Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I am pleased to have secured this debate, and it is good to see a number of colleagues here, although perhaps not as many as I had hoped; maybe everyone is in Eastleigh this morning. [Interruption.] Perhaps not quite everyone.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He served on the recent cross-party parliamentary panel on the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system, which I chaired. That inquiry, which was supported by the Children’s Society, is the instigator for this debate. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) had also hoped to be here, but he has a clashing appointment with the Select Committee on Education.
Before I say anything else, I would like to express my gratitude to the Children’s Society for its help and support during the inquiry. I am grateful to see the Minister here; I have had an opportunity to discuss the inquiry with him. I know he has read the report, so I look forward to his response. I also thank the 200 or so individuals and organisations that gave evidence to our inquiry, both in writing and in person. We were very lucky to receive evidence from a range of experts, including local authorities, safeguarding boards and academics, as well as from organisations working directly with young asylum seekers and their families. We also heard from the young people and their families themselves, many of whom came to give evidence in the House of Commons, which was a very moving occasion for many on the panel.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who also served on the panel, has joined us. All the panel would agree that some of the evidence we received was extremely shocking and very upsetting. We found that families are often surviving on as little as £5 a day per person. Parents told us that they often skip meals to pay for basic items and that it is particularly difficult for them to pay for any item, such as a winter coat or shoes, that requires slightly more money. They told us that they are unable to pay for their children’s school trips and uniform, a situation exacerbated by the frequent moves during dispersal and rehousing that affect many families. Birthdays, toys and other things that other families take for granted are another question entirely.
Asylum support rates have fallen way below the poverty line in recent years; they were first set at 90% of income support rates, but it was later agreed that they be set at 70% of income support rates. Successive Governments have failed to uprate those benefits under section 95 and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, thereby allowing them to fall way beneath the basic level of support that we would consider appropriate for families—that of income support.
As the Minister is aware, no decision has been taken this financial year about uprating section 95 and section 4 support rates, so those benefits have effectively been frozen this financial year without any accountability to Parliament. We have not had an opportunity to question the Minister on why that decision has or has not been taken.
The levels of the benefits are extremely complex and are set differently for children of different ages. For children under 15 without a disability, the levels are significantly less punitive than those set for adults, slightly older children and children with disabilities. Of course, the problem is that families are living on a whole family budget, not just the child’s extra bit of support.
We found that, when the support is added together, a lone parent with a 10-year-old disabled child is living on just a third of income support levels. It is difficult to see how any family can possibly be expected to survive on such small amounts of money. Notwithstanding any deductions for accommodation, which is paid for separately, it is difficult to see how a family can manage for a prolonged period on such small benefit levels.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has set out her stall very well and will surely continue to do so. Like me, was she struck by the great dignity of the people who gave evidence to our inquiry? They were not asking for anything, but, as she argues, they deserve to be treated properly.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The people who came to speak to us were asking to be treated as human beings, to be allowed to support themselves and to have enough to support their family. They did not whinge, and they were often extremely grateful for what this country has given to enable them to flee to safety from countries that are war-torn or in which they faced persecution.
The people were asking just to be able to survive and to bring up their children well. The stories they told were incredibly distressing. I will address some of the things they said, and I would be grateful if other members of the panel also reported on some of their experiences of listening to those families.
An estimated 10,000 children in the asylum system are supported by these benefits, and many spend substantial portions of their childhood on asylum support. It is not as if the problem affected people for a few weeks but did not have a long-term impact.
Everyone here is of the same mind. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is that, up to the age of 18, people who fall into this category experience uncertainty and fear? Does she agree that that needs to be reviewed to address the needs of vulnerable young people from when they come into this country until they reach 18, when the system basically washes its hands of them?
The inquiry specifically addressed children who are with their families and who are supported by section 95 and section 4, but there is another question about the vulnerability of unaccompanied asylum seekers and the fact that often all support ends at 18.
Many of us will remember, and those of us with children or nieces and nephews will recognise, that an 18-year-old is incredibly vulnerable if they have no family, which is why they are supposed to be treated as children leaving care. They have significant extra difficulties that need to be catered for and are not always addressed sympathetically by the Home Office’s decision making.
Education legislation is intended to be blind to a child’s immigration status—in fact, the Government are supposed to be blind to a child’s immigration status full stop. We are signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, and it seems to me that the UK Border Agency differentiates between children whose parents are currently in the system, or whose asylum case has failed, and children who have permanent residency.
The rules on education in the UN convention are absolutely clear: children must be provided with education regardless. However, the financial support for which they are eligible is an issue. Does it allow children to grow and flourish as the UNCRC expects? It is not adequate to provide children with barely enough to survive on; the UNCRC is clear that we must provide enough to allow them to develop to their best potential. I argue that the system is inadequate even to allow children’s bare survival. It certainly fails miserably to meet our duties under the UNCRC.
At the moment, a surprisingly large number of children live within the asylum support system. A significantly smaller number of those—probably only about 800—are supported under section 4, but the effects on that small number are disproportionate. We in Government know well what impact poverty has on a child’s life chances. All Ministers have accepted that child poverty significantly damages children’s potential for development, and that idea has cross-party support. That is why so much effort has been devoted to ensuring that we get the data right for counting child poverty, understand the indicators and focus on the causes and impacts of child poverty. I know that well from my time as a Minister at the Department for Education, where the issue was one focus of my work. However, we seem not to be able to take the issue as seriously for children whose asylum cases have not been decided.
The situation is significantly worse for those on section 4 rather than section 95 support. Section 4 support is intended to be short-term. It has been described by previous Ministers as an austere regime intended only for those whose applications have failed but who cannot currently return home. However, it is worth recognising that many children spend years on section 4 support. Although it might be intended for adults to live on for a matter of weeks, many children spend substantial portions of their lives on it—we met families whose children had spent almost all their lives on section 4 support. What makes section 4 support so difficult is not just that levels are significantly lower, but, more specifically, that it is cashless and highly restrictive about where the money can be spent.
