Internet access is also a real issue. These days almost everything, including universal credit applications, has to be done online, but mobile internet access costs money. There are some places where free internet services are available, but newly recognised refugees may well not know about them.

There are other issues too, but many of the problems come down to the short move-on period. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, asylum seekers have not had the right to work before being granted status, so they have not built up savings because they have not had an income to support themselves. There is cross-party concern about changing the right to work. In the last Parliament, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Caroline Spelman, led a debate in this Chamber about seeking to change the rules, so that the right to work was granted. The Minister should advocate for that in debates at the Home Office.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton pointed out, there is a real incompatibility between the length of the move-on period and the five-week wait for universal credit. The Red Cross found that 65% of refugees who were supported to apply for universal credit were left with no financial support; the proportion of those who were not supported would be even higher. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, a simple measure, such as a cash grant at the point of being granted status, could make an enormous difference.

City of Sanctuary in Sheffield told me that even for those classed as a priority need, 28 days is not long enough, in many cases, for local authorities to find suitable accommodation. Refugee families have been required to stay in unsafe and unsuitable places. Nomad told me that because of that, some refugees who are placed in emergency accommodation decide that taking their chance on the street as rough sleepers is a better option. For those not classed as a priority need, the only option is private rented accommodation, which is difficult, if not impossible, to access without a universal credit payment and the means to put down a deposit, so we return to the same issues again.

City of Sanctuary found that some refugees have received penalty notices from the NHS, despite being in receipt of universal credit. I hope the Minister will consider taking that up with his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care. That reflects a general point that the Home Office needs to work more closely with local authorities and with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that newly granted refugees start getting the support they need as soon as possible.

The key point that has come out of today’s debate is the pressing need to extend the move-on period for people granted refugee status from 28 days to 56 days.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley 2:58 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David.

I will start by commenting on what has been said so eloquently by my hon. Friends about the idea that universal credit happens within five weeks, or that 28 days would be enough to get accommodation, if it were needed. If someone were to present themselves as homeless to Birmingham City Council, or just as needing housing, not necessarily as a priority need, it would probably take 18 months before they were given anywhere they could actually live. When my brother applied for universal credit, he decided to grow his beard for the time it took before he got a payment; he looked like Rasputin before he got any funding. That puts it into some perspective.

I want to talk specifically about the effect on refugee women, which I am sure will surprise absolutely no one, and to bring to the Minister’s attention the findings of the “Will I ever be safe?” report by Women for Refugee Women. I think it is vital that this element is included in this debate. The women featured in the report are here in the Gallery listening to our debate. The report details the cases of 106 asylum-seeking and refugee women. They left their countries for a variety of reasons, but around half the women said that they had experienced violence at the hands of the state authorities, 42% had been tortured and almost one third had been raped by soldiers, prisoners, guards or the police in their own country. More than one third of the women had been raped in the private sphere, with others fleeing forced marriage, forced prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence. More than one third of the destitute women were forced into unwanted relationships because of their destitution in this period that we are talking about.

When faced with an impossible situation, very often in those cases the women end up back in dangerous and violent relationships, or exploited as part of a pattern of street homelessness. Certainly, something that I have seen time and again while working with victims of human trafficking is how the constant merry-go-round of destitution for that group of women leaves them severely vulnerable to the people who come along and exploit them for sex. One quarter of the women who were spoken to in the report—bear in mind that suffering sexual violence was part of the reason they fled—were raped or sexually abused when sleeping outside or in other people’s homes.

When I used to work with asylum-seeking women, who at that time were largely from Sierra Leone, in Birmingham, it was often described as moving “from one hell to another”, and that also seems to be the case with this destitution gap. We see that one third of women raped in their home country are then raped again here in the UK. My hon. Friend highlighted the case of Mariam and how long it had taken her to gain access to benefits. That sounded much more realistic than the timeframes laid out, and much closer to my understanding, as a constituency Member of Parliament, of how long it takes to actually access benefits. She waited nine months to get her benefits.

I want to tell a tiny bit of Mariam’s story, so that she does not just become a person who had to wait a little while for benefits and so that we can feel who she is. I will read it in her words:

“I’m from Fumayu in Somalia and came to the UK in November 2008 after fleeing the war. I’m from a minority clan called Bajuni… I escaped the war in Somalia twice. The first time was in the early 1990s. Militiamen broke into our family home and raped me. They raped my daughter Amina as well. She was just 15. The men shot her dead after, and they killed my son too.”

She fled originally to Kenya and then eventually here to the UK. She applied for asylum the day after she arrived. She says:

“Because I had no money, the Home Office put me in a hostel where I got two meals a day.”

Mariam was rehoused in Middlesbrough. She was scared, and the interpreter brought in for her asylum interview spoke Swahili, not Kibajuni, which is the language she speaks. She was made to speak in a different language and found it difficult to explain herself. The Home Office refused her asylum claim. She was eventually granted her benefits, but, as has already been said, her asylum support stopped in January and her benefits did not start for nine months. The Home Office put Mariam in a dirty hotel. She had no money, and she was lucky that she had a solicitor who gave her some cash and that she was able to rely for some things on local charities.

