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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme in providing support for asylum seekers.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support that I have received, for research capacity in my office in relation to my work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, from RAMP, the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project, which I thank also for supporting David Simmonds and me in seeking this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Davies.
Let me start with some more thanks to all colleagues, across almost every party, who have backed the debate, and to all those organisations that not only have briefed for this debate, but work on this issue day in, day out, supporting some of the most vulnerable people across our country. I thank all my constituents who have messaged me to bemoan the awful system imposed by the Home Office, and all those out there who retain faith in the UK’s historic contribution to shaping international law on asylum and our equally historic contribution in not just settling asylum seekers in our country, but benefiting from the contribution that they have made to enrich our country’s economy and culture over very many decades.
Some people seek to cloak themselves in our flag, but wish to sidestep or even ignore our traditions and our historic sense of duty in always being there to support people in need—and people are in need in growing numbers across the globe, which is why an effective and efficient policy is so important. The world remains a dangerous place—from armed conflict, from growing resource and climate conflict and from growing aggression and human rights abuses in China, Russia and other countries, putting even more people at risk. Despite those growing risks, I am unsure whether there is another area where Tory rhetoric on global Britain clashes more harshly with the reality of this Government’s policies, given the planned cuts to our armed forces and the massive reduction to our international aid budget, despite manifesto commitments.
Many of the people in need will reach our shores, and when they arrive, we have responsibilities—legal duties. It is essential that we live up to our responsibilities—responsibilities to asylum seekers and responsibilities to the British public, who want to see an effective system that not only weeds out the tiny, minute, fraction of bogus claims fast but, equally quickly, resettles the overwhelming majority of genuine asylum seekers at the best price for the UK taxpayer. Sadly, that is in no way what we have currently. Instead, we have a fragmented system, badly mismanaged by the Home Office and, at the very start of the process, getting even the basics wrong. The British Red Cross has reported that 81% of asylum seekers do not even receive information in their own language. They are not told what is happening and will happen to them; and two thirds did not get health screening, even during the pandemic.
Then the Home Office shunts people into short-term asylum accommodation while their eligibility for support is assessed. Usually, people should then be moved to dispersal accommodation across the UK, where they will live until a decision is reached on their full application —often after a lengthy delay. During that period, people are prevented from working. They have no choice over where or how they are housed, and they are provided with just £39.63 a week to support themselves. That is a far cry from the £150,000 a year that the Prime Minister gets, and he is apparently still reliant on someone else to cover redecorating bills.
This is a crumbling, pernicious system, which has directly contributed to covid infections, crime and chaos, but it is overseen—ironically—by the Department with overall responsibility for tackling crime and disorder in the UK: a Department that has been warned so many times about this inhumane, inefficient and expensive system, which the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have laid bare. The National Audit Office reported last July that the system that the Government have adopted caused costs to escalate by 28% to £568 for each accommodated asylum seeker, and saw a 96% increase in short-term, more expensive accommodation. In November last year, the Public Accounts Committee warned of a system in crisis and recommended:
“The Home Office should, within three months, set out a clear plan for how it will quickly and safely reduce the use of hotels and ensure that asylum seekers’ accommodation meets their individual needs.”
I look forward to hearing from the Minister today, six months later, how that is being delivered.
Understandably, the Minister will say that covid is responsible for some of the rising costs and inefficiencies of his Department’s policies. I hope he will outline when those costs will fall and the strategy adopted in response to repeat NAO and PAC concerns. I also hope he will acknowledge how Home Office policies go back to before covid. There were more than 1,000 people in hotels in October 2019, before covid was identified in China, let alone before it began to be responded to by a Government headed by a Prime Minister whose own delayed decisions contributed to covid deaths in the UK. I will not repeat his sickening comments about piling up the bodies, as they are so raw for the 127,000 families who have lost loved ones.
I think the level of interest in this debate is due in part to the dramatic rise in hotel and other inappropriate accommodation use. At the end of February, almost 8,700 people were living in hotels across the UK, according to the Refugee Council. It is important to remember that the increased number of people living in contingency accommodation is due not to a rise in applications, but to a Home Office backlog. Also, these are hotels where people might stay for a short stop en route, not for a holiday or extended break, as they are often on the edge of towns, far from amenities and certainly far from the healthcare services needed by people who have been through trauma elsewhere, and who in some cases have acute mental health needs.
In London, more than 6,000 asylum seekers are in hotels, and roughly 1,200 are children, some unaccompanied. Again, this is not a holiday; it is isolating, lonely, and also exposed. “Line of Duty” has made more people familiar with the term OCGs. As a direct result of Home Office policy, organised crime groups have targeted asylum seekers in Home Office-funded premises to engage them in illegal work and other crime, including drug trafficking. Vulnerable people are made worse off by the Home Office, with criminals benefiting from Home Office policy. The fact that the Department oversees law and order policy in the UK is a joke when it cannot even ensure that the premises it funds are off limits to OCGs.
The people in hotels were originally scheduled to be moved out by March 2021. In February, the Home Office announced its intention to move people out of hotels again, through Operation Oak, but the process has yet to be completed, and the Home Office has said that it simply intends to complete it by the summer. I hope the Minister will today confirm the new date, full plans and staging post for delivery. The fear is that this is still “Operation Acorn”.
Of course, some costs in the system are avoidable if the decisions are made quicker. The Home Office website still claims, ludicrously, that someone seeking asylum will “usually” have a decision within six months. That is simply untrue and has been for some time. More than 64,000 people are awaiting decisions, according to the Refugee Council, and the British Red Cross says that 72% have waited more than six months. Perhaps the Minister will update us on the average time today. I will be amazed if colleagues can stay in their seats both here in the room and at home, given the previous claims and the average delays that we see for our constituents.
I will give two examples from Bermondsey and Old Southwark. I have raised the cases of an Eritrean woman and a Mongolian man seeking asylum since 2017. Not only do they not have a decision four years later, but the Home Office cannot even give a timeframe for when their cases will be concluded. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today when and how the Home Office will cut the horrific backlog that his Government have created.
The vast majority of asylum seekers have their claims upheld—more than 90% for many countries—so the delay is a needless burden that affects the asylum seeker and also imposes massive cost penalties on the taxpayer: first, in expensive, avoidable temporary accommodation; secondly, because the Home Office prevents people from working; and thirdly, because of the avoidable and lengthy delays to decisions and eventual settlement and work.
At the end of September 2020, there were 3,621 Sudanese, Syrian and Eritrean nationals who had been waiting longer than six months for a decision on their application. The grant rate across those three countries at initial decision was 94% in the year ending March 2020. It could be faster, but it requires a focus from the Home Office that simply has not been there, and that I suspect we will not see from the Minister today.
The system was bad enough before covid, but covid has brutally exposed the inadequacies of the asylum process, with routine delays, inflated costs, needless waits, and prevention from work, even for the one in seven asylum claimants who have a professional background in health and social care. People that this country could have desperately done with working in our services to support people through the crisis were prevented from doing so by Government policy.
But no one could have been prepared for the horrors of the Napier barracks—a cross-party issue on which, I think, 45 questions have been asked since January from all parts of the House. The interest was because Napier exposed the worst excesses of this system, which fails people fleeing torture, genocide, war and persecution, but also fails the taxpayer, our historic contribution and the British tradition of not passing by on the other side of the street. The Napier barracks issue is likely to result in further costs to the taxpayer, with legal cases resulting from this inhumane system imposed on people fleeing to the UK for help, but forced to live in accommodation that public health bodies had said was unfit for use and likely to increase the risks of infection.
The Government claimed a few years ago that the Home Office was reviewing the hostile environment, but it was proved to be only too alive and kicking during the pandemic, perhaps inevitably under a Home Secretary who proved to be the most hostile of bosses. Will the Minister update us today on where that review is, or if it even still exists? Napier shows that, at the same time as wider Government was telling the public to stay home, isolate where possible and protect the NHS, this bit of the Government, the bit that solely determines where asylum seekers live, chose to accommodate people in dormitories of 28: communal, unhygienic spaces that contravened Government guidance and public health recommendations—a shameful episode.