One thing that struck me about the evidence provided to us was the impact of the Azure card. It reduces the effectiveness and value of the small amounts of money that the families and children get. Does the hon. Lady agree that if nothing else needs urgent consideration, the Azure card and the cashless system do, in order to improve things for those families?
I absolutely agree. Parents said to us that the restrictions on where they could shop meant that things were often more expensive, particularly items such as buggies, which were completely impossible for many families to buy. They would have been much happier to go to the second-hand shop, but of course they cannot use the Azure card there; they are required to go to Mothercare or similar shops. To reflect on my sister-in-law’s experience, buying a buggy at Mothercare costs practically as much as buying a car. I hope that I am not libelling the shop by saying so; I shall probably get letters from Mothercare now. Nevertheless, I think that most people would recognise that such items are extremely expensive. For anyone trying to survive on £5 a day in a cashless system using an Azure card, it makes no financial sense whatever.
Families who want to buy food more in keeping with their own culture find themselves unable to shop in suitable shops. It is particularly difficult for some families that they are expected to walk, sometimes up to 3 miles, in order to go shopping. The idea that a lone parent with several children should walk several miles to use an Azure card to go shopping, carrying the children and luggage back from the supermarket, is completely unreasonable.
Similarly, money on the Azure card cannot be saved from one week to the next, at least in more than very small amounts, so unless all the money is spent during the week, it is effectively wasted. People said that if they are ill and unable to shop, they run out of money and are unable to refill the fridge the following week. If they need a winter coat, they have no possible means of saving up for one. During a winter such as this one, that seems completely unreasonable.
Families also spoke to us about the stigma associated with using the Azure card, which identifies them immediately as asylum seekers. Many spoke distressingly about their experiences of being abused in supermarkets when they produced the card in order to buy their shopping. Sometimes, even after the card had been topped up, it still did not work. It is unreliable, as well as bringing great stigma with it.
The section 4 system seems utterly baffling to me. It is highly expensive to administer given the relatively small number of people involved, and it is a punitive regime that seems disproportionate to the problem that the Government say they are trying to fix. It is worth rehearsing some of the consequences of trying to live under the system.
I had a case in my constituency involving somebody on section 4 support. Those on section 4 support cannot be housed with other relatives; they must be housed in special accommodation. As a consequence, he was separated from his partner and child. As is extremely common, he was not eligible for travel money. The Government have said to me that travel money is available in exceptional cases. Those cases seem to be phenomenally exceptional, because my constituency office has had great difficulty accessing the money when it is needed. That man walked miles across London every day to visit his wife and child, a situation that put intolerable pressure on the child and family. We certainly heard of the reverse situation, where the woman was separated from the father of her child. It makes no logical sense. The Government would save money by allowing people to live with their partners, other relatives or friends, as those on section 95 support may do.
Section 4 support is highly restrictive of what people can buy. One thing that struck me most particularly as a Minister considering the issue was that the regulations expressly forbid the purchase of toys. What a bizarre thing to do. I do not know who thought of it, but it is certainly not compatible with the UNCRC.
For pregnant women and new mothers, the situation can be even more intolerable. Maternity Action and the Refugee Council submitted evidence to us during the inquiry. They have subsequently produced their own report, “When maternity doesn’t matter”, which I will say more about in a moment when I turn to housing. The organisations cited a case in which a woman with no money for a buggy or transport was forced to walk home from hospital in the snow, carrying her newborn baby in her arms, shortly after giving birth. That is a ludicrous and appallingly distressing story.
When I discussed the issue with the Minister previously, he said that he did not believe that the public would tolerate our giving the same amount of support to those whose claims have been rejected as to those still awaiting a decision, but I do not think the public would tolerate the kinds of story that we heard in our inquiry. He underestimates the humanity of the British people if he thinks that that is actually what they want in the asylum support system.
There is a further question about whether such punitive treatment actually has any purpose. It does not make desperate families who fear for their lives return home; it simply leaves them in poverty, jeopardising their health and their children’s long-term development. We saw a case in which somebody left on section 4 support for a very long time was later given refugee status on reapplication. To think that all those people are somehow scamming the system and ought to go home is to miss the point entirely.
It is said that if we raise benefit levels, it will encourage more people to seek asylum here. There is simply no evidence for that. When vouchers were introduced, the number of asylum applications rose. When cash was re-introduced, it fell. There has been plenty of research, which I am happy to share, looking at why people choose a particular country. In most cases, it has much more to do with historical ties between particular countries than with any expected benefits that people might receive when they get to the country. Given the complexity of section 4 and section 95 support—it took us some considerable time to produce the spreadsheet to work out exactly what families in different circumstances would get—it beggars belief that someone in a situation of war, violence or persecution would spend a couple of days researching that on the internet before deciding which travel company to book their flight with. We need to get that into perspective. The answer must surely be to set levels in line with other benefits. Deducting accommodation costs if necessary, we should make a clear commitment to uprate benefits so that people who have fled war, persecution and violence can live —as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said—a basic, dignified life.
I understand the political difficulties of raising benefit levels for asylum seekers, in particular when there is much debate about wider benefit levels—full stop. Surely it would be more sensible and take an awful lot of political grief away from the Minister if they were simply pegged to other benefit levels and automatically uprated each year. Ministers would then not have to go through the agony of having to work out on which full-news day to introduce a measure; they could simply get on with doing the right and humane thing.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the sensible approach that she is advocating is what used to be the case until, unfortunately, the previous Government made the change? Instead of pegging the support to a proportion of benefits, they decided to remove that linkage and left it floating, drifting, leading to the very destitution that she is describing.