That cannot be the system that the Minister hopes to see for a woman multiply raped, whose children have been killed in front of her. I ask him to consider all the things requested by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs) 3:04 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a great honour to serve under your guidance, Sir David. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken so far in the debate, and in particular to Thangam Debbonaire, who has led the debate so very well, and not only today.

It is important that we focus on that move-on period for migrants, because it is more than just an administrative wrinkle; it is a deep injustice. I am sure the Minister is now fully aware of that. It has a colossal impact on the lives of incredibly vulnerable people, such as those we have already heard about this afternoon. As asylum seekers arrive in Britain, often after long and harrowing journeys just to get here in the first place, they face a battle to gain refugee status, overcoming language barriers and confusing paperwork, and persevering through any delays and mishaps along the way.

Throughout all that, of course, they are denied the opportunity to work. That is not the principal purpose of this debate, but I would love the Minister to take seriously the point that it is not just morally wrong to deny those seeking asylum the right to work, but really foolish. To give people the right to work while they are seeking asylum is to give them the ability to integrate into the community, to improve their language skills, to provide for themselves and their families, and to be in a far better place to contribute fully once their claim is accepted.

At the moment, as the Minister knows, a tiny minority of those with very specialist skills—they pretty much have to be a brain surgeon—have the right to exercise their skills in this country. Why should not people who are seeking asylum have the right to earn, to work and to support themselves?

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is no evidence that those countries that offer the right to work to asylum seekers suffer from some perceived pull factor? People flee their home country because of danger and persecution; they do not flee their home country because they think they will get a better job when they are coming into a hostile asylum system. There is no evidence at all that those countries that allow a right to work receive flows of asylum seekers on a scale that other countries do not.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs)

Absolutely spot on; I am grateful for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister will take the time just to check with his civil servants that that is absolutely true. There is no pull factor associated with those countries. The majority of civilised countries do exactly what we are asking for and allow people to work while they are seeking asylum. The issue we are talking about is the push factor, not the pull factor. Why do people leave in the first place?

Focusing on the purpose of this debate, we see that a successful verdict is given to many of those who seek asylum. As has already been said, they may have received formal refugee status, but the relief and celebration are cut short as they realise that their newly achieved status is actually a kind of 28-day ultimatum: 28 days until their asylum support is stopped, just 28 days of accommodation and 28 days of a weekly allowance. In a vast number of cases, this is 28 days’ countdown to destitution. Many of those whom we see sleeping on the streets of this city are people for whom that 28-day period has expired.

Imagine, Sir David, being given 28 days to find accommodation in a foreign country to which you have fled to escape war or persecution, not forgetting that you have not been allowed to work until this point, so therefore you also need to find a job during that time—either that, or apply for universal credit. Universal credit’s rules have made it almost inevitable that refugees will be left without support; an automatic 35-day wait to receive their first payment is completely incompatible with the 28 days that refugees have to access it. Then, of course, there will be the complexities of the paperwork and documentation required to gain access to universal credit in the first place.

The safeguards in the universal credit system to ensure that claimants are not left without support are often not accessed by refugees. Either they are unaware that they are eligible, or they do not even have a bank account to receive the support. Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, local authorities are given a 56-day period to work with households at risk of homelessness. For refugees to receive support for only a pitiful 28 days is utterly ludicrous; it is almost designed to take desperate people, who ran to us for sanctuary and safety, and plunge them into bewildered misery as they are forced on charity or, increasingly, on to the streets.

I am pretty sure we all agree that human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. We as a society, as a Government, as a country, have already accepted that people in such situations deserve protection under the refugee convention, yet the current system is a far cry from recognising that in practice.

Refugees are forced to sleep rough, work illegally or face appalling exploitation in order to meet their basic needs while jumping through bureaucratic hoops to access money, accommodation, employment, education and so on. Will the Minister commit to providing refugees in the UK with the respect and dignity they deserve from day one of being recognised as a refugee, and to giving them what they need to build their lives in a new place and flourish in and contribute to our society?

In many ways the solution is simple: extend the move-on period to at least 56 days, which would cover the break in support and give refugees the best chance of establishing a stable and productive life here. Extending the move-on period to 56 days would have a financial benefit of between £4 million and £7 million each year for the taxpayer. Local authorities would save £2.1 million through the decreased use of temporary accommodation and up to £3.2 million through reduced rough sleeping. Alongside that, we must remove the administrative barriers that newly recognised refugees face. They need to be able to open bank accounts and receive the right documentation, and they need support to help them navigate the move-on period, apply for universal credit and obtain secure accommodation.