The shadow Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend Holly Lynch, wrote to the Government in December calling for a review of covid safety in all establishments being used for accommodation. In a response at the end of the year, the Home Office claimed it was committed to upholding statutory duties, including providing safe covid-compliant accommodation to those who need it, but failed to undertake that review. Does the Minister have an answer or explanation for that failure today, or better still an apology to the people put in those horrific circumstances?
Sadly, instead of learning from this hideous mistake, which rightly caused public outrage, Ministers planned to extend the use of communal rooms, with proposals for cabin-style accommodation on former MOD land in Barton Stacey. The indications are that Ministers have learned nothing, but I hope we will hear today that Napier will be no longer used and other proposals will be dropped.
I asked for this debate not just to highlight the issue of short-term, costly and dangerous asylum accommodation, but to look at the wider problem that the Government have created surrounding long-term housing through the dispersal scheme, introduced under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which was designed to try to ensure an even spread of support across the country. However, under that scheme, local authorities reach voluntary agreements with the Home Office to accept asylum seekers, and the Home Office has not negotiated well.
Many local authorities have no agreement with the Home Office at all. In Scotland, only Glasgow City Council accommodates asylum seekers. At the end of last year, 223 local authorities throughout the UK were taking no asylum seekers. The system is simply not working. I hope the Minister will explain how the Home Office is delivering the Home Affairs Committee recommendation that it should pursue the commitment he made to a more equitable and sustainable system by expanding the areas participating in dispersal.
Resources are, of course, part of the issue. Councils stress that after a decade of cuts to their budgets, there is no incentive to participate. The costs to local authorities supporting asylum seekers come from social care, homelessness services and other additional support needs. There appears to be no strategy or plan from the Home Office to address this issue to work with local authorities or better support asylum seekers moving out of contingency accommodation and into communities.
The ICIBI report in March stated that there was little focus on helping residents to prepare for next steps and next to zero focus on driving up the quality of the accommodation provided. Despite promises that improvements to accommodation be made, there is increased use of inappropriate emergency sites without wraparound support.
The 10-year contracts the Home Office is using are valued at £4 billion, but information about how these services are performing remains closely guarded. Perhaps Government secrecy is unsurprising when it comes to admitting failings or trying to improve services.
I hope the Minister will tell us his plans to address these issues today and when that plan might start. There is currently no sustainable plan. The only prospect is more of the terrible same, or worse, as numbers continue to rise and costs continue to escalate for emergency temporary accommodation for asylum seekers and costs to the taxpayers.
There are, of course, options on the table. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government might be better placed to provide some supported accommodation. Local authorities are often overlooked by this authoritarian, centralised Government. The need for a place-based, more equitable approach to dispersal has been consistently raised by the Local Government Association, which resulted in the Home Office and Local Government Chief Executive Group, co-chaired by the LGA, with representation of each region and devolved Administration, established in 2019 to develop a 10-year plan for a more equitable distribution of support. I hope the Minister will give us an update on that equitable distribution today.
Others suggest a local authority public health-driven approach. Incidents in hotels and barracks in recent months have highlighted the importance of advance notice, engagement and the sharing of data, so that local services are aware of who is in their locality and what their health needs are.
Sadly, as things stand, the Local Government Association states that the dispersal structure has been abandoned during covid. It is unclear how it will return or what is in place for when the pandemic ends. Partnership is needed on this issue. Will the Minister tell us how relations will be rebuilt? How will the Government address local authority concerns and deliver a more affordable system to the taxpayer, in partnership with the communities that will provide the ultimate long-term address for asylum seekers? At a minimum, I hope the Minister will today explain plans, if any exist, for how the Home Office will move away from its over-reliance on emergency accommodation and improve information sharing with councils and health bodies.
I end by quoting one of the amazing organisations that I thanked at the outset, the British Red Cross, whose report “Far from a home: why asylum accommodation needs reform” is out today. It is based on the real experiences of people living in asylum accommodation, including barracks and finds that
“too many asylum-seeking women, men and children in the UK are living in unsafe, unsanitary and isolated accommodation. This falls far short of expected standards, for months and even years at a time. These issues have been compounded by mounting backlogs in asylum application decisions in recent years, the failure to secure enough community dispersal accommodation and more recently, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Worryingly, the report also suggests that:
“Far from addressing these issues, the UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration…includes plans to house people seeking asylum in reception centres.”
It goes on:
“As we have witnessed in the use of military barracks, institutional-style accommodation can have significant negative impacts on people’s mental and physical health, as well as isolating people seeking asylum from wider communities, ultimately reducing social integration and cohesion…We believe this would be a mistake.”
I wholeheartedly agree with the report’s findings. I hope the Minister will give an initial response to the report in his comments, reassure us that the Home Office will no longer run a dangerous policy that puts people at risk of ill health and exposed to organised crime, and explain how he will seek to restore our proud tradition of being there at times of need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I commence, like Neil Coyle, by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a principal of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
It is vital to put today’s debate into its context. The hostile environment and a move away from treating asylum seekers as simply part of the wider welfare system began in the early 2000s, as the Blair Government recognised the political toxicity of the public perception that people newly arrived in the UK would be able to potentially jump social housing waiting lists. True or not, that was a serious political concern that they faced at the time.
In the mid-2000s, Andy Burnham, then the Immigration Minister and now the Mayor of Greater Manchester, signed off on the implementation of dispersal, creating a new route for asylum seekers, whereby they were placed in parts of the country where local authorities, recognising that there was a surplus of housing locally, offered to accommodate them and to provide them with support in those local communities. Subsequently, the Home Office looked to economise on the cost of delivering those services, by delivering through a set of national contracts with private companies.
Hard as it is to believe for those of us in London constituencies and city constituencies with lengthy housing waiting lists, there are parts of the country, such as Stoke-on-Trent, that were proactive in seeking to be dispersal areas because they recognised the benefits to their communities of bringing in new people who could revitalise the schools and other public services on which their communities depended.
The other significant factor remains the distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is not a matter for the Home Office but sits with the Department for Education, under the Children Act 1989. It means that local authorities that have ports of entry—airports or sea ports where people arrive into the UK—bear significant responsibilities. The Home Office’s national transfer scheme has been a step towards addressing that distribution.
The other big part of that picture is that refugees, once they are granted that status in the UK and have the right to asylum, often do not stay in the communities where they are placed through dispersal. That is why we see very large numbers of refugees living in London and the south-east of England, for example. They have not been placed there by the Home Office, but have moved there under their own volition.
It is very clear from my engagement with contractors who have administered the scheme that the new set of Home Office contracts has represented a significant improvement on what was there before. The funding that is available, the flexibility and the volunteering of new local authorities that are keen to be dispersal areas have all helped to ease some of the pressure.
However, we recognise that there are remaining issues with the system. In particular, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark alluded to, there is a very clear desire, first, to ensure that asylum seekers are not competing with local people to access social housing where that is in short supply; by definition, that means that people are being placed in parts of the country that do not already have a significant housing waiting list. Secondly, we need to ensure, given that around two thirds to three quarters of people who apply for asylum in the UK are granted it, that asylum is the start of a path to integration.
So, my ask today of the Minister is fairly simple—it is a shopping list of things that we need to do better and that we can consider as part of this wider consultation. First, we need to think about how dispersal is part of a path to integration, given those figures about people being granted asylum. Secondly, we must ensure, regarding things such as move-on period and the recognition that most people who come for asylum in the UK will remain, that we are realistic about how we support them to integrate. Thirdly and finally, and this is the most important point, there must be real consideration of how Departments work together. The challenge for local authorities and communities often arises because the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education are not aligned with the Home Office. So, I ask the Minister: can we please ensure that the approach to this issue is joined up across Government so much better than it is today?
