Skip to main content

Asylum Seekers (Support)

Volume 579: debated on Thursday 10 April 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement on support provided to meet the essential living needs of asylum seekers under sections 95 and 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

Asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office if they are destitute. The support package usually consists of accommodation, with gas, electricity, water and other utilities provided free, plus a weekly cash allowance to cover essential living needs. The cash allowance is currently £36.62 a week for a single adult, but it is higher in cases where there are children in the household. A family of two adults and two children would receive approximately £180 a week.

The Government completed a full review of payment levels in June 2013. The review concluded that the levels were sufficient to meet essential living needs. That decision was challenged in the courts by Refugee Action, a group that campaigns for asylum seekers, and the court issued its judgment yesterday. It decided that there were some errors in the way in which the 2013 review had been conducted. It found, for example, that items such as household cleaning products and non-prescription medicines should have been considered as essential and therefore factored into the overall assessment of the adequacy of the payment levels. The court did not decide that the current payment levels were too low. That question will be considered by the Government in a fresh review of the payment levels. We are of course considering the full implications of the judgment, and whether or not to appeal.

The Minister is correct to say that yesterday’s judgment did not comment on the generosity of the levels, but it was absolutely damning about the process that the Home Secretary had used in order to come to her decision. It found that she had misunderstood or misapplied information, that she did not know, or ignored, basic aspects of her Government’s education policy, and that she had failed to gather sufficient information. She has been told to go away and do the whole thing again.

Is not the problem that this decision is a personal fiefdom of the Home Secretary, driven entirely by base political motives? She can and does ignore detailed representations by other Ministers across the Government. She can and does ignore parliamentarians, including the findings of a cross-party inquiry that I chaired last year. She can and does ignore the pleas of those who work with victims of torture, who say that she is exacerbating their trauma and forcing them into severe poverty. It is an indictment of the current process that Refugee Action and the Migrants Law Project had to take the Home Secretary to court to get any kind of oversight of the process.

Is it not simply time for Ministers to accept that the Home Office cannot be trusted to make a rational or humane decision alone on this matter, and to submit to a transparent process with cross-government oversight, which might improve its data and force the Home Secretary to come to Parliament to announce them? Finally, does the Minister accept that half this agony would be avoided if the Government allowed asylum seekers to work and pay their own way, as many of the highly skilled individuals who come here seeking sanctuary are desperate to do?

The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it, and the Government are committed to providing support to those who would otherwise be destitute while their claims are being considered. The payment levels to asylum seekers need to be considered as part of the overall support package. Accommodation—plus utilities such as gas and electricity —is provided free.

I do not accept my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the assessment process. A detailed assessment was concluded last June and, indeed, we will carry out a further assessment of levels this year to take into account relevant factors and to assess whether there should be any change. I can certainly assure her that we will consider these matters very carefully.

My hon. Friend makes various comments on the judgment itself. It is a very detailed judgment—it runs to about 90 pages and the Home Office is analysing the detail carefully and, indeed, whether we will be appealing it.

The Home Office takes its responsibilities in respect of asylum support extremely seriously in setting the rates and considering what is appropriate. We believe that it does provide support to enable those who seek asylum and who are destitute to see that their claims are decided, and that support is given to them during that process.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for raising the issue, which, as she mentioned, is about the basic level of support given to those fleeing torture, rape or oppression and who seek asylum in the United Kingdom.

Given that the rate was frozen in 2011 and has now been frozen through to 2013-14, yesterday’s judgment was damning. The Home Secretary was ordered to review the amount of money given to support asylum seekers after the High Court ruled that she had used insufficient evidence in deciding to freeze those payments. In his judgment the judge said the decision was “flawed” and that the Home Secretary

“misunderstood or misapplied information which she treated as important in reaching her decision.”

He added:

“In my judgment the information used by the Secretary of State to set the rate of asylum support was simply insufficient to reach a rational decision to freeze rates.”

In the judge’s view, the rates involved

“a reduction in real terms from what was regarded in 2007 as the base minimum level necessary to avoid destitution.”