I recognise that there are complexities around which Department the matter falls under, but that is no excuse. While more and more families find themselves destitute and desperate, unable to meet even their basic needs, we need decisive action to end the tragedy of refugee destitution. Will the Treasury and the Government take steps today to end the departmental deadlock and extend the 28-day waiting period to 56 days? That would reduce benefit claims and increase the productivity of refugees in this country. More importantly, it would enable them to live in safety and dignity. It will save them from further pain and trauma on top of all that they have experienced already. With a simple change in policy, we can prevent destitution and save money. It is blindingly, obviously, the right thing to do. Will the Government do it?

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney 3:11 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing this important debate. I am delighted to be able to contribute and stand up for the women, children and families whom I have supported recently. Up to December, I was running a refugee support project called Love to Learn in the borough of Wandsworth. I pay tribute to everyone working in the team and also to other local organisations: CARAS, the South London Refugee Association and Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees. I want to talk about community services and widen the debate to consider other ways in which we can support those who have been granted refugee status, but need more support to be able to live here.

First, let us consider housing support for young people leaving care. Asylum seekers might have come here unaccompanied. When they leave care, they often fall into what has been described to me, by someone who came recently from Eritrea, as a dark hole. As was mentioned earlier, a cash grant is needed for the essentials in the accommodation that they might be provided with, from the most basic things such as sheets and a duvet to a cooker. I have had to drive to pick up and take basic goods over to help young people. Not having a bank account is one reason why they could not buy goods. Getting a bank account is really hard. There is also the issue of internet access. I have sat in local cafés with young people because I have a smartphone and am able to access the services that they need. After leaving care, no support at all is given.

The second area of concern is mental health support. According to the Refugee Council, 61% of asylum seekers experience serious mental distress, which does not change when they receive their status. Refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than those in the UK population. That is just an acknowledgement of the situation that many people have faced, and the reason why they have had to come here to ask for refuge. Mental health support especially fails young people who leave care and need support. I have heard that the threshold for needing support is not one suicide attempt, but more than one, which is absolutely shocking. People need to know how to access services and support.

Community services provide an important bridge between need and the people who can provide for those needs. For a start, we need to be joined up so that people do not need community support to access services. Also, we should support community projects that enable refugees to claim the things that they are entitled to.

The third area is education support. Many children from a refugee background, including the children of refugees, need additional support to be able to thrive in the education system. Many refugees have faced discrimination, housing issues, language problems, and trauma from the situation that they have faced, which also impedes their children’s ability to thrive. Education, health and care plans are only in English, which could be easily rectified. If they were provided across the country in different languages, such an easy change would make a big difference. There is no translation for children in need. There is a confusing system and refugees do not know how the English system works. They find that they need to fight for their rights, which other parents already understand. Community services such as Love to Learn can provide a bridge, but it would be even better if we did not need it.

The fourth area is English for speakers of other languages, especially ESOL services with a creche, which enables women to attend. Since 2009, Government funding for ESOL courses has been cut by 60%, and the wider adult skills budget, which people go on to—they have their ESOL and need to go on to the next thing—has been cut by 35%. In the Government’s integrated communities action plan, published in February 2019—I have a copy of it here—boosting English language skills is recognised as absolutely key to community integration. The plan states:

“Speaking and understanding English means you are less vulnerable to isolation, improves your work prospects, increases your chance of friendships with people from different backgrounds and allows you to feel more confident when accessing local services.”

So we have an action plan that, from my experience in Wandsworth, is not being funded or delivered. Will the Minister return to the plan and see whether it is being implemented, because it is absolutely fundamental for refugees?

I agree with the Members who spoke earlier about extending the move-on period to 56 days and giving refugees the right to work. I would add that support to community services such as those in my borough of Wandsworth, which already support refugees but could do much more with relatively little funding, is essential. We are fortunate in this country to be able to welcome new neighbours, colleagues and friends to our communities. It says a lot about us as a country that we can do that—we can take pride in it—and provide refuge to people who desperately need it. We must keep doing better, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is important and fundamental to building integrated, happy communities together.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:18 pm, 4th March 2020

I thank Thangam Debbonaire for setting the scene. I always enjoy the debates she secures, because she is so passionate and her voice is always so strong as well. She says the right things and it is a pleasure to be involved in any of her debates. She speaks with knowledge, passion and interest, as have other speakers.

I am concerned about asylum decisions. This is something we need to alter. We want the Minister to give us the response we wish to hear. We look forward to that with trepidation. We all know that whenever we move house, it takes time to get our affairs in order. Most people take out a standardised three-month mail re-route with the post office, on the understanding that things do not always go as smoothly as we would like. The situation for refugees is more difficult.

I have been very vocal in my opposition to the five-week delay in universal credit, which in reality is a two-month gap for many people to get all the information they need for the official documentation. To expect someone to apply for their social security number, which is a necessity for universal credit, and to then complete the process within the 28 days that the asylum payment continues is absurd. It is simply not feasible or fundamentally achievable. Indeed, I would be very interested to hear how many people have successfully managed to navigate the process within 28 days. I frequently deal with the benefits and universal credit system, and in my opinion the number is very few. I do not want to put the Minister on the spot, but it would be good to hear what the numbers are: I suspect they are small, if there are any such people at all. My constituents find it difficult to get their tenancies, sick lines, past earnings, bank statements, identification documents and child support payments in order, and their first language is English—never mind starting all that from scratch in a second language. The difficulties are real. They are enormous for people who must negotiate those things in an unfamiliar language. If we believe that people are in need of asylum, I believe that we accept that it is our responsibility to provide it. That does not mean abandoning them to a system that it is difficult for us, never mind them, to understand. It would seem logical to offer every bit of support we can.

