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House of Commons Hansard
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07 December 2009
Volume 502

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

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I have secured this Adjournment debate in order to plead with the Government to reconsider the disgraceful arrangements that have been in place since 14 October this year for processing new claims from asylum seekers who are already in the UK. I have discussed this with the Minister, and it is my view that the whole international asylum system needs reorganising, and that the existing convention is out of date and needs renegotiating. For example, it is ridiculous that people cannot apply for asylum in the UK without arriving here, and they have to pay people-smugglers to get here. The possibility of applying for asylum is therefore controlled by criminal networks.

I also believe that the £2 billion a year that the Government spend running a large bureaucracy designed to refuse as many cases as possible could be much better spent elsewhere. However, the inadequacies of the international system do not excuse the way in which people already in the UK are subjected to a refusal to allow them to work, and given very mean benefits, which have recently been cut further. As soon as their claims are refused, all support is cut off. We therefore have significant numbers of destitute, homeless asylum seekers scattered throughout our cities. It is the conclusion of almost everyone who works in this field that this cruelty is deliberately inflicted to encourage asylum seekers to leave the UK, and to discourage others from arriving.

I see many such cases in my constituency advice bureau. The people who have been refused have often waited for many years for a decision. They are destitute and homeless. Not surprisingly, many of them suffer from depression and other mental and physical illnesses. Heartbreakingly, for example, two weeks ago, I saw a man from Gaza who had been here for two or three years. He was trying, through the Red Cross, to contact his seven brothers and sisters who were still in Gaza. He did not know whether they had survived the Israeli bombardment that took place a year ago. He had recently been very badly beaten up in Stoke, and came to me with a medical report saying that he had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He was frightened of all authority and distrustful of everyone. He was destitute, and reliant on another asylum seeker to help him to deal with the authorities and find some kind of food and shelter. I frequently feel ashamed that this is how we are running our asylum system in Britain in 2009.

May I ask the Minister in passing to ask the National Asylum Support Service to review the placing of asylum seekers in Stoke? I have heard of more than one case of asylum seekers there being very badly beaten up. We know that the British National party has considerable representation on the council there. I really think we should do something about that.

Fortunately, in this bleak picture, there are some good people in Birmingham and elsewhere to whom those in great distress can turn. I am particularly impressed by the work of ASIRT—Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team—in Birmingham, which helps people to sort out their legal position and make properly organised new applications. Then there is my old friend Geoff Wilkins, who with others runs a destitution fund, supported by various charities and Church groups so that we can help people with small amounts of money and provide temporary housing for homeless women and children while they are helped to submit properly organised new applications, which enable them to apply for hard case support from the UK Border Agency.

Similar organisations in other parts of the UK, report the same experience. In October 2008, for example, members of the Asylum Support Partnership, plus a number of other agencies run by the Red Cross and others, recorded the number of visits made by asylum seekers in one month. The study found that destitution is most common among refused asylum seekers and that 1,178 visits from among this group took place in October, and that 62 per cent. of the destitute asylum seekers have been destitute for six months and more. Of them, 70 per cent. were from Iraq, Iran, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Somalia—all deeply troubled countries likely to generate asylum seekers. Similar studies in Leeds and Leicester showed an increase in the number of destitute asylum seekers this year compared with 2008, an increase in long-term destitution and also an increase in those reporting physical and mental health problems, including HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and tuberculosis.

The Children’s Society contacted me when it noticed that this Adjournment debate would be taking place. It reminded me that in 2008 it published a report that revealed, in its words,

“shocking evidence of children growing up in households without food, heating or toys, mothers forced to prostitute themselves to survive, young people in care cut off from any help and at 18 becoming homeless”.

It pointed out that the main cause of destitution was lack of legal representation during the asylum claims and concluded that the lack of proper legal advice was directly responsible for the failure of many asylum claims.

Since then, the Children’s Society has set up the west midlands destitution project to work with Church partners and others to help such families. Many families were found to be destitute either because, having been refused asylum, they had their support cut off or through delays in bureaucracy after applying for support. It concluded that the effects of destitution on children were very serious indeed. Many of the children considered in the forthcoming report, which I believe is due shortly, were displaying, in its words,

“signs of mental and physical ill-health”.