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I commend Neil Coyle for securing this debate at this important time. There can be no doubt that, since the beginning of the pandemic, no group of people has been more adversely affected than those seeking asylum or refuge. People arrive here in a society where the biggest concerns seem to be the safety and welfare of citizens, but only of those born here, or beaches that are only overwhelmed by those looking to top up their tans, or that the right calibre of boats are the ones to be seen from the white cliffs of Dover. This is the disunited kingdom in which we live.
The Home Office has placed vulnerable asylum seekers in squalid accommodation at short notice, often for months at a time, with no money, no certainty and no prospects. A so-called temporary solution has become normalised practice. In a very real sense, the asylum support system contorts what should be a source of pride for any country—to help those in their time of greatest need. Instead, it is a de facto and grim pilot scheme for the UK Government’s shameful and unapologetic attitude towards those who have already been traumatised by arduous and terrifying journeys. Too often, people are met with a system that is mired in suspicion, control and surveillance, with real pressure points around homelessness, especially for those who are refused asylum and who are then routinely rendered destitute here in the UK.
Welcome measures were instituted at the start of lockdown, but most have now been withdrawn by a Home Office that is sadly determined to get back to its business-as-usual routines. It announced on
Our overarching sense is that this pandemic has been particularly adverse for refugees’ communities, in terms of extensive social isolation, escalating mental health problems and further severe poverty. In Scotland and indeed across the UK, the pandemic has reconfirmed the inadequacies of the Home Office’s so-called support system.
Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus after an outbreak at a Kent barracks earlier this year. A High Court hearing heard that asylum seekers were left powerless to protect themselves, but the Home Office offered no apology at all. Perhaps that was right—no apology can be made for institutionalised aggression towards those who want nothing more than to be free of violence and persecution, but who instead are hindered and hidden behind the iron curtain of this right-wing Tory Government. I stand here today for my country, desperate to offer support to our newest Scots.
The issue is extremely current, given the situation we have seen in the English channel and the increasing pressures on dispersal areas. I am pleased that the Home Secretary and the Home Office are taking robust action to address those issues, with a new plan for immigration, which I entirely support, by taking action to remove those who have no right to be here and better deterring illegal migration, while supporting those who are in genuine need.
As a dispersal area, Stoke-on-Trent has contributed far more than most areas to the dispersal scheme since its inception, but we can take only so much. It is about fairness. It is now time for other towns and cities to learn from our example and do their bit. Far too frequently, hon. Members advocate doing more, but when it comes to taking action on places becoming dispersal areas, they do nothing. Numerous local authority areas have not resettled a single refugee. Sadly, because of the pressures on Stoke-on-Trent we have now reached the point where additional demands on already stretched local services, whether those are schools, health services or social services, are entirely unsustainable. We have resettled more than anywhere else in the west midlands and now, as part of Operation Oak, we are expected to take more.
I thank the Minister for hearing the concerns of Stoke-on-Trent MPs and the leader of the city council recently. Right now, on average, one person in every 250 in Stoke-on-Trent’s population is an asylum seeker. In one area of my constituency, the figure is closer to one in 80 and, in some parts of the city, it is as high as one in 30. In addition to those asylum seekers, there are thousands of confirmed refugees whom the city has embraced previously. Our city’s cluster limit ratio of 79% is greatly in excess of even Birmingham’s 29%, and our city council has recently had to challenge proposals repeatedly made over the course of the past year to increase numbers further. Sorry, but we can do no more.
Dispersal area local authorities of all complexions across the region have been united in their concerns about ever more pressure being placed on those few dispersal areas, when so many authorities have done nothing. There has been a tendency to place people in areas with lower value housing, just because it is cheaper. Yet the consequences of doing so and the impacts on local services are stark. The council has found itself challenging totally inappropriate accommodation, including unsustainable hotel accommodation. There are also much more serious concerns about radicalisation. Some accommodation is in extremely inappropriate locations, where vulnerable individuals may be targeted by extreme and criminal groups. I repeat that we are proud to have done much more than almost any other area to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, but it is time for other areas to stop grandstanding and actually do something.
The Home Office is knowingly presiding over an asylum accommodation and dispersal system that sees some of the most vulnerable people in the UK forced into squalid and overcrowded accommodation in dilapidated barracks or rodent-infested hotels. Covid-19 rips through dormitories and medical attention is slow to arrive or missing entirely. There is no access to support services or advice. Large groups of people have lived in small, unventilated rooms through lockdown. Food packages provided to children, which were supposed to be nutritious, fell far below any such standard and included pasta floating in milk and even raw chicken. There are reports of malnourishment, in one case resulting in hospitalisation and in another preventing a mother from breastfeeding her child.
The people in question have fled war and violence and are in desperate need of peace, security and stability. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among those housed in the accommodation. Yet they are subject to banging on the door and an instruction that they will be moved, sometimes the next morning and sometimes within the next 20 minutes, to a new, unknown location.
West London Welcome, an inspirational charity in my constituency, has been supporting asylum seekers housed in contingency accommodation hotels in west London since last summer with food, clothes, advice, access to legal aid, and GP and school registrations. It currently supports 300 people and has had 1,300 visits from asylum seekers to its free clothing shop in the last four months. I shall describe some of the people it has helped.
M, an asylum-seeking teenager, was dispersed in mid-February from Fulham to Liverpool and then Stoke-on-Trent. In temporary accommodation in Liverpool, M had no money and no food so West London Welcome sent him hardship money and organised food to be sent to him from the office of my hon. Friend Kim Johnson and Scouse Kitchen. R and her husband and children were left waiting until the very last minute at a hotel in Fulham and then moved to Croydon. It turned out that their 14-year-old son had covid-19—they were not tested before being moved—and he ended up in the intensive care unit. From there they have been moved to Hounslow, which has meant three schools in two months.
F, her husband and children were at the same hotel and she contracted covid-19 while pregnant. Immediately after giving birth, she was sent to the ICU where she remained for three months. Her family were moved to east London, despite promises to find them housing near the hospital where she remained in intensive care. When she came out of the hospital in March and joined her family, they still had not been given the £8 per week support money. The children have not been to school for two months. S, her husband and children were given notice at 8 pm to move at 7.30 am the next day, but were not told where they were going.
Those stories are the bitter reality of the system over which the Government presides. The care of asylum seekers has been contracted out to a hierarchy of poor providers and profit-taking middlemen, but the buck stops with the Government. They should be ashamed and embarrassed, but those are not words we associate with this Home Secretary; rather, there is a feeling that this is all as she intends.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Minister that I have a great deal of sympathy with him in understanding the complexities of finding suitable accommodation and working to make sure that those seeking asylum in this country are properly integrated. Indeed, in my 18 months in the role, some of the most inspiring visits were ones that I had in Bradford, Southampton and south-east London, talking to the volunteers who are helping in the process of finding routes for asylum seekers to integrate into communities—finding the specialist support services they need; finding the medical attention they require on their arrival to the UK; and helping with their children and integration into schools, which is a crucial part of their journey in the UK.
I would like to extend my thanks to the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group and point out that these volunteers and support services are almost invariably found in significant centres of population. It is no surprise that we find organisations working in cities such as Southampton, which has a proud track record of helping refugees and asylum seekers. Indeed, the Swaythling ward in my constituency has one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers in supported accommodation in the city. Therefore, it will also come as no surprise that I regard as deeply suspect any proposals to site asylum seekers away from services they need.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark has mentioned the site at Barton Stacey, which is not only remote from services such as running water, but adjacent to a dual carriageway with a poor safety record. It is also next to a Ministry of Defence firing range and a shooting school, so those who have come to this country seeking refuge from war must listen to the sound of gunshots resonating over the skies.