An example of a slightly different situation, but which none the less shows how the system works, involves a lady who was born here and moved to Canada and raised her children there. She came home in her 70s after her husband died, to be with family and friends who would give her support. We had to fight to get any bank to give her a bank account, despite the fact that she was the recipient of a British pension and had a national insurance number. It took us weeks, if not months, to get her a bank account, and I personally vouched for her on the strength of her family connections, as they lived in Newtownards and I knew them. It was a necessity to get the bank account for universal credit payments to be made. That example involved a British citizen who ticked all the boxes. Yet she had real difficulty in getting to the end of her trials and tribulations.

I am thankful to the many charities that do all they can to help families who need help. My office, like, I suspect, other MPs’ offices, is a referral point for the food bank, which has been the difference between a full and empty belly for refugees in my constituency. That is how drastic it is. It is as serious as that when people have to find their way through the system. Crisis has said that in 2016-17, 478 people, or 7% of new clients approaching it for help that year, were having difficulty with transition from the asylum payment. We should remember that those were only the people who contacted that charity. The figure should probably be multiplied by a large number, if people who went to other charities were included. Those were people who were forced to flee their homes and support systems and who landed in the country knowing no one and often not having a good grasp of the language. We simply need to do better for them and we look to the Minister to give us the answers that our constituents, and the refugees, need to hear.

We have been fortunate in my constituency to have five Syrian refugee families who came to our area. I met them as their MP, as is my duty, although I would do so irrespective of whether I was the MP and help in any way I could. I will tell you the truth, Sir David, and give you a real example. I do not mean any disrespect to anyone and am not trying to point the finger at anyone, but it was the local church groups, which got together—and particularly the Link group that brought them together—that helped the Housing Executive to get them some rental accommodation. The church groups, and that one in particular, got clothes for them and their children, and food as well as accommodation. We use the Thriving Life church for the food bank. Local church groups also got the furniture to furnish their homes for them. They had nothing. Those people come with nothing and start from a base that none of us ever starts from. We are fortunate to have had years of work, and family connections, but they had none.

The menfolk—they were the earners when they were in Syria—were accomplished tradesmen. They could have done carpentry or electrical work. Those were their trades. They just needed to start to do that. Another massive problem was language and having someone to interact with them. The church groups, again, did something about that. Another problem was education for the children. Fortunately the children were of an age at which they had some grasp of English, and some were fairly fluent. We got them into local schools. I am sorry if I am rambling on a wee bit, but those things happened not because of Government and the universal credit system, but because local people took the initiative. It was really important.

We need to extend support to allow refugees peace of mind while they go through the quagmire of universal credit or getting a job. Many jobs pay monthly in arrears, which puts them in the same position. They are behind the eight ball—even worse than anyone else, it seems. Charities and church groups are wonderful but we need to send the right message and either resolve the universal credit timing, which I have been pushing for since its inception, or acknowledge the failure in our system and not allow vulnerable people to be the ones who suffer. I support the extension of payment for refugees to 56 days and ask the Minister to consider that. I say to him gently and sincerely that we are here because we all feel the same on behalf of refugees.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 3:25 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I pay tribute to Thangam Debbonaire and congratulate her on securing the debate and on another brilliant speech, as well as on the brilliant work she does as chair of the APPG on refugees—including the “Refugees Welcome?” report. We are fortunate to have her chairing the group. I pay tribute, in fact, to every Member who has taken part in the debate. Every speech was excellent and showed huge knowledge. I mean no disrespect when I say that almost certainly that is partly because many of the same Members have been making similarly excellent points in excellent speeches for years on end. We now need the Government to listen and to act on some of the advice that is being provided.

I pay tribute also to organisations such as the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, Crisis and the local organisations that Members have mentioned, which work at the coalface supporting the people we have been speaking about, and engaging in advocacy work on behalf of those vulnerable individuals. Without them we would not be able to make the case we are making today.

I think that this is the first chance I have had to welcome the Minister to his new post at the Home Office. I am never quite sure whether to congratulate or commiserate with those who are sent to the Home Office. He has a tough job ahead of him and I wish him all the best in it. If he is ever looking for constructive advice and help, I am happy to meet him at any point.

The debate highlights an absolute tragedy. Paul Blomfield was right to say that every grant of refugee status should be something to celebrate. It is another human being who is protected under international law as a person at risk of persecution in their home country. What a tragedy it is that, after we have taken that step and stepped up to our moral and legal obligations, the system works in such a way as to make the refugee homeless and destitute immediately. It is a tragedy and disgrace, and, as Kate Osamor said, we are a rich country and can and must do much better. As Jim Shannon said, all sorts of statistics show that the situation is not just a few isolated examples of folk falling through the safety net. It is a huge, widespread problem. It does not need to be like this, and many of the key problems could be solved simply by extending the move-on period. That is not a complete solution, but it would take us 90% of the way there.