That was the rather shameful situation that refused asylum seekers faced in the UK. Let me repeat that many were refused because they did not have adequate legal representation when they made their first application. Then, on 14 October 2009, without any notice or consultation, the UK Border Agency announced the establishment of an even worse new set of arrangements that required new asylum submissions to be made in person and not by post. A ministerial statement explained that because there were parts of the system where information “is not gripped quickly”—I think those were the Minister’s words—applications from those who have been refused cannot in future be made by post. Instead, people have to make an appointment and then go in person to Liverpool if they first applied before March 2007, or to a regional centre if they applied after that.

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I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. As someone who has a huge number of asylum cases in his constituency, may I say that this is one of the most unacceptable changes in policy ever, as it is impractical and completely arrogant and insensitive? I am glad that the right hon. Lady has sought this debate and I hope that her plea to the Minister will make him realise, as I believe his officials do already, that this system cannot justifiably be allowed to continue.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I really cannot believe that the Minister intended this to be as bad as it has proved to be. I am hopeful that he will agree to review and change the situation.

In order to receive hard case financial support—which is also known as section 4 support, and is the only support of any kind that is available to asylum seekers who have been refused once—people must present their applications to Liverpool, and the UK Border Agency must validate their claims. Incidentally, to accommodate the change, the office currently deciding on hard case support applications that have already been submitted has been moved from Liverpool to Croydon, and the Refugee Council’s Birmingham office tells us that as a consequence the number of decisions made has declined from five per day to five in two weeks. That inevitably means more destitution and homelessness for those who are in the queue for hard case support.

When we ask the UK Border Agency how destitute people are to get to Liverpool—and they are advised to bring family members if their names are to be added to applications—the agency makes it clear that it will not provide funds for travel, let alone for overnight accommodation if families cannot travel there and back in a day. When questioned, it said that the voluntary sector should fund such travel. That is a disgraceful suggestion, particularly at a time when charities are hard pressed because of the general recession.

Part of the madness of the new arrangements lies in the fact that the system has recently been reorganised and regionalised. There are offices in Birmingham and other regions, but people from Scotland, Dover, London, Bristol and Birmingham must go to Liverpool if they first applied before March 2007. Moreover, there will be no interviews when they get there. Papers are simply to be handed over, and no interpreters are available. It is impossible to understand the intentions behind the new arrangements without concluding that they were designed to make it as difficult as possible for people to make new applications and to apply for hard case support.

I am afraid, however, that the position is even worse than I have described so far. Applicants cannot simply turn up in Liverpool with their applications; they must first make an appointment by telephone. The formal opening hours of the telephone line are between 9 am and 4 pm, Monday to Friday, but there are only 80 appointment slots per day, and the system will not allow an appointment to be made more than 10 days in advance. When all the slots have been used up, the line is closed. I understand that it has been closed at noon on most days recently, but desperate people do not know that. They telephone constantly and hear an engaged tone as other desperate people telephone and the lines clash. Eventually they may get through, but then an answering machine tells them that the line is closed.

The reason for this Kafkaesque system is, I understand, that the case resolution department has been set a deadline of 20 days to decide whether new submissions are valid, and whether those making them can therefore receive hard case support and cease to be destitute. The 20 days run from the day on which the appointment is made—so the answer is to close the line and not make appointments, and leave people destitute beforehand so that the 20-day target can be met. Kafka would be proud of those arrangements.

The new system has made provision for exceptional cases. It is theoretically possible for someone who is very ill and cannot travel to Liverpool to apply by post, but to obtain permission to do that the person must—guess what?—telephone the same number to which it is almost impossible to get through. I recently heard of a traumatised and severely ill asylum seeker who had been viciously beaten in Stoke-on-Trent. I have not been able to discover whether he is my Gazan constituent. He has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and is incapable of travelling to Liverpool. His further submission has been refused because it was posted, and he therefore cannot obtain hard case support and continues to be destitute. I also know of an adviser who spent eight days repeatedly telephoning before finally managing to secure an appointment.

On top of all that, when people do present themselves in Liverpool, they are often met by a security guard who gives them a slip and sends them away. If that is the system, why not just post the submission? Clearly this has nothing to do with getting a grip on the information.

It is impossible to explain these changes without concluding that the ending of postal applications is simply designed to make it more difficult to make an application. This will inevitably increase destitution and homelessness among this very vulnerable group of people. Legal practitioners have concluded that the courts will strike down these arrangements, as they have struck down previous arrangements. In the meantime, however, terrible suffering is being inflicted.

