People Granted Asylum: Government Support

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 11:00, 26 March 2024

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Local authorities end up picking up the tab. I will refer to this later, but, as the Home Office seeks to reduce its expenditure, it ends up passing the buck to another part of the public sector. The same taxpayers are paying the bill, yet we have misery for the people at the wrong end of that.

The period from the point at which someone is given their status—a happy moment—to the point when they lose asylum support, which is referred to as the “move-on period” by those of who us are interested in this area and those who work in the sector, has exposed policy failings that have existed for years. The problem that those working in communities with refugees see is practice not mirroring policy, as well as policy simply not working.

Currently there is a 28-day move-on period from when a person receives their grant of refugee status until their asylum support ceases. Although their asylum support is a miserly £7 a day, which is meant to cover food, clothing, communications and travel, £7 a day is still better than the absolutely nothing at all that they face at the end of the move-on period. The move-on period is supposed to enable transition either into work or, if needed for a while, on to mainstream benefits. However, it takes 35 days to receive the first universal credit payment, so it is obvious that a gap in support is created.

Across the UK, local authorities and charities do what they can to support refugees who have fallen through that predictable gap, where they have zero income and no accommodation, but it is hardly a surprise that many end up sleeping on the streets, homeless and destitute. That was exacerbated over the second half of last year when the Home Office started to calculate the 28 days from the date of the asylum decision letter rather than the date of issuance of the biometric residence permit, which is usually received at a later date and, critically, is needed to apply for universal credit. That reduced the already inadequate 28-day move-on period to fewer than 20 days in practice.

It is quite astounding that the Home Office took that decision at the time it did. Given the Government’s attempts to clear the backlog, we faced a situation where many more refugees than normal were in the move-on period window, so, predictably, that decision created far more hardship for far more people. It appears there was minimal consultation with local authorities and charities, which were inevitably going to have to pick up the pieces.

The reality on the ground has been and continues to be terrible. We have heard some terrifying statistics from Manchester. Data from the Centre for Homelessness Impact indicates that street homelessness among those leaving asylum housing increased by 223% from June to September last year when the backlog clearance programme began. During that period in Leicester, British Red Cross staff and volunteers were giving out between three and five sleeping bags every day to people who were about to become homeless.

Statutory homelessness statistics published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show an increase of 203.8% in the number of households owed a relief duty after being required to leave asylum accommodation between July and September last year, when compared with the same quarter the year before. Again, that corresponds with the backlog clearance programme.

Data from the British Red Cross refugee support services across the UK show that between the beginning of August last year and 15 March this year—a couple of weeks ago—there was a 202% increase in the number of clients with refugee status experiencing destitution, when compared with the same period a year earlier. At the end of 2023, Home Office operational guidance changed back and the calculation of the move-on period reverted to beginning with the receipt of the biometric residence permit. That was a welcome U-turn, but despite that change, destitution and homelessness among refugees continues to be a huge issue in 2024.

The British Red Cross reports that so far this year there has been a 205% increase in the number of new clients with refugee status in need of its support due to destitution. In that period, it has provided 75 sleeping bags to people who have been granted refugee status following the most traumatic of experiences, which most of us can barely even imagine. A survey organised by a cross-party group in London found that 311 refugees were forced to sleep rough after eviction from Home Office accommodation in January this year alone. That marks an increase of 234% compared with September the previous year. In total, 1,087 refugees approached London homelessness services for help in January following Home Office evictions—a rise of 78% in the four months since September.

This is utterly disgraceful. It is heartbreaking and it is genuinely shameful—shameful in the sense that it makes me ashamed. We are the United Kingdom. We are a country that, by the grace of God, is wealthy, stable, free and peaceful. Like similar countries, we are in a position to help provide sanctuary for those who have fled the horrors of war and persecution.

We take fewer asylum seekers per head in the UK than two thirds of other European countries, but those asylum seekers who make it to Britain, present themselves and claim asylum then hear witless rhetoric demonising them. They are stuck in hostels of one kind or another and face extreme right-wing protestors leafleting and chanting outside their residence. They wait months and months for a decision and then most of them turn out to be genuine refugees, despite the garbage written and spoken by people who should know better. Finally, they are able to move on from the trauma of their past to begin a new life, put down roots and contribute to our economy and our society, only instead, we choose, through malice or incompetence, to visit upon them more hardship. What a wicked thing it is to do to grant refugee status to a traumatised person one day and then dump them on the street with a sleeping bag the next. I am ashamed of that, and I really hope that the Minister is ashamed of that.