There have been a number of different changes over time. The previous Government agreed that they would peg asylum support to 70% but almost immediately broke that agreement. The problem with this type of issue is that, because it is politically contentious, successive Ministers in different Governments have found it difficult to tackle, which is why it needs to be done in such a way that they do not have to face the headlines every time something happens. Drafting the legislation so as to allow the support to be uprated automatically would surely take the political headache away from Ministers, allowing them to do the right thing. I do not believe that Ministers from any party would wish to see children pushed into severe poverty. It is a question of ensuring that the administration is such that it can be done easily. I strongly encourage the Minister to take that step.
Logically, section 4 should be abolished, to be replaced by one cash-based system for all people regardless. The existing system costs money, it is inhumane and it serves no purpose. If it was abolished and section 95 applied to everyone, I would be extremely surprised were there any political outcry. The Government have managed to make changes to the immigration system and to abolish child detention without any hue and cry, so I am sure it is not beyond the wit of the Minister to amend section 4 so that people get a decent cash system.
Indeed. The Minister could also make a virtue out of it, because the change would almost certainly save money. I made a point a moment ago about how people could be housed with their relatives if less restriction was applied than in the section 4 system, which requires people to be housed in different accommodation. The change would also save money on administration, and I strongly encourage the Minister to make it. At a time of austerity, I am sure he is looking for any method to save a little money.
Not recognising disability and special needs in families seeking asylum is also unjust. We ought to ensure that those needs are recognised in the system, because it is completely illogical to expect a family to be able to cope without such recognition. We heard from one young carer, Riyya, who was left with the most extraordinary pressure of caring for her disabled mother, and of course no financial recognition was given in the benefit system of that pressure or of the extra support that her mother needed. It caused devastation to Riyya during her childhood.
If the Government are really looking to save money, an obvious way would be to allow asylum seekers to work and to support themselves if they have been waiting in this country for some time for their case to be decided. That is what most asylum-seeking families want: they want to be able to support themselves, they do not want to be on benefit. We have spent a lot of time talking up the importance of the work ethic as a salvation for all. One of the mantras of the Government is that work is an important route for supporting oneself, for dignity and for children’s prospects. We know that, and we devote a lot of time trying to get people back into work when they have been out of work for a long time—in all cases except this group, who are often highly educated and talented people with a lot to give to this country. During the time they spend on asylum support, they are deskilled and demotivated, and their children have to survive in high levels of poverty. Again, the Minister could make a political virtue out of that change, because I am pretty sure it is what the public want as well. They want to see people contributing to this country; having given people safety, the public want to see them giving something back, and that is what asylum-seeking families want as well.
On that deskilling of people, many who come to this country have skills or job experience with which they could contribute to society, but sometimes they are not given the chance. Does the hon. Lady feel that more opportunity should be given to those people who come here with skills and job experience with which they could contribute to the country? At the moment it is not happening.
I absolutely agree. The sooner that people are able to get back into a regular pattern of work, so that they can support their family and themselves and give themselves some dignity and a sense of contributing to the country that they have chosen to make as their home albeit under difficult circumstances, the better that is for everyone concerned. Furthermore, the quicker they can integrate, the quicker they can learn English, while from a financial perspective it will cost the country a good deal less to support them. That seems to be a logical and sensible thing to do, and I strongly urge the Minister to look at doing it.
In our inquiry, we intended to look specifically at support rates, which is what I have spent most of the time discussing. Before I finish, however, I want to say something about some of the other things that we found that were equally shocking, such as the way in which families are treated by their housing provider. The families have multiple moves, not only dispersed once but moved repeatedly, with appalling living conditions and cases of disrepair, as well as a lack of privacy and of hygiene. The multiple moves, as I said at the outset of my remarks, affect not only family budgets because of the need to buy a new school uniform every time but children’s school life, and their ability to make friends and to settle. We must remember that the children have fled their own country; they have fled war, violence and persecution, with all the trauma involved, and yet, when the family arrive here, we move them over and over again, often with little notice or little information to allow parents to prepare their child emotionally. What family would want to be moved and uprooted with little notice and without some information so that they can discuss with their child what is to happen? They get no information in advance about where the local schools are or about the area, and no support to allow them to register at a new school or with the doctor. They are basically plucked from one place and dropped into another with no support whatever to allow them to integrate. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high among this group. It would not be an expensive problem to fix. We could provide support for families if a move is necessary, and we could try to move families with young children less often.
One mother and her four-year-old daughter told us that they moved 11 times in five years. She explained that, as a consequence of what she fled from in her own country, she spent the best part of 10 years moving house, first within her own country, then in this country, effectively fleeing from house to house, being moved by the UKBA. She said, “I’m tired.” I am not surprised she is tired, and I am not surprised that it is so difficult for her children. Moves are often made with no appreciation of the impact on children. Families and local authority representatives told us that contractors do not always turn up when they say they will, so belongings, such as a children’s cots, are packed up and no notice is given of when the contractor will eventually turn up.
The impact on pregnant women is even worse. I have referred to the deeply upsetting report, “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter”, which the Refugee Council and Maternity Action produced this week. They submitted evidence to our inquiry that the impact of dispersal on women’s lives is catastrophic if they are pregnant. The four weeks’ protected period that UKBA agreed to introduce is an advance, but still woefully inadequate. Women are moved away from their partners so they may have no one with them when they give birth and no one to look after their other children. A single mother in the study reported that she was separated from her partner so she had no one to look after her children and she considered leaving her children with a local shopkeeper before she went into labour because she had no other options for child care. Midwives told us that it makes their lives incredibly difficult because they are unable to provide continuity of care.