Remember, Mr Speaker, that these are individuals who cannot work. In the light of that, will the Minister—he has hinted at this—indicate whether he intends to appeal that decision? If he does intend to, will he tell the House how much has been spent to date on legal costs in defending the decision to freeze the rates and how much he expects to spend on any appeal? Will he estimate the number of individuals who are involved? The judge yesterday mentioned some 23,000, but I should welcome confirmation. I should welcome confirmation also on how many of those 23,000—if that is the figure—have children who now face destitution because of the freeze.

If the appeal is made and is not successful, will any new rates be applied from today, or from 2011? What estimate has the Minister made of the impact of any unsuccessful appeal on the level of rates?

Does the Minister agree with what the hon. Member for Brent Central asked for, which is what Refugee Action and, indeed, the Refugee Council, which I spoke to this morning, have asked for, namely a wider examination of the review of and support for asylum seekers—not failed asylum seekers, but asylum seekers fleeing torture, oppression, fear or intimidation, and who cannot, I remind the House, work?

What assessment has the Minister made of those currently in receipt of assistance who now face this freeze? Has he made any assessment, in particular, of the impact on children? Will he ensure that he urgently reviews recommendation 82 of the Home Affairs Committee’s unanimous report of 11 October last year, which asked for a review of section 4 support? How many asylum seekers does the Home Secretary’s Department believe cannot now buy enough food to feed themselves, as referred to in that report? How many asylum seekers does her Department believe missed a meal because they could not afford to eat? How many asylum seekers does her Department believe do not have money to buy clothes?

Before the hon. Lady says any more, I have a right to ask those questions of the Minister. The Home Secretary’s decision making has proved to be flawed. Will the Minister now address that issue, or will there be a return to what a Minister—a Minister in her Government—described as the Conservative party being the nasty party on these issues?

Order. I just say for the record that the right hon. Gentleman certainly has the right to ask those questions, and I would not for one moment seek to stop him, but we all have to operate to time limits. I say in the most charitable possible way to him that his intervention was longer both than that of the hon. Lady who put the urgent question and of the Minister, so there does need to be some trimming on these occasions. Two minutes is allowed, not four.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we do not think the value of cash and non-cash support is ungenerous when taken as a whole. He talks about the position of children and families. A family of four on section 95 support would receive £178.44 per week to spend on essential needs, with their accommodation, utility bills, council tax, household equipment, health care and schooling provided. In that context, we believe the support given is appropriate.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me a number of detailed questions. On the support provided under section 95, accommodation is provided to 22,372 people and the cash-only payments are provided to about 2,688 people. He sought to press me on whether we would seek to appeal this judgment. The judgment was handed down yesterday, it is lengthy and detailed, and it is right that the Home Office should reflect carefully on it to determine whether or not an appeal is appropriate.

The judgment does not seek to challenge the current levels of support provided; it simply seeks to comment on the detail of the review undertaken last year. I maintain that that review was properly assessed and took into consideration relevant details and matters for an assessment of the level of support. It concluded that the support should be frozen at its current level. The right hon. Gentleman gave a churlish characterisation of the steps that the Government take in their support on asylum. We work to uphold this country’s proud tradition in ensuring that those fleeing persecution can receive support and humanitarian assistance in this country. That is long standing, and we should welcome and cherish it. His comments were entirely ill-judged.

The level is clearly too low—it is about half that of income support—and of course we are talking about people the Minister will not allow to work for themselves. Is not the big problem simply that the Government are too slow to make decisions? Some 36% of asylum seekers wait more than six months for an initial decision—surely that should be speeded up, which would save the Government a lot of money in supporting them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on the process on asylum claims. It is important to recognise that there has been a growth in the number of people seeking asylum in this country—the increase has been about 8%, although that is not as big as has been seen in some other European countries because of continuing crises in various parts of the world. Some decisions do take too long, but the Government are addressing the problem: most decisions are dealt with quickly. In 2012-13, 78% of decisions were made within six months. I agree that decisions should be taken more quickly. Our visa and immigration command is looking at this work carefully and is putting more caseworkers in place to support that activity, which is important.

My hon. Friend makes a connection in respect of the rate of support and Department for Work and Pensions levels, but asylum support is provided for different purposes. It is provided to meet essential living needs only and is temporary in nature. I highlight the fact that there are other services—accommodation and utilities—that are provided free which other benefits would seek to take into account.