I sincerely ask the Minister to undertake to review the situation, as I cannot believe he intended that it should work in this way. I ask him to revert to having postal applications, and to make arrangements for there to be very quick responses to valid applications for hard case support. Otherwise, to our deep shame, we will see growing numbers of homeless, destitute, mentally ill asylum seekers spread across the UK over Christmas and beyond.

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I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for raising these issues with her customary sincerity, conviction and consistency. I shall try to respond directly to the points she has made, and I undertake to look into any matters where I am unable to do so.

There are some misunderstandings. The right hon. Lady started off by saying that the existing convention is out of date. I am on record as saying I also believe that to be the case, but I suspect that that is for different reasons. She suggested that it should be possible to make asylum claims out of country, but I suggest that that would not be practical and would not achieve the desired intention. We are very proud of the United Kingdom’s work through the United Nations, and particularly the gateway protection programme. We have a very good record compared with those of other advanced countries; that is frequently recognised by the UN.

The right hon. Lady also asserted that asylum support has been cut. Again, I think that is a misunderstanding. I have double-checked the figures since her letter to the Prime Minister, and I have sent a reply to her on this point. The increase in asylum support was 5.1 per cent. That is in line with the September consumer prices index, rather than the December index, which we had the option of choosing. We chose the September index, because I felt it was right to do so. There were some changes, particularly in the 25 to 26 age bracket and the single parent bracket. Nobody has lost money in real terms as a result of those changes—I have checked the figures in the right hon. Lady’s letter—but what has changed is that the number of children has been recognised in respect of that support.

To turn to a particularly serious point, the right hon. Lady said that destitution was a deliberate policy. That is not the case.

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Exactly how much money are these asylum seekers receiving?

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If time permits, I shall come on to deal with the detail of that. The letter in reply to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood will outline the figures and give that answer. A number of other changes have been made.

The right hon. Lady made a very important point about Stoke-on-Trent. There is a political difficulty here, which has also arisen in other towns where the activities of the organised far-right may be designed to achieve the objective of stopping asylum support. This is a very important point which I will look into. I have received two pieces of correspondence that I am aware of about this issue: one of them is from a housing provider, and the other is from an hon. Member.

The right hon. Lady made points about changes in respect of Liverpool, and I shall come straight to them. It is already the case that an asylum claim that is not made at a port of entry—there are such cases, of course—must be made in person, at Croydon or one of the other centres.

Our policy is to improve the decision making and to make quicker and better quality decisions. The problem in the past has been that the backlog has built up. A year ago, in my speech to University college London, I put it on the record that the failure of successive Governments to provide support has caused division in communities and hardship for the people applying. Our policy is to improve the decision making and the Select Committee has concentrated on getting rid of the legacy backlog. That is what we are doing.

In order to provide good legal advice early in the process, which is our policy—it is in the interests of a fairer system to do so—we have the Solihull project, which we are examining, whereby legal advice can be provided earlier rather than later to avoid some of the problems that the right hon. Lady has mentioned. As a constituency MP, I recognise that point.

Let me return to the right hon. Lady’s point about Liverpool. A further submission must, in most cases, be treated as a fresh application. It is not the case that the UK Border Agency does not provide support for people who cannot attend. Indeed, I recently met Scottish colleagues to discuss that point, given the geographical distances involved. Just as new applications that are not made at the port must be made at Croydon, a further submission, which is treated as a fresh application under the Court of Appeal rulings, must also, we think, be dealt with in person. To allow a fresh application to be dealt with by post would simply result in a further legacy backlog and further hardship and destitution.

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The Minister knows, because I have worked closely with his colleagues to try to get a better system, that there is now a regional allocation of immigration staff in his Department who work with MPs in the regions of England and separately in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That suggests that a perfectly competent system could be arranged regionally to allow people to take in their application. Applications from MPs with further representations could still be considered, as all it would mean would be that people could come to MPs rather than having to go in person.

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My policy is to clear the backlog. My policy is that we should take decisions fairly and quickly, commensurate with fairness. I have looked at the Croydon figures as a result of the changes that we have made, and it is not the case that the number has fallen, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has suggested. Indeed, the overall numbers applying at Croydon have diminished as we have cleared the backlog and got more on top of the situation.