We would not expect any British woman to experience such conditions, but these women have specific extra difficulties and they should receive more support, not less. Many have suffered female genital mutilation and sexual violence in their own country as well as torture, which exacerbates the risk of flashbacks when giving birth. They have a much higher rate of maternal death than we expect in the general population. They make up 12% of all maternal deaths, but only 0.3% of the overall population. Those figures are staggering and worrying, and the Government must get to grips with them.
Again, it is not expensive to fix the problem. There is no reason for repeatedly moving these women, and that could be stopped. I strongly encourage the Government to examine the matter to ensure that women are treated decently and that their children have a chance to thrive. We know that what happens in the first few weeks and months after childbirth is important for their children and attachment. That is why the Government are putting health visitors in Sure Start children’s centres. We know that post-natal depression and so on have an impact on attachment, and a long-term impact on children’s ability to thrive and what happens to them in later life. Other Departments know that, so why does the Home Office not accept the evidence that is driving Government policy everywhere else? It must work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. The situation is simply not good enough, and it could be changed.
My final point, which is perhaps the smallest and the cheapest to fix, was the most shocking for the panel. Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. People may be in the shower and if they are Muslim women they may not have adequate head covering. It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.
I have gone through the details of the report. Some of our recommendations would save the Government money, some would cost a small amount, some would be more popular than their current policies, all would be more humane, and none would encourage more asylum seekers to come here. These changes would be win-wins for the Government if they implemented them.
Any change is risky and difficult, but the Minister is very capable and I am sure that he is on top of his brief. If anyone is politically shrewd enough to appreciate the points on offer, I am sure that he is. He does not strike me as a Minister who has come to his brief wanting to tread water, and I strongly encourage him to take note of the points that the cross-party parliamentary inquiry made.
I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate on the important issue of unfairness and injustice. My contribution to the debate is based on my personal knowledge of the subject, my previous work and the casework at my constituency surgeries. I have a large caseload. The views expressed in the report resulted from hearing many experts. The hon. Lady has mentioned many issues that we all face in the community, and I may repeat what she has said, because she expressed the views of many people and many MPs from their experience in their constituencies.
This country has a long-standing tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence, but unfortunately we are in danger of failing refugees and asylum seekers by giving them inadequate support. It is our duty to provide assistance to those in need, especially to young children and families who have already suffered through war and persecution. Unfortunately, there are many tragic examples of asylum seekers in this country living in terrible conditions due to the low support awarded to them. Some families cannot put food on their tables; some are living in cold, unhygienic, overcrowded and unsafe accommodation; and other people are separated from their families and regularly moved around the country.
The cross-party parliamentary inquiry on asylum support, of which I was a member and which was chaired by the hon. Lady, produced a comprehensive report that examined support for asylum-seeking children and families and made recommendations. One key concern outlined in the report is the discrepancy between support for asylum seekers and families receiving mainstream benefits. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and the support that they are entitled to under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is considerably less than current income support, which is a minimum level to meet essential living needs.
The situation is detrimental to the well-being of asylum seekers, leaving families hungry and struggling in atrocious conditions. Some children on asylum support are living on as little as £5 a day. As part of the inquiry, we heard tragic stories of parents going hungry, so that they could feed their children, and having to choose between buying food and buying warmer clothes for winter. Parents should never have to go hungry to feed and clothe their children because they cannot afford to; income support for asylum seekers is clearly insufficient if that is the case.
The situation is even more difficult for families with a child or a parent with a disability. Without access to mainstream benefits, families seeking asylum are also not entitled to benefits such as disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility assistance. That leaves asylum-seeking families with disability significantly worse off than families who are able to access mainstream support. Some families are only getting about a quarter of what they would get under the mainstream system. As it may cost up to three times more to raise a disabled child, it is unreasonable for such families not to receive an allowance to meet those extra costs, especially when they already have difficulty making ends meet. Parents raising a disabled child will also require extra support to help them with their child’s education, health and social activities. Unfortunately, once again, the asylum support system does not recognise those additional needs and forces parents to struggle with such challenges unassisted.
The same is true for children caring for a disabled parent, as they are not entitled to supplementary carer’s allowance or any extra assistance. As the hon. Lady has said, the inquiry allowed us to hear about an 11-year-old girl who cared for her disabled mother. It was not unusual for her to have to miss school to take her mother to hospital appointments and help with the shopping and cleaning. Sadly, as her mother was unable to sign in for her support every single week because of her disability, they would sometimes have to go without any money. Had that mother and daughter been given additional support, they would not have had to struggle in that way and the girl would have had an uninterrupted education.
The lack of support for refugees with additional needs is particularly evident and worrying for children affected by HIV. Such children need warm, clean accommodation and high-quality food and health care, which, in most cases, they will not have access to through their asylum support, leaving them vulnerable to serious illness. In addition, mothers who are HIV-positive should not be breastfeeding, but are not given supplementary funds for formula milk, putting their babies at risk.
Refugees who are fleeing war and persecution should be given an extra layer of protection, but in such cases, some of the most vulnerable are those who receive the lowest support. It is clear that the particular needs and additional costs of living for families where there is a disability or illness must be taken into account to determine financial support for asylum seekers. It is unacceptable for parents and children with disability to be left without the support that they desperately need. Asylum-seeking families should be able to access disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility allowance, so that they are able to live without fear of going hungry, cold or scared.
In this country, we put a lot of emphasis on English language skills and knowledge, which I feel is most important. Everyone needs to learn, so that they can fully participate in the system, but it is also the responsibility of the system to recognise the other social and practical skills that such people bring with them, so that they can be used. Not only could people then offer their own skills, but it could be ensured that they contribute more effectively to society after they come in. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will address how we can best use the skills that people carry with them.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the chance to contribute to this important debate. I hope that the Minister will listen to the contributions made by all Members this morning, as well as what is said by people who have expertise in the field, who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with many cases, and that he will read the recommendations made in the report. I also hope that he will help the families and children who are going through the most difficult period of their lives and take them out of the poverty trap. Furthermore, let them live and move in society with dignity and respect.