I am sure that the Government will talk about liaison officers, post-grant appointments, signposting, integration funding and attempts to ensure that national insurance numbers are issued as part of the process of issuing biometric residence cards. That is all welcome and necessary, although even those processes need to be improved on. However, the overwhelming evidence is that it does not come remotely close to fixing the problems that have been highlighted. All the help in the world will not alter the fact that 28 days is insufficient time for moving on. There seems to be a fundamental failure to grasp that the moving-on process is a gargantuan task for many individuals, given what they have been put through. We are dealing, in many cases, with incredibly vulnerable people. By definition they are here because they have fled persecution in a different country, and all sorts of barriers can stem from that, including language, mental health issues—something that Fleur Anderson referred to—and a fear of interacting with the authorities. Twenty-eight days is simply too short a time. As a result, already scarred lives are even more damaged by our Government’s failure to deal with this in a comprehensive manner.

The impact of that failure does not last only a few days; it can set back integration by months, years and even for life. Jess Phillips gave powerful examples of that, particularly relating to women. At the stroke of a pen, Ministers could take a significant step toward fixing this by making the move-on period long enough for refugees to be able, with proper support, to navigate the system and establish themselves here.

Hon. Members set out a whole host of problems with the move-on period, which I will refer to briefly. First and foremost, 28 days is not only too short but is totally incompatible with the 35 days required, in theory, to access universal credit, and is inconsistent with the 56-day provision the Government put in their own homelessness legislation. Secondly, we heard about all the challenges in getting the necessary documentation to open bank accounts and to access social security and accommodation. The Government have taken steps in the right direction, but there is still an awful long way to go, and a joined-up approach is very much missing.

There is a lack of knowledge in some institutions—we heard about banks, but also local authorities and jobcentres—about what evidence is needed, and even about how to apply tests such as the habitual residence test. I am not sure whether problems accessing integration loans have been referred to, but there are still huge challenges relating to awareness and insufficient loans, particularly for those who might want to access accommodation in the private rented sector. As several Members said, extending the move-on period could save the Government £7 million because of reductions in rough sleeping and reduced local authority spend on temporary accommodation. It would also save the Scottish Government a small fortune in the amount that they have to pay out through Scottish welfare fund crisis grants.

Fifty-six days is the minimum period recommended by those at the coalface, and the reasoning was set out in detail by the hon. Member for Bristol West. My party is absolutely behind that, and we would also support flexibility for appropriate cases involving longer transitions. Why end asylum support before we know that the first universal credit payment has actually been made? The call we make is based on evidence from those working with people making the transition and on experience with constituents. If the Minister does not support 56 days, how does he justify 28 days? Will he explain why the Home Office thinks 28 days appropriate? I have completely failed to find any explanation as to why that is deemed an appropriate move-on period.

A whole host of other related issues feed into the problem of post-decision support. They could all probably command a debate in their own right, so I will refer to them in passing. Hon. Members have done a good job of explaining why they are so important. First, asylum decision-making times seem to be growing out of control. We also heard about the right to work, and Tim Farron in particular detailed how significant that is. Clearly, people will be less likely to require support or to fall into destitution if they have already been working by the time they have their decision. It is way past time for lifting the ban on the right to work.

We also need to look at the whole dispersal system, the huge delays in paying asylum support and the paltry levels of support that we give to asylum seekers. We need to recognise that they are hugely disproportionately placed in areas of already high deprivation, and we then pay them a pittance in support—£5.39 per day—none of which aids integration or makes a subsequent transition period smoother. Ultimately, the UK Government’s whole approach to integration needs to be looked at again. It seems almost as if it has been designed around the half of asylum applicants who ultimately will not be recognised as refugees. It is almost as if they are attempting to make the system as miserable as possible, to deter applications. We should design the system around the half of applicants who are refugees and will eventually be recognised as refugees. The aim should be integration from day one, which is the approach at the centre of the Scottish Government’s integration strategy.

As others have said, the Home Office’s approach means a two-tier system in practice, with a different approach to resettled refugees and refugees who come through the UK asylum process. I accept that the approach to resettled refugees cannot just be cut and pasted and applied to those who have come through the process here, but there are all sorts of examples of good practice that could be taken from the resettlement programme and applied to those who have gone through the system. As Members have said, one example is the up-front cash grant of £300 per person for resettled refugees while they wait for universal credit.