I know it is really challenging to find suitable accommodation, but this can best be achieved by working with local authorities. I would respectfully point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Local Government Association can be his friend. It is really important to find integrated solutions that involve funding following those who are seeking asylum. We know that a significant proportion of their claims will be granted, but I would like to see more work across Government, perhaps with the MHCLG and the Department for Education, because so many of these asylum seekers are children—children who need school places and who need help to learn English so that they can go on to play a fulfilling role in our society.
Moving forward, it is important for us to remember that these are people, who need our help and who have come here fleeing persecution and war. There are those on all sides of the House who wish to find a way to make sure that the tone of this debate is constructive and helpful; not just pointing out the problems, but seeking to find solutions so that we can do better.
Thank you, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Neil Coyle for securing this debate.
The Government are now presiding over the worst asylum accommodation shortage in history, and the result is that almost a fifth of all supported people seeking asylum are currently living in hostels and other large, full-board facilities. We can thank the Home Office and their extreme mismanagement of contract providers for that. In Leeds, like many other parts of country, asylum seekers have been living in hotels round the city. Contrary to what the Daily Mail would have you believe, the conditions make them completely unfit for short-term emergency accommodation, let alone the months many have endured.
Around 40 people recently took part in protest in one such hotel, drawing attention to the poor living conditions, lack of nutritional food and mistreatment by hotel staff. One man was on hunger strike for nine days. With the help of my office, I have pursued complaints about the standard of the accommodation and care provided in Leeds, and we discovered a worrying picture. Residents are subject to strict rationing for the most basic supplies such as soap and toilet paper, both of which are often unavailable. Many people to whom I have spoken have also been denied access to hygiene facilities. Some asylum seekers only have one set of clothes, and are unable to wash them. One resident reported that he had not been given clean bedsheets for a month. Complaints have been made about insufficient and unhealthy food. Residents did have fresh juice and milk for months, but after complaining about other elements of their living conditions that was removed by the hotel manager: a punitive measure that sent a clear message to asylum seekers telling them not to complain.
Worryingly, there have been severe difficulties in accessing dental and medical care, and legal help. Many residents have no phone credit or do not speak much English and so cannot call for help themselves, and yet staff fail to assist them. In one case, a resident was in severe pain because of a broken foot yet his prescription was not collected for a week. It appears that the regional contract handling of the coronavirus crisis added to the misery of those living there. On more than five occasions, residents were forced to isolate with no explanation.
In many areas, racist far-right activists—no doubt emboldened by the hateful rhetoric spewed by the media and, I am saddened to say, certain Members of the House—visited the hotel to intimidate those living there. Unfortunately, it is not just far-right thugs from outside who have racially abused asylum seekers in hotels. One hotel manager told a man, “If you don’t like it, go back to your own country.” Another resident claimed that the same man said, “I am a citizen of this country and I have a right to do whatever I can. You don’t have the right to complain.” A further two people said that they heard the manager say that if they are not happy they can be deported. That is the tip of the iceberg. The stories I hear in my surgeries are a tiny fraction of what is happening in Leeds and across the country.
In 2018, I spoke physically in Westminster Hall about the poor condition of housing for asylum seekers in Leeds. That continues to persist without any improvement. My colleagues describe similar shocking conditions in constituencies around the country. G4S lost its contract and another private sector company made promises, but the same problems persist. It is time that these contracts were run by public, not-for-profit providers that are not driven by profit—
Whatever the Government are told, the fact remains that the UK is a global leader in overseas aid and refugee resettlement. Between 2016 and 2019, we resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member. In 2015, the Government committed to resettling 20,000 of the most vulnerable who had fled the conflict in Syria. The UK has now resettled over 25,000 refugees in total in the past six years. Over half of them have been children. Any asylum seeker who would otherwise be destitute is provided with free accommodation with utility bills and council tax paid, as well as a weekly allowance with extra money for mothers and little children.
As a nation at the vanguard of human rights around the world, it is right that the UK offers legal and safe routes to help the most vulnerable people in the world. But, Mr Chairman, we have got ourselves into an awful pickle, and it is now out of control. My contention today is twofold: first, the current policy does nothing to disincentivise those who seek to take advantage of our generosity, and our over-populated island is already at capacity. Secondly, we need more robust policies, so I welcome current initiatives from the Home Office such as the points-based immigration system. But we also have to send a clear message to disincentivise economic migration on the pretext of asylum.
As part of the New Plan for Immigration and to help speed up the processing of claims, the Government plan to introduce new asylum reception centres. I welcome that, but would urge that it does not include the dis- aggregated model proposed for provincial towns such as Bracknell, and on which Bracknell Forest Council is currently being consulted. The reasons are persuasive. That small unitary council does not have the space or resources to deal with over 200 families. It is about fire safety, it is about community cohesion, community tension, overcrowding, building regulations, environmental health. The list goes on.
Bracknell is not a very multicultural area. The impact on housing pressure at local level could cause further tensions if there is resentment about refugees receiving housing assistance at a time of acute affordable housing shortage. The scale of the proposed procurement would have a significant negative impact on the resources of a small unitary authority with no council-owned stock. Contextually, Bracknell Forest Council’s housing team has managed in the last twelve months to procure 21 private rented sector households: compare that to 200.
In sum, we need a faster, more robust asylum system. I regret, however, that the model pursued by the Government and by companies such as Clearsprings in Bracknell is just not the answer. We will take our share, but we also need a sense of perspective.
I thank my hon. Friend Neil Coyle for securing this much-needed debate, and I pay tribute to the incredible work of Asylum Link Merseyside in my constituency. My constituents regularly contact me expressing dismay and often anger at the way this country operates its asylum system to the detriment of the most vulnerable and the communities in which they hope to integrate. As a humanitarian, I too, like my constituents, believe that we can and should do more to provide much-needed dignity in the way we treat asylum seekers.
Most recently, I have been contacted by constituents horrified at the treatment of fellow human beings in military barracks. Asylum accommodation has always been inadequate to the needs of people awaiting a decision on their claim, but throughout 2020 the conditions and standards of this accommodation have worsened drastically. Forced room-sharing with strangers, accommodation that lacks basic hygiene measures and inadequate provision of food, non-prescription medicines and other essentials are now the norm. Indeed, drastic failings had been uncovered in a report submitted to the Home Office by prison inspectors, as well as in correspondence sent by the outgoing independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt. This underlines the need for an urgent change of course on the use of this type of accommodation.
With the idea of refugees being kept on a rock in the south Atlantic being floated by the make-it-up-as-you-go-along Home Secretary, no wonder the Government seemingly intend to continue such a barbaric and inhumane practice as currently exists in Kent. I am often reminded of the infamous quote from the late, great Tony Benn:
“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
In short, and in reference to the debate’s motion, the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme is woefully inadequate. There exists only one adequate system: one that puts the human front and centre of the system and affords dignity and respect. As a whole, we must achieve a fair and equitable system that sees Whitehall pulling its weight alongside local authorities, with no local authorities in the Tory shires ducking their responsibilities under the dispersal scheme. Ultimately, big changes are needed.
Many of us know from our constituents that asylum seeker accommodation is too often substandard, with large providers contracted by the Home Office at rates that drive them towards substandard provision. But since 2019 we have seen problems with the new Home Office contracts, which have been mentioned. As the Red Cross explains in its report published today, from the start of the new contracts there was a sharp rise in the use of emergency forms of asylum support accommodation across the UK, including hostels, bed and breakfasts and hotels. By December 2020, around one in every five people accommodated by the Home Office was living in such temporary accommodation—an almost fourfold increase in just one year.
But let us be clear that the solution is not the apparent move from the Home Office towards the use of detention centres on arrival. We have already seen, as has been mentioned, shocking reports of those who have experienced the provision in ex-military barracks, which are unsuitable for helping to heal the traumas those people have experienced and are in extremely poor conditions and away from the services those people need.