I apologise, Mr Davies, for having to nip out to deal with a constituency issue, but I have been here for most of the debate, and what a good debate it has been. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing it and on building on what has been a very good all-party inquiry into a significant and precise issue. As she said so eloquently in her speech, action can be taken by the Minister—who is a very good Minister—to seize the opportunity and advantage available for a win-win situation.
Most of these children and families come from countries, such as Iran, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, where violence is endemic and human rights abuses are well documented. Owing to poor-quality decision making by the Home Office on asylum claims, there are consistently high overturn rates on appeal for some countries—for example, for Syria, the rate is 53%; for Sri Lanka, 40%; for Iran, 37%; and for Afghanistan, 30%.
As recent Refugee Council research shows, many families will be refused asylum but may still have protection needs, and they will be too afraid to return to their country of origin. They are left in limbo in the United Kingdom, sadly living in destitution and prohibited from working to support themselves and their children. In general, if a temporary obstacle prevents them from leaving the UK—for example, if they are too sick to travel or if there is no viable route of return—under the section 4 system, they may only live in designated accommodation, and instead of cash, they only receive money to cater for essential living needs on the Azure payment card. As the hon. Lady pointed out, although that is designed as a temporary measure, it can go on for years and, sometimes, as long as a decade or more, which is surely not acceptable.
I want to focus my remarks on the card. It can only be used at designated retail outlets, so people cannot get the best value for money. I think that every hon. Member is committed to systems that allow the delivery of the best value for money, so it is ironic that we have designed something that militates against that. People can only purchase food, essential toiletries and other items up to the value of £35.39 per person per week. We heard from families who reported experiencing frequent technical faults with the card—something that, as the hon. Lady pointed out, can be embarrassing and degrading—and they were not allowed to buy certain items such as condoms or sanitary towels.
Attention can also be drawn to such families, and they can be the victims of abuse. For example, one mother, who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation when she was young and who was living on section 4 support when we spoke to her but has since received refugee status, told the panel how she had been spoken to by another shopper while using the Azure card. The shopper said, “You black monkey, go back to your own country.” These horrific experiences have a profound impact on parents and their children. None of us feels that that racism should be tolerated, and we should not put systems in place that risk that racism taking place.
I was ashamed to hear some of the evidence that we heard. People gave evidence with great dignity and stoicism and no complaining. It left me thinking that we can surely do better and at no extra cost. Indeed, the cost implications of maintaining a two-tier system under section 4, aimed at persuading people to leave the UK, are such that it is not a cost-effective approach. Ultimately, increasing asylum support to bring it in line with mainstream benefits to ensure that children’s needs are met would mean additional costs. However, abandoning the parallel section 4 system could and probably would save money, because it would get rid of an unnecessary and clumsy bureaucracy.
Still Human Still Here estimates that abolishing the parallel support system under section 4 could lead to savings of more than £2 million due to administrative costs and because families would no longer be required to live in designated UK Border Agency accommodation and could remain with friends or relatives, as is the case currently for those on section 95 support. There is an opportunity to save money in times of austerity and to allow money to go further for people who have very little money. It is a win-win opportunity for the Government, and I am sure that this Minister will want to embrace it.
The report recommended that the Government should abolish section 4 support and urgently implement a single cash-based support system for all children and their families who need asylum support while they are in the UK. I hope that all parties in the House will work together with the Government to assist them in bringing that about as soon as possible. The system should include children who were born after an asylum refusal, to ensure that no child is left destitute.
Much more could be said, because of the richness of the evidence that was provided, but I want to focus simply on the cashless payment, which does not make sense in terms of delivering to those who most need it the opportunity to take full advantage of their lives and move things forward; nor does it make sense because of the cost to the UK taxpayer, who is paying for unnecessary bureaucracy. Here is an opportunity to address that and move things forward in a way that benefits everyone.
I commend the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for initiating the debate. I commend not only the work reflected in her remarks today, but the work of the cross-party panel, which conducted such a compelling inquiry. The hon. Lady has also reflected many of the points and concerns that she has raised in a very cogent early-day motion, which I have also supported.
The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children, told the main Chamber on Monday, in the debate on the Children and Families Bill, that every child is our responsibility.
The report by the cross-party panel is a call to action and a call for change if we really do subscribe to the ethic that every child is our child, because it shows that, as a result of how the regime for asylum support is operating, children are being held in destitution. Their parents are being frustrated from discharging their most basic responsibility and from fulfilling the most cogent aspiration of any parent—to provide due and proper care and nurture for their children.
The evidence was there in terms of the risk that children were facing. We have a regime that does not work to the imperative of the protection of children and their rights. It is a system that, in many ways, possibly by ensuring the degree of destitution for parents and children, puts parents—mothers—at risk of ending up in undue transactional circumstances, including prostitution. It creates many degrees and levels of risk for children, which we should, of course, be at pains to prevent.
We have heard from the hon. Members for Brent Central, for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) that the system is unfair and cruel and creates inequity. I know that the Minister is a reasonable, sensible and sensitive person. He will see the inequity to which other hon. Members have referred, but if his officials cannot be moved by the inequity, will they not at least be moved by the inefficiency that has been brought out so strongly by the hon. Members and which is demonstrated so strongly in the panel’s report?
There seems to be a naive assumption that a cashless system, as in section 4, is somehow a costless system, but, as we can see in the report and as we have heard from the hon. Member for Brent Central and other hon. Members today, that system is not costless. It is an inefficient as well as a cruel system, because it denies people not just adequate means but the choice to make proper and cost-efficient provision for themselves. A cash system, with a fair application of section 95, would be much better.