In conclusion, as I said at the outset, it is hugely frustrating that these issues have persisted for ages. Charities and parliamentary Committees have been reporting on this for years on end. I have a small worry that things might actually get worse before they get better. The hon. Member for Putney was among those highlighting the importance of funding for community organisations. As I understand it, EU asylum, migration and integration funding, which supports services such as the Scottish Refugee Council’s integration service, is due to end in September. It is important to know what the Government will do to replace that funding. More fundamentally, we need the Minister to agree that the position is completely unacceptable and that urgent action is required. More tweaks will not suffice. Some might be important, but we need the move-on period to be extended, as advocated by every single hon. Member who has spoken so far.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham 3:35 pm, 4th March 2020

I apologise for running in like a bat out of hell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing the debate and hon. Members who have spoken.

The toxic debate surrounding immigration has meant that there are increasingly fewer people in positions of power to speak up for the most vulnerable in our society, asylum seekers among them. In the clamour to appear tough on immigration, we have lost that once proud British tradition of accepting into this country those in most need—one example we hear often is that of the Kindertransport and our noble Friend Lord Alf Dubs.

Refugees should absolutely be welcome here, but at the moment it seems that we refuse to treat them with dignity and humanity. We must remember that they do not choose where they were born, the political issues that occur in their country or the situations that arise that mean they have to flee. They should not be held to account for that; rather, we should receive them with open arms.

The Government seem to want to stop at nothing to maintain their hostile environment; they have even suggested that, in some cases, they would deny legitimate asylum claims which, of course, would be against the 1951 refugee convention. The Government’s focus on deterrence, rather than on establishing safe and legal routes, is an expression of that, and they should be deeply ashamed of it. As we have heard, it has been left mostly to faith and community organisations to fill the gap that the Government should be filling. They do an absolutely fantastic job, but it is simply not their job, and they do not have the resources to continue doing it.

We have heard many people touch on the right to work, and I am proud that it is the Labour party’s policy, as well as to establish safe and legal routes, to allow asylum seekers the right to work after six months. Commentators wax lyrical about asylum seekers being a drain on resources, but we refuse to let them work. As I said, people do not come here because they want handouts. A lot of them have skills to work and should be given the opportunity to do so. In working, they would reduce that so-called bill that people talk about and give back to the community. They want to work and to integrate into society, but denying them the right to work does not allow that. The Government also said that they want to curb modern slavery, but these restrictions on the right to work really undermine that so-called policy.

On ESOL, we argue that people should speak English, but we maintain that the Government’s policy is shameful and treats those claiming asylum as though they were on immigration bail. These measures prevent young people from accessing education, including ESOL classes. Two years ago, three young men who came here as unaccompanied minors from Eritrea committed suicide. Imagine travelling all that way here, to safety—in terrible conditions and at the mercy of people traffickers—only to feel so unsafe that, once they had arrived in what was meant to be a place of safety, they wanted to commit suicide. That stands to reason, given the way in which they were treated. They felt so insecure about the length of time it was taking the Home Office to come to a decision that they felt that they had no option but to kill themselves. Instead of the Government supporting people better, we seem to be handing over our services to private companies, including Serco and G4S. We give millions and millions of pounds to those private companies, which continue to fail. Even companies that have defrauded the Government are left to provide housing and other resources. Instead of giving that money to local authorities, which I think would do better at providing housing, we see that a lot of complaints have been received about the housing—it is really poor housing. At the end of the day, local authorities are responsible for the integration of asylum seekers, and the money would be better spent by them for the whole community, particularly in a climate in which things are being whipped up and a lot of the time not a lot is going back into quite under-privileged communities.

The mistakes made by the Government in relation to applications continue to be a disgrace and ruin lives. We talk about all the money that is wasted on immigration and asylum, but I argue that we continue to do things such as detain and deport asylum seekers and victims of trafficking and sexual violence—something that the Government said that we would not do—and every single time we detain someone and keep them in a detention centre, that is wasting money. It is giving money again to the same private companies.

As has been demonstrated, the main point of this debate is to ask the Minister to explain why we have the 28-day rule. Why will we not extend the period to 56 days? Twenty-eight seems to be quite an arbitrary number. The Minister has heard again and again about how it eventually leaves people homeless and destitute and ends up creating a greater cost for the Government. What would it actually cost if we were to extend the period of support to 56 days? I wonder whether the Minister could calculate whether that would cost as much as the Home Office tends to pay out for its mistakes in relation to immigration claims.

We have a legal and moral obligation to those who claim asylum, but daily we seem not to meet that, so what I would like to ask the Minister overall is when the Government will stop treating asylum seekers as second-class beings and if and when they will stop treating them as if claiming asylum is a crime.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:41 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in two days, Sir David. No doubt there will be many future occasions as well.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating Thangam Debbonaire on securing today’s debate and opening it with such a thoughtful but also passionate speech. She has for a long time been a powerful and persuasive campaigner and advocate on these issues. The Government might not always agree completely with everything that she says, but on many occasions we do, and I am grateful to her for raising these issues in Parliament and for doing that in such a well considered and thoughtful manner. Cases are always much more persuasive when presented in the way that she has demonstrated today, and I am grateful to her for raising this important subject in the way she has.