The Government’s new plan for immigration includes proposals for new “reception centres” that would “provide basic accommodation”, but as the Red Cross points out, it is likely, given the huge delays in the system, that those seeking asylum could live in such centres for several months, potentially in remote locations, reducing contact between communities, increasing social isolation and harming their health and wellbeing. We know that that is the experience of immigration removal centres, which were set up to fulfil a short-term function but have ended up detaining people sometimes for months, even for years—indefinite detention, described by those detained as worse than prison and rejected by the House in its support for our 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention.
The Government were right to set up pilots to develop community-based alternatives, and I commend the former Minister, Caroline Nokes for her work on them. It now appears, however, that the Government are abandoning those pilots. The consultation paper on the new plan for immigration states that one of its aims is to change the system
“so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.”
If that really is the case, the Minister needs to be clear in his response about how the Government plan to improve housing for asylum seekers and to be clear that increased use of detention will play no part whatsoever.
I have two detention centres in my constituency, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. I will come back in another debate to explain the brutality of the regime in those detention centres, which is abhorrent.
One of the opportunities given to us by Westminster Hall debates is to explain to Ministers what is happening on the ground, as against some of the advice they might be getting from officials. Since last June, two hotels in my constituency have been used to house 600 asylum seekers, as a response to the covid pandemic.
I welcome those people into my constituency. I have met them and they are largely seeking refuge from Syria, Iran and other oppressive regimes or war-torn or impoverished areas of the world. Many arrived here with little more than the clothes they stand up in. To respond, I set up a working group, with representatives from the Home Office, the contractor Clearsprings, the local NHS, council and community groups. I commend the Bell Farm Christian Centre, and Diane Faichney and Stuart Mathers in particular.
Despite all the hard work of those involved, major problems have arisen due to the basic administration of the scheme. For instance, outsourcing food provision to a hotel resulted in people going hungry, and the Bell Farm Christian Centre’s foodbank being overwhelmed, as refugees simply sought food to feed their families. The small financial support allowance is often not paid and backlogs build up. At one point a curfew was imposed, causing real anxiety because detainees felt they were almost in a prison. We also struggled to get agreement with the local council on school places.
Since then, there have been sudden removals of families from those hotels. Although we had been assured that there would be adequate notice, people have sometimes been given just two hours to move, and not told where they are going or where they will eventually be put. Local teachers have contacted me extremely distressed about the impact on already vulnerable children, who had just begun to settle in their schools. We were assured that everything would be done to provide settled accommodation, but we now discover people have simply been dispatched around the country into more hotels and often into appalling standards of accommodation.
We all accept that the overriding concern during the pandemic was to keep people safe, but immediate action is needed to provide support and assistance to these often extremely traumatised people, many of whom have already been diagnosed with PTSD. That means decent, settled accommodation and advice and support, ensuring that those families are fully engaged in determining their own futures. This has been a shameful, disgraceful performance by this Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Neil Coyle on securing this hugely important debate. The asylum system overhaul recently announced by the Home Secretary lacks basic humanity and represents the latest step in this Government’s pernicious demonisation of asylum seekers. It has rightly been criticised by human rights organisations, including the UN Refugee Agency and the British Red Cross.
The UK Government have persistently been warned by experts, migrant charities and parliamentary Committees that if they do not open safe and legal routes for people to practise their legal right to claim asylum, deaths at sea are unavoidable. Yet they have proceeded to close the few legal avenues that exist, such as the right to family reunion.
Contrary to popular mistruths, asylum seekers do not arrive in the UK to leech off the state. Asylum support allowance is a mere £37.75 per week. Contrary to the myths propagated by the Home Secretary in Parliament, it is also far from the case that the UK is overwhelmed with asylum seekers, with Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece and France registering far more asylum applications. Indeed, in 2020, the UK received just under a third of the number of asylum applications received by Germany and about two fifths the number in France. In the sixth richest country in the world, there is no reason we cannot provide a humane pathway towards stability and dignity for everyone. Instead, asylum seekers are forced to reside in appalling conditions.
In a report published today, the British Red Cross found that too many asylum-seeking women, men and children in the UK are living in unfit, unsanitary and isolated accommodation, which falls far short of expected standards, for months and even years at a time. The report is harrowing: people living in the same clothes for weeks, survivors of trafficking forced into widely inappropriate housing and scared to leave their rooms, and requests for medical support ignored. Indeed, in a recent 13-month period, the British Red Cross supported more than 400 individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Far from addressing those issues, the Government’s new plan for immigration includes plans to house people seeking asylum in reception centres. Yet, this institutional-style accommodation, including the appalling conditions currently being endured by asylum seekers at Napier military barracks, can have significant negative impact on people’s mental and physical health, as well as isolating people seeking asylum from wider communities. The Government must also end the hugely damaging practice of outsourcing accommodation to private companies, which have overseen this disastrous, prison-like infrastructure. In 2019, Serco was awarded a new Government contract despite being fined nearly £7 million for sustained failings over a seven-year period.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Coyle on securing this important debate.
The poet Warsan Shire wrote:
“you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”.
When the Government and much of the media cover channel crossings or the supposed migrant crisis, there is rarely an attempt to understand that. The stories of the people themselves are ignored. It is not said, for example, that many people seeking asylum in the UK had homes destroyed by British bombs and British wars. It is not said that when fleeing poverty and persecution in their homelands, people are desperate to be reunited with loved ones already here in Britain. No, in the eyes of the Government and much of the right-wing press, they are not people; they are a problem. That is how the asylum system treats them.
As hon. Members have said, those people have been crammed into camps in Penally and Napier and forced to share dormitories with dozens, predictably causing mass outbreaks of coronavirus. When I challenged the Home Secretary about that at the end of January, she promised me that the camps were of a very strong standard. We now know that that is not true. Instead, they were against public health guidance and recommendations from the local health boards.
It is not just the camps. During the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people seeking asylum have been left in unsuitable and often unsafe accommodation. In Coventry, I have seen at first hand the appalling conditions and disgraceful treatment people are subjected to. Mothers with young babies moved into rooms with insect infestations and mould covering the walls. Parents separated from each other with no reason and no warning. All the while, the outsourcing companies that run the services, such as Serco, make huge profits from Government contracts.
The people seeking asylum are denied the right to work, and local authorities, even if they are eager to help, are starved of necessary funding. In Coventry, we are lucky to have organisations such as Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group and Carriers of Hope, which provide meals and essential items for people seeking asylum. I want to pay particular tribute to Loraine Mponela and Sue Sampson for the incredible work they do in Coventry.
No one’s basic needs should depend on charity. People seeking asylum are not a problem to be managed or a useful scapegoat to distract and divide. They are people deserving of dignity and respect. Napier barracks must close immediately, there must be funding for local authorities and the dispersal scheme, with the housing stock invested in and upgraded, and those seeking sanctuary should be offered the opportunity to rebuild their lives with an end to the ban on the right to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Coyle on securing this important debate. We in this country are proud of our long record of providing a safe haven to people in fear of their lives, yet the approach this Government take to asylum accommodation is a stain on their conscience. It has been condemned by the Refugee Council, the Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, and many other organisations. It has been criticised by the National Audit Office, and the appalling conditions at Penally and Napier barracks have been documented in a damning report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons.
I have an initial accommodation site in my constituency, and each year I make representations on behalf of many of the residents there. The situation they face is appalling. The accommodation is poor quality and overcrowded. Room sharing between strangers is the norm, and bathrooms are also shared. Food is meagre, monotonous, and lacking in nutrition.
The needs of many children, babies, pregnant women and disabled people there are not met. I recently made representations on behalf of a resident who is reliant on a motorised wheelchair, which needed a new battery, so he had to leave it on charge all day in order to have just one hour of outside activity. It was broken so that it was exacerbating the pain in his back, yet he had found it impossible to access basic support.