There seems to be a mantra on the part of those making decisions in Government that there should be “No more for section 4,” but the mantra should actually be “No more of section 4”. It simply does not work in any way that is fair. It results in severe destitution for many people and intense risk exposure for very vulnerable families. It is the point about vulnerability that seems to be missing.
It seems to me that the system has a tendency to see suspects rather than the vulnerable. Its treating of families and children as suspect rather than vulnerable seems to be the root cause of the problem. We should move against section 4. It is supposed to provide a measure of short-term support to deal with short-term exigencies, but, as we know from parliamentary answers given only this month, more than half the people on section 4 support have been on it for more than two years. Some, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, have been on it for much longer than that, so let us not pretend that section 4 does what the Government initially said it was intended to do. Let us recognise, as the report brings out, the serious problems with section 4 and move against it.
Of course, the lack of choice over disposable means is not the only problem with section 4. There is also—pardon the pun—the tethered living that comes with section 4, with people being denied any choice in relation to accommodation and being forced into UKBA accommodation. As well as that being restricted and unsuitable living, it can lead to intrusive situations—officials can just arrive and appear in the properties where people are living. That can lead to situations that are totally inappropriate in the context of family life. Families should not have to deal with that.
The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the recent report “When maternity doesn’t matter”, by the Refugee Council and Maternity Action. I attended the event on Monday evening and listened to the accounts of the experiences of some people who have faced dispersal. Refugees, as well as facing the worst effects of displacement from their own country, their own families and the circumstances that they are fleeing, find themselves at risk of ongoing displacement here, whether that is through the policy of dispersal or through some of the other changes that can be visited on people, as was brought out very strongly by the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about how the system operates. Does he agree that the present system and environment force many children, women and families into the undesirable field of racial abuse and sexual violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has said?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. People are left vulnerable not just in a social and economic sense, but to all sorts of victimisation and alienation. That would be wrong in any instance, but particularly when we are dealing with vulnerable children. We should not visit such risks on people.
The regime is in relation not just to section 4, but to section 95, which provides for a cash support system. It makes no recognition whatever of disabled children or children who discharge caring duties for a parent with a disability or long-term condition. We would not tolerate that in any other area of benefits for any other of our constituents.
Although people complain about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority about this, that and the other, we have made sure that there is provision even in the parliamentary allowance system for people with caring responsibilities or disabilities. One of the worst forms of inequality is to treat people in profoundly different circumstances as though they were the same. That is exactly what is happening in the situation that we are discussing.
Originally, section 95 support was pegged at 90% of income support levels. It was then moved by the previous Government to 70%, but that was never adhered to. The report brings that out. People might argue that in the current circumstances it is a relatively modest request to bring section 95 support to 70% of income support levels.
I hope that the Minister, when he addresses the issues, will take care to read all the points and experiences reflected in the report and listen to its sensible recommendations, which have come not just from the Children’s Society, which did much work to support the inquiry, but from many others, including the Law Centre and many other charities in Northern Ireland that work with asylum seekers and refugees.
It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate my three hon. Friends who spoke in today’s debate and all hon. Members who took part in putting the report together. I also congratulate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just done, the various charities and organisations that work with refugees—including those whose primary work is not with refugees, such as the Red Cross—on the diligence that they have brought to the work, to try to make Parliament and the wider public understand the situation faced by many refugees in this country. Of course, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for the work she has done in bringing the issues together, for getting the report published and for how she presented her case today.
Different parts of the country will make different responses to the issue of asylum, because some parts have more refugees and a longer history of refugee communities than others. I used to be a curate in High Wycombe. Many refugees had come from Poland to High Wycombe in the 1940s, and it was an accepted part of Buckinghamshire society that there was a strong support for asylum and for refugees individually.
A respect for asylum and a desire to protect refugees are essential parts of our British decency. They are things we feel proud of because of our response not only in the 1930s and 1940s, but after that. People in the United Kingdom looked at oppressive dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece and parts of eastern Europe and were proud when we were able to provide others greater freedom and liberty than they were able to have in their own countries.
The hon. Member for Brent Central was absolutely right in saying—though this is not often the version portrayed in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent or just about any national newspaper—that there is little evidence to suggest that asylum seekers choose a country because of its benefits system or whether they would be able to work. That, incidentally, is also true of other forms of migration.
It is important that we keep asylum and immigration separate and that Government rules do so, too. If someone has suddenly to leave their country, it is far more common for them to go to a country where they already know someone; that stands to reason. If this country suddenly had a dictatorial Government and people suddenly had to leave, they would probably go somewhere where they had family or friends, whose house they might be able to stay in. Alternatively, people might go to a country whose operation of the rule of law they truly respected. Our historical respect for the rule of law is another reason why Britain has sometimes been a place where people seek refuge.
The hon. Lady was also right in saying that being a refugee is tough.
I arrived in this country many years ago, but in different circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when people leave their country, they go to a country where there is a history and tradition of tolerance and where they feel they will get a sense of justice? That is also part of why they move—not the benefits.
I absolutely agree. That does not mean that we should throw out all the rules on benefits in this country. It is a simple point to make—the vectors of asylum are oppression and dictatorial regimes, not the attraction of some kind of benefits system in this country. That is not to say that we should build palaces for every single person who comes to this country—no refugee expects that—but it is important to realise why people come.
It is also important to realise that no one wants to be a refugee; everyone prefers to live in their own country. The whole Old Testament is about people who are refugees because they had to leave their own country and the oppression that they lived under. The Israelites went off into the desert because of the oppression they were suffering under the Egyptians. That is a fundamental—theological, if one likes—understanding of the role of the refugee.