This ought to trigger a review by the Home Office of its asylum policy, given the points raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and others about the very slow response to initial applications and in dealing with those who wish to appeal against an initial refusal—many of these appeals are granted. Will the Minister look at the misery, destitution and waste of human resources that comes from keeping asylum seekers in desperate poverty, and not allowing them to work and contribute to our society and economy?

I agree that it is important to take decisions as speedily as possible to ensure that those who are entitled to the full humanitarian protection of this country receive that support and can continue with their lives, and that those who are not entitled can then be removed from this country so that the system is seen to be upheld.

We judge that the levels of support are appropriate, but we keep them under review. We will be reviewing the level of current support in the coming months, as I have committed to do in this House.

Given that one of the most basic needs of any asylum seeker is to have a roof over his or her head, will the Minister explain a little bit more about emergency accommodation, or is it the case that asylum seekers are among those to be found sleeping rough?

The support that is provided to those seeking asylum includes accommodation. There are provisions relating to temporary support as well as to the section 95 support that has been referenced in this urgent question. The Government have put in place a new contract arrangement, the COMPASS contract, to provide those services. Obviously, we believe that that is now delivering more effective service and more effective value for money. Clearly, we keep such matters under review.

The Minister identified that a family of four would be in receipt of £178 a week, which equates to about £44.50 per person. Does he understand that many children who attend schools—certainly in my constituency in Brent North—will undertake one and often two bus journeys each day to get to their school? Many of them will have medical problems from the country from which they have fled, which means that they have to attend hospitals, and have travel costs associated with that. Has he taken that into account when considering that each day, for five days a week, they may be paying £10 of the £44.50 that they have for food simply on transport?

Obviously, we understand the differing needs of families as opposed to individuals, which is why the rates are set at different levels depending on individual family circumstances. The need for additional support is recognised and provided for in respect of children, and the rates are adjusted to take their needs into account. None the less, we keep such matters under review. I can confirm again that we will be reviewing the levels of support provided in the months ahead, and we will be reflecting on a range of factors in conducting that review.

When I was elected four years ago, I inherited a huge case load of immigration cases. To my horror, we had asylum cases that went back more than 10 years. These people who are not allowed to work in this country were on the point of destitution. Does my hon. Friend agree that good progress has been made in resolving those cases, but the most important thing is to ensure that cases are resolved quickly so that people know whether to stay or go?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of ensuring that proper decisions are taken at the earliest practical opportunity. It is the uncertainty he highlighted that causes some of the challenges that we have to face if people reside in this country for long periods. That is why UK Visas and Immigration is putting additional caseworkers into the asylum area to see whether decisions can be taken more swiftly, and to bring matters up to service standard by March next year to deal with these cases. That is to ensure that there is roughly only two months’ intake outstanding. It is right that we continue to focus on this matter.

If the level of support was right in 2011, it is hard to believe that, given the increase in basic living standard costs over the past three years, it is still right in 2014. Would it not be sensible to agree an interim increase at this stage, pending the review that, as the Minister said, will take at least some months?

As I have indicated, the court judgment does not state that the current levels are incorrect. It is important that we reflect carefully on all current matters in conducting the review that we will undertake in the next few months. I certainly would not want to prejudge the outcome of that or our decision about whether we appeal the court judgment.

Despite what has been said by Opposition Members, does my hon. Friend not agree that the recently launched scheme to help refugees fleeing Syria and the atrocities there underlines our country’s proud record of helping asylum seekers and those in need?

We have accepted a significant number of people who have fled persecution in Syria. As at September last year, the number of asylum claims that had been received in the year was about 1,100. We also have the vulnerable person relocation scheme, which underlines our humanitarian support for those fleeing an appalling conflict in which people have been displaced across the region. The UK can be proud of the contribution that we are making.

If the Home Office is truly committed to the welfare of asylum seekers, why have the Government this very month withdrawn face-to-face advice for asylum seekers in Wrexham, a dispersal centre, through the awarding of the contract to Migrant Help? What kind of message does that send to these vulnerable people?

Yes, we have changed the arrangements for support and guidance, but we continue to maintain that that provides appropriate support and help. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman might take a different view of the services given, but, on Migrant Help, I believe that our relationship with the voluntary sector continues to be important. We want to continue to work with the voluntary sector, and the new service model, which is being introduced from 1 April, is aimed at testing the marketplace and gaining value for money. UK Visas and Immigration will closely monitor development to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and we are committed to ensuring that asylum seekers have access to quality advice and support.