The residents cannot afford to travel, so while they wait for the next decision from the Home Office, life is unbearably monotonous. By definition, many of these residents have fled the worst circumstances any of us could possibly imagine. They are traumatised and in need of support, yet the Home Office leaves them in poor accommodation, alone with their thoughts. It is simply inhumane; it lacks basic dignity.
The Home Office’s approach sits in stark contrast to the response of our communities. I pay tribute to the faith communities and community organisations in my constituency that, aware of asylum seekers living in accommodation, constantly rally to provide support—winter coats, shoes for children, pushchairs for babies, and Christmas gifts. I mention in particular the incredible work of our local NHS, which have a dedicated outreach service, and Happy Baby Community, who pick up mums and babies from the initial accommodation once a week and spend the day with them, providing nutritious food, company, health visitor services, and friendship—support that I have no doubt is life-saving to many new mothers living in such appalling circumstances.
However, this support should not be left to our communities and the voluntary sector. The Government must get a grip on these contracts. We are rightly proud of our record of welcoming people seeking sanctuary in our country. This Government have a duty to secure the continuation of that tradition, providing the policy framework, support, and partnership work to guarantee that people seeking asylum in this country are treated with the dignity and compassion they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Neil Coyle, and indeed David Simmonds, for having secured this important debate. In addition, I would like to thank a number of local groups within Reading and Woodley, particularly Reading Refugee Support Group, Reading Red Kitchen, and various local churches and faith groups, which have all contributed to supporting refugees and asylum seekers in our area.
It is fundamental that we treat asylum seekers and refugees with dignity, according to international law, and with respect. I wanted to focus my remarks on some issues that have happened in Reading, which I have already raised with Ministers, and I am grateful for their support in this matter. I would also like to say that the town I represent has a proud history of supporting people in difficulty, going back to at least the time of supporting Belgian refugees in world war one, and in many other conflicts since then.
The issues I will raise today are those at the George Hotel, which the Home Secretary kindly helped me with and offered some support on last year. This is a hotel in the centre of Reading where a number of refugees and asylum seekers were placed at short notice at the beginning of the pandemic. Obviously, at that time, resources were under great pressure. However, issues continued over some months, and I want to highlight some of those problems to illustrate the scale of the issues we face as a country, and also to flag this up to the Government and ask for a fundamental rethink.
We have had reports—which I have investigated with my colleague and hon. Friend Holly Lynch, the shadow Immigration Minister—of problems with food being inappropriate or insufficient; a lack of connection with local medical services, such as asylum seekers not being registered with GPs; and a lack of financial support, which meant that those in the George Hotel were, at times, unable to make small local journeys or other journeys to meet people who they needed to see. For example, a disabled man at one point had to walk all the way to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, which is about three quarters of a mile away from the George Hotel.
Many of the issues seem to relate to the contractor, Clearsprings, and the Home Secretary was very gracious in helping to address some of them last year. From my experience, this contractor seems to have a relatively poor track record in our area. I cannot comment on the further, wider issues, but that does raise questions about the nature of the provision and whether there ought to be a much more fundamental rethink, as a number of colleagues have pointed out.
I realise that there is a lack of time this morning, and I am grateful for the Minister’s support in this matter. I hope there will be a much broader and wider rethink of the policy on how asylum seekers and refugees are supported in the UK. We need to maintain high standards of support and keep up our excellent tradition of supporting and welcoming people.
I thank Neil Coyle very much, because this is such a pressing and desperate issue. We know from the new immigration plan that this Government are determined to institutionalise asylum seekers. The pandemic provided a convenient time to move people into hostels, hotels and Army barracks, for goodness’ sake, and as we have heard too many are still there. Four hundred in Glasgow remain in hotels. It is clear that there is an ideological shift away from housing people in communities. The use of this type of accommodation long term is extremely dangerous and has led to a marked deterioration in people’s mental health, as confirmed in the report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. The Home Office is getting it wrong on so many counts, but when has the UK, regardless of who was in power, ever got it right?
I shudder when I hear the names of previous accommodation providers in Glasgow such as the Angel Group and Ypeople, and now we have the Mears Group, which I will come to. I want to say something about the workers in some of the groups that I am rightly attacking. I accept that many decent, caring people work for these organisations and go above and beyond the call of duty, really taking care of the people they are working with. This is not about individuals, although I will share some horror stories; it is about the system and those companies making money from that system.
The reason why we get it wrong is that our attitude is all wrong, or at least this Government’s is. What we should be doing is putting metaphorical arms around people and saying, “You got here. You’re safe and protected. You’re respected. You’re now home.” But this Government will not say that, because they do not agree with it. Their priority is sending a message not to come here—“You are not wanted.” Those seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable human beings on the planet, and I want to share the story of some women in Glasgow who are particularly vulnerable right now.
There are few times in a woman’s life when she is more vulnerable than when she is giving birth. Earlier this year, 20 women in Glasgow who were either pregnant or new mums were moved wholesale into a mother-and-baby unit in Glasgow. It was wholly unsuitable, for so many reasons, but I will limit myself to three. One was that the rooms are tiny, and the babies and toddlers, who are expected to be there for two years, have no space at all in which to explore, to learn to walk and to play. That is cruel and is having a detrimental impact on them. Secondly, the cot in some rooms is next to the tiny cooking area. The mums do not feel it is safe to leave the baby in the cot, but they cannot take them into bed, because the beds are narrow single beds, so where do the babies sleep? Thirdly, 20 mums and 20-plus babies share laundry facilities that consist of three washing machines, making it absolutely impossible to practise social distancing.
The women were given absolutely no say over this. They were housed in flats in communities where they had support and excellent networks when, suddenly, they were hoisted out of their accommodation and told that they had to move to the unit. One woman was told that if she did not go, she would be deported. Another was told that she could take two carrier bags of stuff and that that was more than enough for her and her newborn baby, but also that she had no right to have all that stuff, because she was supposed to be destitute. The disrespect with which these women have been treated is an absolute disgrace.
Last night, I met some of the women for the second time, and I discovered that one of them has tested positive for covid-19. Some of the women living in the unit were not informed by Mears. I hope that the Minister is shocked—I am sure he will be—to hear that. Volunteer groups working closely with the mothers were not told either—even when they asked. The young woman speaks no English, and she is currently still using the communal facilities, so she is not self-isolating. The Mears Group denies that, but it always does.
The Mears Group promised me some time ago, on more than one occasion, that no more mothers would be moved in and that those in there would be moved out if they so wished—and they do wish. So far, two have moved out, and two have moved in. I therefore ask these questions of the Minister, given that this Government are paying the people doing this to them. Will he urgently look into the issue of the mother-and-baby unit? Will he support the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and Amma Birth Companions—organisations that are working with these women to have them relocated—and will he get those relocation requests expedited before more damage is done? In looking into this issue, will he also trust my word and that of the other Glasgow MPs that, in our opinion, Mears Group will tell him what he wants to hear, but we will tell him the truth?
I have another story, which I hope will give hope to anyone listening. In 2005, Roza was a 15-year-old asylum seeker when she and her friends— later to become known as the Glasgow Girls—took direct action to stop dawn raids, terrified as they were of the implications for their own families. It worked: for many years, there have been no dawn raids in Scotland—that is, until last Friday, when the Home Office shamefully terrified a 68-year-old man with an existing heart condition, who is currently fasting, by sending 10 officers to his door in the early hours of the morning to remove his family from their beds and take them to detention. The poor man collapsed and, as he was taken away in an ambulance, an immigration officer told him, “We’ll be back.”
I have since heard that, unbeknown to most people, dawn raids may have been happening in Glasgow since January, but to families who had nobody to reach out to. Let me make this very clear: I and every one of my colleagues in the SNP, and the good people of Glasgow and Scotland, will fight the Government on this in a way that makes it very much not worth their while doing it. Do not go down this route again. We will not stand by.