We need to do a great deal more, where we can, to ensure that our aid budget is deployed to try to ensure that fewer people around the world have to seek refuge. The number of people seeking asylum in this country and in many other parts of the world rose dramatically in the 1990s for the simple reason that there were many more dangerous places from which people had to flee.
We were hideously ill-prepared—in 1994, 1995 and 1996 there were only 50 people to deal with asylum seekers’ applications in this country—and it took a considerable period to put the situation in order. There were something like 170,000 applications a year; we are now talking about something in the region of 19,000, 20,000 or 21,000.
The hon. Gentleman says that the number of asylum seekers increased because more places around the world were dangerous. Is it not also the case—this is not a harsh point, just one for balance—that many people who came here claiming that they were asylum seekers came for other reasons? In fact, the attraction of easier travel and better media meant that, in addition to the rising numbers, understanding whether the basis for asylum was valid or invalid become more important in the 1990s and the last decade.
That may be true, but part of my critique is that we have been very ill-prepared to make such decisions over the past 20 years. If a long time is taken to decide on someone’s asylum application—that happened under Labour, but also in the early 1990s—the danger is that we end up with people who have become stateless and without any real existence.
Among people coming to my surgery recently, one young gentleman—he is not young any more; he came here some 25 years ago—has never had an asylum decision and has simply being living here. He has not been living off the state. He lives with his wife, and he is the house husband. Sorry—not his wife, but his partner: he has decided to come clean because he wants to marry, and he cannot marry without regularising his position.
It is vital that we make swift decisions, and it is important that the Government do whatever they can to reach the target of all asylum decisions being made within six months. In some cases, we have to be very careful. In particular, I hope that the Minister will look at the new evidence about Sri Lanka. When we return people to Sri Lanka, where they face oppression and persecution, we need to be careful in our relations with the Sri Lankan Government, let alone with others. There can be no greater instance of the trauma involved in someone’s having to leave their country as a refugee than the case of the 92 Burmese refugees who died after being at sea for 25 days off the coast of Thailand.
I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of the British people would be scandalised, upset and shocked by many of the stories told and much of the evidence presented to the group, especially about those for whom no decision has yet been made. The warmth of feeling of the British people, however, is somewhat diminished for those on section 4 support, when it has already been decided that people should go home.
I also think, as I know from an e-mail I had from a constituent yesterday—about a story in the Daily Mail, which makes me slightly hesitant—that there is less support for those in this country who decide to take on further family responsibilities after it has been determined that their asylum claim will not be accepted. I merely note that five of the people we have talked about are women who became pregnant after their appeal had been rejected.
I hear what the hon. Lady says. I do not know whether what she has reported is true or not, which is why I hope that the Minister can reply. He said from a sedentary position that it was not true.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to the hideous conditions in which many people live. We need to do far more in this country to crack down on unscrupulous and poor landlords, who put people into housing that, frankly, is not fit for living. It has been a disgrace that successive Governments have not concentrated enough on that. Multiple removals are a waste of time, money and energy for the organisations involved, leaving aside the effect on families, and particularly on children who have to change school. I have already referred to slow decision making, and to how important it is that decisions are made swiftly so that people can organise their lives accordingly.
I want to ask the Minister what impact the bedroom tax will have—
The point is that neither will that measure redistribute scarce resources from the over-supplied to the under-supplied. I assure the hon. Member for Bedford that it is not a form of socialism. Child asylum seekers, if they come here under the age of 18, are normally fostered. As I understand it, the Government have admitted today that foster carers’ additional rooms will be counted as additional to their requirements. I fear that that will again crack down on families who want to provide legitimate support for people. What assessment has the Minister made of that?
I hear everything that my hon. Friends have said about the Azure card and section 4 support. I will not declare a new Labour party policy, I am afraid. Of course, the Government have to keep the concept of the card under review, because if it is genuinely more expensive to provide than the savings it brings, that is obviously to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. I will not make a new financial commitment today. The Government must, of course, review the amounts, and it is time that they got on with that this year.
I want to make a point about paperless children. A significant number of children who come to this country as asylum seekers say that they are 15, but the system says, “No, you aren’t 15; you are 18 or 19. You are an adult and should go through the adult process.” One difficulty is that many people destroy their papers the moment they get on an aeroplane. I wonder whether there is any means of ensuring that airlines scan the documents required to be shown before people can get on an aeroplane, so that if the documents are destroyed on the aeroplane, they are not entirely lost to the system, and people cannot thereafter claim that they are completely and utterly paperless and therefore stateless.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central on advancing this issue. Having seen, when Labour was in government, several ex-Ministers find conviction about policies that they did not necessarily exhibit when they were in office, I hope that she will retain her commitment when she returns to office, which I am sure the Prime Minister will want to enable very swiftly.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate. As she said, she and I met to discuss the report put together by her group of parliamentary colleagues, and I had the chance, both before and after that meeting, to consider it carefully. It will certainly go into the Government’s review specifically on asylum support rates. I thank her for her work and for the evidence. Two of the Members who took part in that work—the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—are here today. In the time available, I will deal with both her points and those made by other Members who spoke or intervened.
Let me first deal with the financial support. One point made by the hon. Lady today, and one of the key points in her report, is that the amount of money given to both asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers is very low and does not meet families’ essential living needs. It is worth setting out for the House exactly what is available. The legal test is whether it meets people’s essential needs, which are food, toiletries and clothing. A family of four receiving section 95 support, which is that given to those who have an asylum application that has not yet been decided, would get £178 a week to cover those essential costs. A family on section 4 support, which is where a decision has been made and they do not have a right to remain in the country, get £151 a week. It is worth remembering that they have furnished housing with no bills to pay. I accept that it is not generous, but I do not think it is ungenerous. It is lower than the income support equivalents, but people who are in asylum support accommodation do not have to pay any utility bills, buy furniture or meet some of the other costs associated with running a household.