Let me give examples of some of the policy measures that we have implemented.

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To repeat the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), will the Minister please consider allowing pre-March 2007 applicants to take their new application to their regional or local office, where they have to go anyway every so often to sign on? That would overcome lots of the difficulties that I have just outlined.

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Let me outline some of the policy measures, because I think that I can address that point. When a failed asylum seeker asks us to reconsider their claim due to a change in their circumstances, in the past we simply have not dealt with them fast enough. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By definition, as time goes on circumstances change. People’s lives do not freeze as we consider the legacy. Dealing with the decisions quicker, but commensurate with fairness, is critical to our policy. We are achieving that. The backlog is being dealt with and decisions are being taken within our objective of 60 per cent. within six months. The figure of 40 per cent. is not because we are not fit for purpose, as some might say, but because some of the cases are inherently more complicated, particularly those that deal with families.

Our policy is that we have been working since 2005 to require asylum seekers to make initial claims in person. As the right hon. Lady rightly said, this October we brought the process for further submissions into line with that by introducing a requirement to make a further submission in person. The reason for that change is to make the system better. We cannot be asked to treat a further representation as a fresh application and then to deal with it by post, because there would be abuse, corruption and exploitation, which I have a responsibility to address.

The change helps to minimise the risk of fraud, because we often receive applications, or fresh representations, from people who are not the person in whose name the application is made. It also discourages abuse of the system by people who attempt to frustrate a removal. All of us know, from our experience as constituency MPs, that there are, sadly, people who attempt to frustrate the system. Out of fairness to genuine applicants and their rights, we have to address that issue. In making this change, we are reducing the incentive for individuals to make unfounded further submissions. Again, it cannot be denied that there are legions of unfounded further representations. Anyone who has looked at a case that has been strung along—sometimes for years, and often not to the benefit of the child where a child is involved—will know that that is the case.

The change helps to ensure that those who need our protection get it as early as possible, because it enables us to deal with cases more quickly. Are there exceptions and facilities for people to make further representations, or fresh applications if one takes the court’s definition? That is the case if they genuinely cannot appear to make the application, and we consider such situations on a case-by-case basis. I believe that the House will find that the impact of this policy will not be what is feared; indeed, it will be the opposite.

The right hon. Lady has raised a number of points. I will check the Croydon figures and come back to her about what I recognise to be a critical point. If she is right and I am wrong, I will need to review the policy.

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I do not wish to take up any more time, but I hope that the Minister will respond to me as well as to the right hon. Lady. This issue could be dealt with just as well and as efficiently, addressing all the relevant objectives, if it were dealt with regionally, without the huge disadvantage that the present system of going to Liverpool causes to individuals and their families. All the policy objectives could be achieved in that way, there would be face-to-face engagement and the system would be just as efficient.

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I do not rule out that possibility, and I see that point. I hesitate to say that the hon. Gentleman is being naive, but the system has been subject to frustration, to the detriment of genuine applicants. I have raised this issue with our directorates in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we have mechanisms in place to allow what he suggests. If something positive can come out of this debate, I shall reconsider that point.

Let me briefly consider destitution. The idea that a Government—especially a Labour Government—would deliberately cause destitution genuinely worries people and must be taken seriously. Putting aside the asylum system, let us consider the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping. Of course, it has not ended completely, but a sea change has happened. The “no one left out” strategy has a goal of ending rough sleeping by 2012. The right hon. Lady raised some cases with me recently and I have looked at the figures. I recognise that the methodology might not be perfect and I am not so naive as to think that everyone who is destitute sleeps on the pavement. They may sleep in empty buildings or in places where our systems do not reach them, but there is significant evidence to show that rough sleeping has decreased significantly.

Now we get to the difficult matter of what to do when the end of the appeals system, the legal consideration and the decision making has been reached. Of course, if somebody has failed to be granted leave under the asylum system and cannot, through no fault of their own, return to their country, support is available. However, when that is not the case, we have a difficult dilemma. Are we to say that the taxpayer should continue supporting a person, when there is no obstacle to returning, especially given the voluntary return system, which our constituents criticise heavily? The easy political option for the Government would be to give in to those pressures and not provide support for the voluntary return system. Indeed, there have been several high profile cases recently, and I, with my colleagues’ support, have resisted that pressure on us. The Refugee Integration and Employment Service and our work with the International Organisation for Migration—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).