My hon. Friend has just referred to refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and he will know that neighbouring countries have reached absorption point when it comes to the numbers they can help, so this is now a problem for the whole of Europe and this country. What impact is that increased demand having on the level of funding for asylum support?

We have seen an increase in the number of people seeking asylum from different parts of the globe. Syria is one of those and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the dire humanitarian situation there. The UK can be proud of the £600 million that has been invested to provide direct support for those in need in the region. We are continuing to see increased intake levels, which will, I am sure, feed through in terms of additional support that might be required.

The Minister is right: we have a proud tradition in our country, a tradition that is often kept alive by the third sector—by the charities and by the Churches, the Quakers in particular. It is not just a question of value for money. Can we have a change of attitude today so that we see those groups as partners and incentivise them, work with them and value them?

As I have said, we see an important and valuable role for the voluntary and non-governmental sector. Indeed, many fantastic organisations provide support services to migrants and asylum seekers, which I want to encourage and to see supported. It is important that the system delivers effective services and, ultimately, value for money.

Very few direct links exist between asylum sources and this country, yet we seem to be a temporary home for many asylum seekers from all over the world. Why is that?

In 2013, the number of asylum applications in the EU was the highest since 2002. The UK has experienced a rise, but countries such as Germany and France saw increases of 164% and 37% respectively between 2010 and 2013. We are committed to resolving cases more quickly, and we provide direct assistance to regions in crisis, such as Syria, so that people do not need to travel to the UK or elsewhere to seek that assistance.

Will the Minister not acknowledge that to replace services provided in my area by the North East Refugee Service with a simple telephone call is detrimental to the cohesion of services that work together in that locality?

Again, I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but we believe that the new support arrangements are appropriate and provide assistance to those who require that direct help. We keep this matter under review, and UK Visas and Immigration will continue to monitor developments.

We should, of course, provide support to genuine asylum seekers in genuine need, but most of my constituents take the view that there are too many asylum seekers in this country. It takes too long to process their claims and deport them when they are not genuine, and no one should be granted asylum if they have travelled through another safe country to get to this country. What happened to the Dublin convention whereby we returned asylum seekers to the last safe country that they left?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the Dublin convention, and the fact that those in need of humanitarian protection should seek assistance in the first country that they arrive in. That is something that we make clear in our discussions at EU level. He is also right about ensuring that decisions are made quickly, which is why we have made changes to the old architecture of the UK Border Agency that existed under the last Government and introduced visas and immigration to make decisions more quickly and the immigration enforcement command to see that people are returned.

My hon. Friend will be proud of the UK’s record in providing a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution. I am sure that we do not want to see people destitute, but what representations has he received from the Opposition or the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) on what increases to the rate they would wish to introduce?

I have received no representations to date that I am aware of, but I will check when I get back to the Home Office to see whether there is anything to which I can alert the House. Clearly, we are reflecting carefully on the court judgment and will determine what next steps may be appropriate.

Providing support to refugees in the region is nothing new. It was put forward by the previous Government, by the then Minister, Clare Short, in relation to the Kosovo crisis. Does my hon. Friend agree that, on that basis, what we are doing is in line with what has been done before?

This country has a proud tradition of providing humanitarian assistance in regions that are in need, and I have highlighted the support that has been given as part of the Syrian crisis. All Governments have a proud record on consistently upholding our asylum system and ensuring that protection is provided to those fleeing persecution who come to this country, and that those who are destitute are given appropriate assistance, which is what this Government are doing and will maintain.

My hon. Friend is right not to be bounced into an early decision on yesterday’s complicated judgment, because we need to get the right balance between fulfilling our humanitarian responsibilities and ensuring that the system is not open to abuse. What representations has he had from respected children’s charities about their assessment of the impact these measures may be having on the welfare of children involved?

Representations are made on a range of different issues, and clearly we pay particular attention to the welfare of children. I understand and recognise my hon. Friend’s continuing interest in and focus on these matters. We keep these matters under consideration, but as I have already said, the level of asylum support provided to children properly recognises their additional needs and requirements, and we will keep our focus on that.