As the spokesman for the Scottish National party, Stuart C. McDonald, said, I am extremely new in this role. I was appointed to the Home Office, in addition to the Ministry of Justice, only two or three weeks ago, so I am getting rapidly up to speed with these issues, and it has been very useful to hear everything that hon. Members have said today. However, I am a Member of Parliament who represents Croydon, and many hon. Members will know that one of the Home Office’s major centres for handling asylum applications is Lunar House in the London Borough of Croydon. In fact, Croydon has, along with Kent, I think, the highest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. From my own constituency casework, therefore, I am very familiar with many of the issues that have been raised about asylum in general and UASCs in particular. Croydon was also the first borough to roll out universal credit fully, so I have had a lot of experience as a constituency Member of Parliament of that as well.

Let me talk a bit about asylum in general, before turning to some of the specific points raised today. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol West, said that this country has a proud and long history of welcoming refugees to these shores. In particular, when the Syrian crisis occurred four or five years ago, we set up the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which I think has worked extremely well. We set an ambition, an aim, a target of resettling 20,000 people, mostly from Syria or from camps on the borders of Syria, directly in the UK, and we are, I think, extremely close to reaching the 20,000 level; I expect we will reach it in a matter of a few weeks. That scheme designed to help the most vulnerable people imaginable—people who have suffered terrible atrocities in Syria—has worked very effectively.

In relation to asylum more generally, there were 34,000 claims for asylum last year. The number has been going up for the last few years. Last year we made just under 20,000—19,480—grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or other forms of long-term leave. More than half were for asylum. I think that 20,000 per year is a number that we can point to with pride as a country that wants to look after people who are fleeing persecution. The figure of 34,000—the number of people who claimed asylum last year—is not the highest in Europe, but is one of the highest in Europe; it is certainly in the top four numbers in Europe. The fact that people are coming here in such large numbers, often travelling first through other safe European countries such as France, Germany and Italy, shows quite a high level of confidence among those who choose to come here. That is not to be complacent or to dismiss any of the points raised, which I will come to, but in itself it does show that people seeking refugee status recognise that the UK is somewhere that takes its obligations very seriously indeed. That is why, as I said, they often travel through safe European countries to come here. Clearly, under the Dublin convention, people are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

In relation to financial support for the asylum-seeking community, the cost of supporting asylum seekers is just under £1 billion—it is about £800 million—a year, and approximately 50,000 people are being supported, so I feel that from a financial perspective, quite a lot is being done to support this vulnerable community. They are vulnerable in the ways that hon. Members very eloquently described.

I hope that those remarks have set the scene for the United Kingdom’s very significant and profound commitment to supporting refugees. I shall turn now to the specific question about the 28 days. I would like to talk a bit about some of the things that we are doing to mitigate the impacts that have been described today and then discuss the 28 days versus 56 days.

I think that when my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes was Immigration Minister, there was a debate on this topic in which some of these issues were aired. Since then, quite a few practical steps have been taken to try to make things as easy as possible for refugees in the 28-day period following the grant of their status. Let me mention just a couple. First, the 28-day period is not necessarily triggered by the grant of status; it is started only when the biometric residence permit is issued. That is the document needed to establish the status and enable people to apply for benefits and so on without getting unduly delayed by bureaucratic error. I am told that if administrative errors occur, that resets the 28-day period. If hon. Members have encountered any individual cases in which administrative errors that are not the fault of the refugee have occurred and a reset has not happened, I encourage them to write to me with the particulars so that I can look into them. I would be very happy indeed to do that.

We also ensure that the individual’s national insurance number is on the permit, because experience suggests that one of the things that just generally speeds things up is the NI number being clearly displayed in a place where it is easy for people to see.

The question of access to bank accounts was raised by Fleur Anderson and others, and it is clearly essential that refugees have bank accounts, because pretty much everything these days—getting work and everything else—requires a bank account. A lot of work has been done, and is under way as we speak, with banks to speed that up, make things easier and remove some of the barriers that exist, but I undertake to write to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is the City Minister and responsible for financial service regulation, to get an update on where we are with ensuring that bank accounts are available to refugees, who are obviously completely entitled to live here and to work, as we all do, and make sure that that is functioning as it should. I will follow up that specific point.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I was also one of those who mentioned bank accounts. I am very keen to know that what the Minister is asking for means that there will be feedback for all of us who are here and all the regions of the United Kingdom, because we need to have that provision in Northern Ireland as well.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will write to the hon. Member for Bristol West about that point on bank accounts. She can disseminate that as she sees fit to other hon. Members who take an interest and I will copy it to Jim Shannon, since he specifically raised that point.

The hon. Member for Strangford and others raised the important issue of English language lessons. As the Scottish National party spokesman said, properly integrating people, particularly into the workforce, is critical. We spoke about universal credit, which I will come on to address. That is clearly an important way of supporting people. Ultimately, for those granted refugee status, as for anyone else, the way out of poverty is through work rather than benefits. Being unable to speak English makes it very difficult to get into the workforce.