I said it was a hopeful story, and it is, because in 10 days’ time, that 15-year-old asylum-seeking schoolgirl, Roza—now 16 years older—may become a Member of the Scottish Parliament if enough people vote for her party on the Glasgow list. Notwithstanding the fact that Roza Salih would be a brilliant asset, what is Scotland saying to asylum seekers if it elects one of their own to the country’s Parliament? What is Scotland saying to refugees who can now vote thanks to recent legislation? The country is saying, “You are welcome here, you are one of us now and everything is possible.”
But in Scotland we can only really tinker, and where that is possible we have done it. On the big issues affecting asylum seekers all we can do is send out messages of support, because we have no control over the system and have to go along with whatever this Tory Government want. As my hon. Friend Steven Bonnar said, we are a country desperate to support asylum seekers properly. That is why we in the SNP want independence, because we are not allowed to stop inhumanity being meted out in our country. I say to everyone in Scotland, “If you want asylum seekers to be treated with love, humanity and respect, you can do that with independence.”
I have this to say to those living in the rest of the UK and to colleagues here today: I and my colleagues will fight tooth and nail for a better system for everyone in these islands while we are still part of the UK. Afterwards, I cannot imagine Scotland’s first Foreign Secretary not putting diplomatic pressure on the rest of the UK to show the same love, compassion and respect that will permeate Scotland’s new immigration system.
I want to thank and pay tribute to some of the organisations that have been in touch with me about this debate and that have supported some of the people I have mentioned: Amma, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Maryhill Integration Network, the Red Cross, Refugee Action, the No Evictions Network, the English Refugee Council and the migrant-led Migrants Organising for Rights & Empowerment.
I want to pre-empt something I think the Minister will say in his response about accommodating asylum seekers in Scotland. He will say that it is a problem that only Glasgow has agreed to take asylum seekers and that meetings have taken place with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and they have, although not with Scottish Government Ministers. As others have said, COSLA’s long-standing position is that it will support further dispersals to other local authorities when there is an appropriate partnership approach with local government and, crucially, when adequate funding is provided by the UK Government to support the key role that councils play. COSLA also makes the very fair point that all 32 Scottish local authorities got involved in the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, when proper support was provided. That is also consistent with the Home Affairs Committee recommendations.
I end by saying that, alongside providing safe and legal routes for people to reach these islands, cutting the time people have to wait for decisions on their claims and providing safe, suitable accommodation for people seeking asylum in the UK, we should be giving compassionate support. Those metaphorical arms should be welcoming people who, as I have said, are among the most vulnerable on this planet. If this Government are not prepared to do that, they are not fit for government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me start, as others have, by thanking my hon. Friend Neil Coyle and David Simmonds for securing the debate, for their outstanding opening contributions and for their leadership on asylum and migration issues. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the time for the debate. It is often said that debates are timely, but with just a week to go before the end of the incredibly short consultation on the Government’s new plans for an immigration policy statement, ahead of the sovereign borders Bill, it could not be more timely.
There are pre-existing weaknesses in the asylum accommodation and dispersal scheme, combined with the pressures of the pandemic, which we accept have been significant. Added to the direction of travel under this Government, outlined in the policy statement, that creates a pretty toxic outlook.
On contingency accommodation, we recognise the increased need for accommodation, with the early, welcome pause on negative cessations taking the numbers in the asylum system from around 48,000 to around 60,000. Inevitably, that would have brought logistical challenges, and we were sympathetic to that, but over 12 months on, there are no justifications for the shocking conditions that persist in asylum accommodation and the questionable motivations behind Home Office decision making. Contingency accommodation has become far more widely used as the norm than it ever should have been.
The Minister may have read the Refugee Council’s report published last week on the use of hotel accommodation. It outlines just how difficult life has been for people who have been confined to the same room for days and weeks on end and for those who arrived without basics, such as shoes and coats, and who simply were not provided with any. People had insufficient access to drinking water, and there were widespread failures to register them with GPs so that they could access healthcare. In some instances, as we have heard children were not enrolled in schools for months.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who shared with us the contributions of their local charities and communities. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for Reading East for introducing me to a number of his local organisations that support those accommodated in hotels.
The Government have said that the use of hotels will end as part of the new plan for immigration. That is incredibly welcome, but what is the plan? Where will those people be accommodated instead? The Home Office provided a quote to The Guardian on Friday, saying:
“As part of our New Plan for Immigration, the use of hotels to accommodate new arrivals will end and we plan to introduce new asylum reception centres.”
I understand that Operation Oak sought to move people out of hotel accommodation and into more appropriate dispersed accommodation, as should be the process. However, that Home Office spokesperson seems to suggest that those currently housed in hotels will instead be housed in reception centres.
At the end of February, an estimated 8,700 asylum seekers were accommodated in more than 90 hotels across the UK. Some were there for months. What exactly will these new reception centres be for? My hon. Friends the Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) have stressed how unhappy we are about the proposals. I hope the Minister will explain just how many centres he envisages will be required, how long people will be required to stay in them and what the terms of their stay will be. That quote suggests that the centres will be a form of initial accommodation, but everything else we are hearing sounds much more comparable to detention than initial accommodation. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central and my right hon. Friend John McDonnell made it clear why that would be a disaster. My fear is that this is a policy choice from this Government—a point already made by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter and others.
Although I have outlined just some of the problems with hotels, it is clear that there has been a deliberate attempt to conflate initial accommodation with immigration detention, with the use of disused barracks to accommodate asylum seekers. I made a number of these points in last week’s debate. As with the use of hotels, the Government initially claimed that the use of barracks at Penally and Napier was due to the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic. Yet, the equality impact assessment we have seen, which was conducted by the Home Office in September, revealed that use of that particular type of accommodation was born not out of necessity but out of political choice. It suggested that providing nothing but the absolute bare minimum to those seeking asylum is in the interests of community relations. It reads more like a hard-line right-wing manifesto than any equality impact assessment from a Government Department ever should.
The Government’s reluctance to provide anything deemed beyond what is necessary has led to people with conditions such as leukaemia, diabetes or tuberculosis being housed 28 to a dorm and sharing limited toilet facilities, with communal areas cleaned only once a week, during a pandemic.
“cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier” a large-scale outbreak of covid was virtually inevitable, which is exactly what happened. There were 197 positive cases of covid at Napier barracks between
The ICIBI report raised serious safeguarding concerns about those who were most vulnerable at Napier, stating:
“There was inadequate support for people who had self-harmed. People at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit ‘isolation block’ which we considered unfit for habitation.”
In evidence provided to the Home Affairs Committee last month the Government claimed that they had been
“following guidance in every single way”.
My hon. Friend Zarah Sultana spoke of the simply untrue assurances that she was given about the quality of the accommodation. The CCG and ICIBI reports could not be clearer that at no time were such assurances true. On leadership and management, the latter report concluded:
“The Home Office did not exercise adequate oversight at either site and Home Office staff were rarely present. There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office.”
That was not someone else’s failure. It was the Home Secretary’s failure, and those barracks must close immediately.
The wider failures of the system and the nature of dispersal are now putting local authorities under enormous pressure, and there is a sense that the Government are just not listening, which is pushing the system to breaking point. I have seen a letter that was sent to the Home Secretary at the end of March from the leaders of the asylum dispersal areas for the west midlands. They are keen to stress that they recognise their responsibility as a region to contribute to the UK’s asylum and immigration challenges, and they have supported the dispersal scheme since 1999, but they feel they have no choice other than to suspend their participation.
They clearly state that, despite their attempts to engage Government in finding solutions to the challenges they face,
“the absence of any strategic plan has meant we lack confidence on the next steps around engagement to resolve the range of complex and serious challenges we face. What we do know is that the current position is untenable and that we simply cannot continue to support in the same manner going forward.”
When Government’s biggest partners are walking away from dispersal, they have to come back to the table and work constructively to find solutions. Has the meeting sought in the letter happened—with leaders from not just the west midlands but all dispersal areas—to work through the challenges? The former Minister, Caroline Nokes, made a characteristically powerful contribution, inviting the Minister to work with the Local Government Association to find the solutions we all want.