This is an appalling breakdown in policy. It cannot be right that street homelessness is a necessary part of the transition for newly recognised refugees. Yes, there will be more people in the move-on period at this time because of the ambition to clear the legacy backlog, but that does not make it right. Outrageously, it suggests that an acceptance of street homelessness is built into this policy.

Local authorities need 56 days to work with households at risk of homelessness—that is not merely my opinion, but the official and considered view of Parliament and Government, recognised through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—so why do refugees get only 28 days? Why is there a discrepancy in how we treat different kinds of people facing homelessness in the UK? I am aware that there will be a desire to reduce asylum support costs, but costs need to be considered from a cross-departmental perspective.

Making people destitute does not save the taxpayer a penny; it quite clearly costs them a lot more—as well as, of course, being utterly and totally shameful. Local authorities and emergency services will end up picking up the tab and it obviously causes distress and hardship for those refugees affected. These are not conditions conducive to looking for work, to education and training, or to people rebuilding their lives in the UK and becoming part of and contributing towards our society.

Will the Minister commit to reviewing whether the refugee move-on period should be extended to 56 days to ensure compatibility with the Homelessness Reduction Act, to allow people time to apply and receive their first universal credit payment, and to give local authorities a reasonable shot at trying to accommodate those in priority need? It is particularly important for refugees who have fewer connections and therefore less ability to lean on any family and friends. Will he also confirm that the 28 days will continue to be calculated from the issuing of the biometric residence permit, rather than from the date of the asylum decision letter?

Given the challenges experienced this year with refugee homelessness, will there be a review of the local impact of the asylum backlog clearance, including on DLUHC’s priorities around homelessness? When will the lessons learned from the Home Office liaison officers pilot in three council areas be rolled out more widely? Will there be a review of the support that Migrant Help is required to offer refugees during the move-on period? Will there be consideration of face-to-face support for refugees as they navigate that period?

Many refugees will not qualify for local authority housing and they face a range of barriers in accessing private rented accommodation, including the difficulty of providing a guarantor with the lack of established social networks, and the cost of rental deposits and advanced rent payments even if an individual can afford the monthly rent. What are the Government doing to improve access to the private rented sector for refugees? How is best practice being shared?

A refugee’s ability to thrive in the UK alongside existing communities is deeply connected to their experience and treatment while they are in the asylum process. The most obvious example is finding work. If an asylum seeker is able to work, they will be in a much stronger position to find work as a refugee. They will have maintained skills, built local connections and gained confidence from being able to work. Living in a period of limbo for months or years in substandard accommodation, separated from local communities, makes it much harder for them to rebuild their lives and integrate once they get refugee status.

We are an outlier among comparable countries in not permitting asylum seekers to work. There is no evidence that it creates a pull factor in those countries and, significantly, it does not make sense to keep people idle against their will and then suddenly expect them to have everything they need to thrive once they get legal status.

I refer the Minister to the report recently published by the Commission on the Integration of Refugees, which draws on wide-ranging evidence from civil society, local government and refugees themselves to form recommendations supported by commissioners from across the political spectrum. The recommendations include extending the move-on period to 56 days and giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months. I ask the Minister to consider those practical solutions for the refugee move-on period, which reflect the wider need for a cross-departmental national strategy for refugee integration incorporating input from local authorities, the voluntary sector and those with lived experience.

Shall we just imagine what it must be like to have to come to the UK as a refugee? Maybe you fled Eritrea rather than be conscripted to butcher your own people, or you fled Iran because you were persecuted for being a Christian, or you fled Syria because of the barbarous Putin-puppet Assad. Your journey might have been through the lawlessness of Libya and over terrifying bodies of water. You might have been living through appalling hardship in terror, barely existing, losing loved ones on the journey to seek sanctuary.

Ninety-nine per cent of people like you will be heading somewhere else—Lebanon, Turkey, Germany—but you are heading for Britian because of family, because you speak English, because of the legacy of empire, or because you have heard that it is a decent, civilised and safe place. You make it there and you sit and rot for months because of the backlog. You get the growing sense that you are not welcome and that you are disbelieved, because you can read the headlines and the online abuse. But then you get your status. Britian accepts you. It believes your story—your true story. You are now ready to dedicate to your new home in Britain, having finally made it here, the skills and tenacity you demonstrated as you fled your horror. But then you are sat huddled in a shop doorway, freezing, wet, hungry and scared, with nothing—no home, no money. And you came here because Britain is better than that.

Minister, I challenge you to make the changes that I have set out today, and make Britain better than that.