English language support is important. Investment in it is about £100 million per year through the adult education budget, which gives the money to various colleges and learning providers. They then decide how to meet the specific needs of their local communities. We have augmented that with an extra £10 million to support refugees who have come through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, to ensure that they can access additional language training. On top of that, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is investing a further £4.5 million per year to support community-based language provision.

I completely accept the need for English language training. I would rather that we taught people to speak English than endlessly have to translate. Helping people to speak English is the best solution. I will keep that under review. If there is evidence that the level of provision is not adequate, I will happily follow up further.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I understand that the MHCLG funding for community-based language provision is due to come to an end and there is currently no news on that funding being renewed, despite our understanding a couple of years ago that the Government intended to renew it. If the Minister can do anything about that with his colleagues in that Department to raise the issue, we would all appreciate it.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will raise the issue with MHCLG colleagues and seek assurances that this funding line, which has happened in the past, will continue.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

I want to mention courses in English for speakers of other languages coming with a crèche. That is increasingly crucial the more those courses are provided by colleges and similar providers, instead of community-based providers. We are seeing that provision being cut across the country. Women with children are specifically disadvantaged by the cuts and they are not fair for all.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Lady makes a good point. As a father of young children, I understand that childcare is important, whether for parents in work or further education, so her point is well made.

Paul Blomfield made a related point about language. Notwithstanding my remarks a moment ago that teaching people to speak English is preferable to perpetually translating—for society and the individual concerned—I would like to make it clear that the welcome guide for refugees to England is available in multiple languages: Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Kurdish, Farsi, Pashtu, Punjabi, Tigrinya and Urdu. Hopefully, that will be of use to speakers of those languages.

Regarding the 28-day period, we are working with the voluntary sector. Several hon. Members have referred to its excellent work. We are also working with other Departments, as was raised by several hon. Members. We are working with local authority asylum liaison officers in some of the main areas where asylum seekers are being accommodated. That is funded by MHCLG. The role of these liaison officers is to assist newly recognised refugees with move-on arrangements, particularly housing, to ensure that the transition from supported accommodation to wider society happens as smoothly as it can.

Our asylum accommodation providers, the people who provide the supported housing while the claim is being processed, are under a contractual duty, under their contracts with the Home Office, to notify the local authority and their liaison officers of the potential need to provide housing where a person in their accommodation is granted status. We are doing everything we can to try to make that work, between the Home Office-supported accommodation and the local authority’s housing services, supported by the liaison officer, as joined up as possible.

The central question is 28 days versus 56 days. I have read the Red Cross report, to which Tim Farron referred. I have it here. There is clearly a financial cost to keeping people in supported accommodation for longer than they are currently kept there. The Red Cross report makes the case that the extra cost in the Home Office estate would be outweighed by savings in local authorities, due to less homelessness support. I will study the report. It has some costings of that equation. I will look at the numbers carefully and make my own assessment as to where that balance lies.

In addition to the purely financial consideration, there are practical capacity considerations. As we know, housing is quite difficult to come by. If we extended from 28 days to 56 days, we would increase the number of people in supported housing by a few thousand. We would then have to find those extra spaces. Even if one could make a compelling financial case—the Red Cross says that case can be made—one must think practically about where those places would come from. That must be borne in mind.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

Will the Minister commit to looking at how much would be contributed financially by tax payments, if asylum seekers were allowed to work after six months, as well as how much the Home Office would save, if it made fewer mistakes and had to pay claims as requested?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Work is not the topic of this debate, and it is more than a financial consideration. We can all agree that we must be quicker at handling asylum claims. Whether they are successful, and we must integrate people into the community, or whether they are unsuccessful, and the person must be removed, doing it quicker is in everybody’s interest. As a matter of priority, as the new Minister, I will find ways of making this process quicker, which would mitigate a lot of the problems we have been discussing.

I have listened carefully to everything that has been said. The points have been made with sincerity and compassion. I will reflect carefully on what I have heard this afternoon. I will look at the case made in the Red Cross report and study those numbers. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol West for securing the debate and for making her case in such a balanced and considered way.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:58 pm, 4th March 2020

I thank the Minister for his comments. I am aware that we are going to vote any minute now, so I will confine my closing remarks to expressing my thanks to all hon. Members for an extremely thoughtful and constructive debate. Sometimes it feels like groundhog day, because we have done this before, but I am heartened by the Minister’s response. His commitment to read the Red Cross report is welcome. I was glad to see nods from his officials at certain points made by hon. Members.

I want to be hopeful. I hope that the Minister will engage constructively with me and other hon. Members here, and I would be grateful if he agreed to meet me to discuss some of the detail. I thank him for doing that. I want to put on record the fact that I was referring earlier to David Burrowes—a good man, who set a good template. All hon. Members made constructive and thoughtful contributions and I welcome the Minister’s constructive approach to this. I hope we can take a different approach, so that we do not have to do this debate next year—that would be fantastic. We will come back to discuss the right to work—it is related—but I am happy to take the Minister’s commitment that he will focus on the issue of 28 days versus 56 days at this point.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered support for refugees after receiving an asylum decision.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.