The letter also makes the point that the use of hotels has been a reality of initial accommodation since the new contracts were agreed in 2019, so any sense that they are used because of the pandemic alone is nonsense. It says that their use
“feels more like an unsatisfactory business as usual arrangement rather than short term contingency.”
That point was made clear in the Red Cross’s report, published today and mentioned already by a number of hon. Members.
The Minister knows that in rule changes made in December the Government gave themselves the ability to deem claims inadmissible if someone arrives in the UK outside of a resettlement scheme, regardless of whether asylum should be granted, and without any agreements having been struck with European partners on returning anyone to anywhere else. Over the weekend, May Bulman at The Independent newspaper broke the story that Belgium, France and Germany have all ruled such an agreement out:
“Belgium’s asylum and migration secretary…said the country had no intention of negotiating unilateral readmission agreements with the UK and that he had already explained his position to the immigration minister”.
The German embassy in London told The Independent that
“no negotiations between Germany and the UK on return arrangements had taken place”,
indicating that bilateral returns deals are simply not on the cards. France echoed those remarks, with a spokesperson saying:
“We will naturally continue our operational co-operation to prevent departures and fight against smuggling networks. With regards to readmissions, asylum is a European subject, which calls for a European response.”
Thank you, Mr Davies. I will take that on board.
Let me say in closing that this approach is utterly unworkable. We will only see more people who are likely to be deserving of asylum not even having their claims considered, while they remain trapped in a wholly inadequate and inhumane system for longer, costing the Government significantly more money to deliver nothing but failure. I very much hope that the Minister will reflect on those points.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank Neil Coyle and my hon. Friend David Simmonds for securing the debate. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part for their contributions. I will try to respond to the points raised, but as you touched on, Mr Davies, I do not have the opportunity to do that in any great depth with seven to eight minutes left. I will also allow a short period for the hon. Member who secured the debate to offer his closing remarks.
The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of our protection. Throughout the pandemic, we have taken action to ensure that those seeking asylum in the UK have the support they need. Asylum support is provided to destitute asylum seekers until their claims are finally determined and to failed asylum seekers if they are destitute and unable to leave the UK immediately due to circumstances beyond their control, including the current pandemic. That includes access to free accommodation, asylum support allowance and access to our advice, issue reporting and eligibility provider Migrant Help.
The Home Office’s accommodation providers are required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose and correctly equipped accommodation that complies with the decent homes standard in addition to standards outlined in relevant national or local housing legislation. We worked with our providers to improve property standards over the lifetime of the previous asylum accommodation contracts and have made a number of improvements in the asylum accommodation and support contracts now in place. Where a provider is found to be falling short of those standards, we work with them to ensure that issues are addressed. If they are not, we can and do impose service credits. Housing providers are required to inspect each property every month, and the Home Office also inspects properties on a targeted basis each year. I hope that Members will, however, appreciate the impact of the pandemic on some of those inspections.
There was much focus in the debate on contingency accommodation. The Home Office, along with many local authorities across our whole United Kingdom, has had to use hotels as contingency accommodation during the covid-19 pandemic. Accommodation providers engage with police, local authorities and local contacts prior to and during hotel use in all locations. We regularly provide local authorities and partners with information about hotel use in their areas, including occupancy figures. The hotel accommodation provided is of a reasonable quality, and those housed in it receive three meals a day, with staggered meal times to cater for social distancing requirements, and support to meet all the current public health guidance and our standards.
Where issues have been raised, such as with food, we have inspected menus ourselves. Our providers have also conducted surveys, and we have acted on recommendations arising from them. We have also undertaken several measures in the short term to mitigate the use of hotel contingency. Working groups have been established with three providers to monitor the availability of accommodation within their portfolios. The groups meet Home Office officials weekly with the objective to mitigate moving to hotel use wherever possible by increasing the amount of dispersal accommodation in all regions and nations of our United Kingdom. As a result, we have reduced our reliance on contingency accommodation of all sorts by 25% since December. To be clear, hotels are only ever a contingency option; they are not a long-term solution.
At our contingency accommodation at the Napier site, all the basic needs of asylum seekers are met, including their welfare needs. The site is catered, with three meals a day, and options are provided that cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements. Additional meals are provided as required. There is power, heating and water, and access to phones and support items such as toiletries is provided, along with access to laundry facilities. All asylum seekers housed there have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility service, provided, again, by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services.
On the effectiveness of the dispersal system, I acknowledge the concerns of hon. Members and local authorities who have asked for a more equitable spread of dispersal. The pandemic has presented us with significant challenges when it comes to the provision of asylum accommodation, including sourcing sufficient accommodation to meet demand. Our priority is to ensure that we meet our legal duty to house destitute asylum seekers and ensure their safety and wellbeing, as well as the safety and wellbeing of the communities in which they live. While the numbers of those supported have increased, the majority of asylum seekers do not receive Home Office support, and the majority of those who are not supported live in the south-east of England.
The Home Office is working with a range of local authorities to increase the number of areas that accommodate and support people seeking asylum and protection. Each local authority is encouraged to contribute. I am grateful to the councils that cover the constituencies of the two hon. Members who secured the debate for playing their part, along with the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the city of Glasgow. We have managed to increase the number of voluntary dispersal agreements from 92 to 163, and we continue to try to increase them across our United Kingdom. In the last three years, areas that have agreed to participate include Aylesbury Vale, Gosport, Oxford and Wiltshire, which might all be described as being in the “Tory shires”, to use one hon. Member’s definition.
In addition to those currently participating, we have agreements in place with over 40 more where the provider is finding it difficult to procure suitable properties. I urge all local authorities to assist us and play their part in this work, as simply passing motions and making declarations does not give us options to house or resettle people. I highlight in particular the situation in Scotland, where only one local authority—Glasgow—is taking part. It was interesting to hear that Members from Scotland are desperate to do more. Here is an option: their constituencies can become dispersal areas. Let us not have a Meatloaf-style, “We will do anything to support refugees, but we won’t do that.”
At the root of the issues with accommodation is the fact that our asylum system is broken, with delays, repeat applications and opportunities to game the system. It is expensive and it has lost public trust. It is therefore vital that major reforms are made, and that is exactly what the Government will do through the recently announced new plan for immigration. We will look to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum, while deterring illegal entry into the United Kingdom based mostly on economic migration reasons, not protection. It is particularly vital that we put an end to dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that we must put an end to such criminal activities.
I will wind up to allow the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark some time. The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of protection. We are committed to doing everything necessary to protect the rights of asylum seekers and to provide them with the safe and secure accommodation they deserve. As we take forward our new plan for immigration, our focus will remain on supporting the most vulnerable, ensuring their fair and humane treatment and working with all of our partners on matters related to asylum-seeker support to ensure that those who do need protection receive it here in this country.
I thank everyone for contributing to the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. What we are seeing is a poverty of ambition from this Government, with aid cuts and Army cuts that reduce our ability to intervene abroad to prevent the creation of asylum seekers in the first place. There is no ambition to end the backlog and delays in decision making for those who are already here, no ambition to end hotel use, leaving taxpayers footing the bill for inappropriate accommodation, and no ambition to work better with councils. Southwark and the Salvation Army offered to take more unaccompanied children, but the Home Office failed to take them up on that.
We see a reliance on a new plan that says we cannot do better than barrack accommodation, when Napier should be seen as a hideous aberration and a break with British tradition, for all the reasons exposed by my hon. Friend Holly Lynch. That new plan relies on a bilateral arrangement with the European Union that Germany and France have already said no thanks to. The Minister should be resolutely focused on delivering the humane, efficient system that the public want and that people fleeing war desperately need, and should be fixing the existing problems in the system before creating new ones through a new plan that is a mess before it has even begun.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme in providing support for asylum seekers.