The hon. Lady touched on the relationship between the section 95 support and income support levels, which is worth mentioning. For children, the rates are much higher than the 70% she talked about. For children, the rates range between 81% and 89% of the income support levels. It is true that the rates are less generous for adults. If we look at how we compare with other European countries on families—and therefore on children—we are rather more generous than most of our equivalent European neighbours.
The Minister will perhaps recognise that the rates vary according to the children’s age and tail off significantly at 16, where it would be expected that those children would be in full-time education, especially given the Government’s own policy to encourage everybody to be in education beyond 16. I have discussed the German constitutional court case with him in private. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at it, but I am happy to send him the details. The support rates there were deemed to be inadequate to meet a family’s basic humane needs. It is difficult to compare our asylum support rates with those of other European countries, because they partly depend on how long someone is on them. It is worth noting that one of our neighbours has had to review its asylum support rates.
I accept that point. It is worth making the point on the German case that our rates for families are rather more generous than the German rates. The hon. Lady is right that there was a court challenge and the Germans have had to make their rates more generous. Ours are significantly more generous. The point she makes about 16 and 17-year-olds is correct, but it is still worth noting that her report and, I think, others have referred to the rates being at least 70% of the income support rate. That is still the case for young people of 16 and 17, where it is 71%. It does fall below that for adults. She will be aware—she and I have discussed this—that we are in the process of reviewing the asylum support rates to confirm that they meet essential living needs. The initial work that we have done suggests that they do, but that work is under way. When we have completed it, we will make an announcement in due course.
The hon. Lady and others, particularly the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, referred to individuals who have higher living costs, especially those with disabilities or complicated medical problems, who might need particular extra care or equipment. The correct way that they are supposed to be supported is through local authorities using their powers and duties under both the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 2004 to provide that extra support. It sounds like the hon. Gentleman has encountered some cases in his surgeries with constituents, and there were also some in the evidence given to the panel producing the report, where that does not always happen. Obviously I am happy to look at specific cases, so that we can ensure that local authorities are following up on their legal obligations.
Once people have made an asylum claim, if that claim is accepted and they are given refugee status and are permitted to stay in the UK, they have access to the full range of public services and benefits on the same basis as a British citizen. There are some issues about the transition from asylum support to those mainstream benefits, and the UK Border Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions are looking at those to see whether we can smooth that move from asylum support to mainstream benefits for those who are granted refugee status.
It is worth mentioning at this point the speed of decision making, which is important both from a human perspective and to ensure that people do not use the asylum system as a method of economic migration. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant): both our parties have been clear when in government that there is a distinction between providing refuge for people fleeing persecution and for people who move, perfectly understandably, for economic reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) alluded to that. We now make 50% of asylum decisions within 30 days and 63% are made within a year, and we continue to apply pressure to maintain that progress.
Several hon. Members talked about whether asylum seekers should be able to work. Our view is that they should not be able to, to keep that clear distinction. However, under our obligations under the relevant EU directives, if we take more than a year to make a decision, an asylum seeker is able to apply to work, and we will usually grant them the ability to do so.
The hon. Gentleman’s point would be correct if we were prohibiting people from working and not providing them with any support. While we say they cannot work, so as to maintain that important distinction, we do provide them with housing where the bills are paid and a basic level of subsistence to support them in the period before we make a decision.
In the four minutes I have remaining, I will say a little about the difference between asylum seekers and those who have failed in their claim. That is important and I have made this point to the hon. Lady. If we are to maintain the proud record that the United Kingdom has in giving people refuge from persecution, it is important that those who have gone through the appeal process through the tribunal system, where we will have looked at their cases carefully, and been found not to require that support leave the country. It is important to distinguish that those on section 4 support are those who have been found not to require our protection. They should be leaving the country. We support those cases where there is a temporary barrier to them doing so, but frankly they should not be here. I know that that is a difficult message for people sometimes, but we have looked carefully at their cases and they do not need our protection. They should return home.
I am aware that the Minister does not have much time, but does he recognise, particularly in the case of Zimbabwe, that people were left in a situation where the courts would not return them because it was unsafe, and for a prolonged period of time they were left on very tiny amounts of support?
As I have said, if there are temporary barriers to their removal—I do not know the particular cases that the hon. Lady was talking about—we will support them, but if they are found not to require protection, it is right that they leave. That is why we have a different regime for those who have no right to be here from that for those seeking asylum.
We do not think that the Azure card is more expensive than administering cash payments. It can be used in major supermarkets, chemists, children’s and clothing retailers, and some charity shops, which deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe. The hon. Lady made a point about purchasing birth control or sanitary products with the Azure card, which she raised when we met. I have checked it, and there is no restriction on purchasing those products, although there are rightly restrictions on purchasing alcohol and tobacco. I agreed to look into those cases and have checked them, and there is no restriction on birth control or sanitary products, which is right.
I will deal with some of the points raised in the debate. On accommodation and people moving around, we have specific restrictions in our new Compass contracts on how many times people can be moved. People will normally go into initial accommodation when they first make a claim and then will be moved into their dispersal accommodation. They will be moved from that only if there is a good reason, such as if the property becomes unsuitable or if they request it. Under the contract, they are only allowed to be moved twice in an 18-month period. We should not see people being moved about frequently, because that raises a range of issues.
The hon. Lady also referenced the recent report by the Refugee Council about the dispersal of pregnant women. We changed our policies last August, which she acknowledged, and 19 of the report’s 20 case studies were prior to our policy change. That change should have dealt with some of the issues that have been raised. This has been a good debate, and I am sorry that I have not had time to deal with all the issues.