Wednesday 10 February 2016
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Asylum Support Contracts
I beg to move,
That the House has considered contracts let by the Home Office for the provision of asylum support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer, and it is also a pleasure to be joined by many colleagues from across the House to consider this important issue this morning.
It is my hope that this debate today will elicit some better answers from the Home Office in response to the serious concerns that have been raised by many Members from all parties in the House about the provision of support to asylum seekers under contract to the Home Office.
I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who have done an excellent job, alongside many others, in bringing concerns about the practical implications of the failures of companies providing asylum support service across the UK to the attention of the House and the country. These include examples involving G4S and Clearsprings, including the two particularly shocking examples of the stigmatisation of highly vulnerable people by placing them in houses with red doors or forcing them to wear red wristbands to get food. I will come back to those shameful episodes in a moment, but it is clear that there are additional serious concerns on top of those two high-profile examples.
To begin with, it is worth putting asylum into the wider context of the immigration debate. I make it clear from the start that I believe in a tough and robust immigration system. Successive Governments—it is important to be frank, so that includes those of my own party—have failed on a number of measures regarding the immigration system, including counting people in and out. Exit checks were not introduced until recently—I had long argued that they should be introduced—and until relatively recently we had failed to begin to address the debate on, for example, EU migration and benefits, which has deeply and corrosively damaged public confidence in the many positives that immigration has brought and can bring. My own diverse city and constituency know those positives only too well.
Let me also be crystal clear that I am very proud of the role that Britain has played in offering a place of sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and violence, and it should continue to play that role. I was proud that in the midst of the Mediterranean refugee crisis last year, a cross-party group, brought together by young people from the Butetown and Grangetown areas in my constituency, stood up in my city of Cardiff and made it clear that refugees are welcome in our city, just as they always have been.
I am particularly proud of the work of organisations such as the City of Sanctuary movement in cities including Cardiff, and local organisations such as the Oasis trust in Splott in my constituency, which are working to support these vulnerable people in many different ways.
There is a huge amount of misinformation about asylum seekers and refugees, and the truth is in short supply. The 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees states that a refugee is a person who
“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
In the UK, a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the Government, and an asylum seeker is a person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded.
I am sorry, Mr Stringer, to have to remind us of these raw facts, but because we are in a time of misleading information and hyperbole about immigration, when the media, debate in this House and indeed the Prime Minister himself frequently and dangerously blur the distinctions between asylum seeker, refugee, EU migrant, economic migrant, overstaying visitor and many other categories, we can come to the wrong policy conclusions, fail to support those seeking sanctuary with dignity, and, at the same time, risk community relations and the potential for integration.
To illustrate my concerns, let me give another example, which gets to the nub of some of the concerns about the issue of these contracts and the way that providers are behaving. A number of constituents and local representatives have contacted me in recent weeks with their concerns about a supposed new asylum facility opening up in a residential area of east Cardiff. They had seen the horrible crowding of people into Lynx House in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, and the media reports, and they are fearful that, for example, a large group of young men might be placed in another unsuitable location, in order to make quick money for a landlord or the contracting company, and with no consultation or dialogue with local residents.
Like most good Cardiff and Welsh people, these constituents and local representatives made it clear to me that they had no objection to asylum seekers or refugees living locally. For example, one older resident told me personally how she would happily welcome in the streets or the local area Syrian families fleeing the horrors that she had witnessed on TV. However, she and others also had very natural fears, which were compounded by rumours that had circulated and the apparent lack of any consultation or dialogue.
In yesterday’s sitting of the Home Affairs Committee, I asked the chief executive of Clearsprings directly whether or not he plans to operate more facilities like Lynx House in east Cardiff, as he had indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that he was likely to want to expand his company. I await the chief executive’s urgent reply. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me, if he is aware of any facts relating to the further plans of Clearsprings in Cardiff.
Many other people have expressed fears, which are often unfounded and based on the hyperbole in the media debate, and other concerns have been fuelled by disgraceful comments, such as the Prime Minister referring to a “bunch of migrants”. As I have said, herein lies the nub of this issue. We appear to have a situation in which the Home Office is contracting with a small number of companies to place highly vulnerable people, often, it seems, in crowded or unsuitable accommodation, in a very small number of areas in a small group of dispersal centres and cities, and frequently in areas of low rents and deprivation. It is good to see the Minister for Immigration himself here in Westminster Hall today, but he admitted yesterday that he had most likely zero or very few asylum seekers accommodated in his own constituency.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Regarding how these properties are let, was he as amazed as I was to discover that different people can be put into a single bedroom quite inappropriately? A young man in my community who is gay and who has come to this country is having to share a bedroom with somebody who was once a member of the Taliban. Does my hon. Friend not find that an utterly ridiculous state of affairs?
I find that absolutely extraordinary; my hon. Friend gives a shocking example. As a gay MP myself, I would find it horrendous to be placed in accommodation with somebody who potentially had persecuted me or potentially would persecute me. However, that is the reality of many people’s experience—they find themselves in unsuitable accommodation. Yesterday in the Home Affairs Committee, we heard one example of 11 people being crowded into a room, and I have heard examples of individuals being placed with people who allegedly may have persecuted them in the past. Some very serious concerns are being raised.
The asylum dispersal and integration process appears to have stopped, and the principle behind it appears to have been abandoned, not only at the limited number of dispersal locations but at the localities within them. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that and on whether we are getting things right. Simply put, the system as it stands is not good for those seeking sanctuary, not good for the communities that those people are being placed in and not good for wider integration, and I also question whether it is good value for the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and I thank him for securing this debate. Does he agree that services to asylum seekers have basically been reduced since March 2012, when the Government took the decision effectively to privatise those services? In Glasgow, for example, it was the local authority that was providing the services for asylum seekers.
I am not aware of the specific history in Glasgow that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but there are serious questions to be asked about whether these private companies are operating in the most effective way, not only for their users but in terms of their value for money to the taxpayer.
Before I express some detailed concerns about the COMPASS contracts and Clearsprings specifically, let us finally remind ourselves of a few crucial facts. The Refugee Council states that asylum seekers make up just 10% of those people arriving in Britain and that in any case many of those asylum seekers are not granted refugee status. Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, France and Austria all receive significantly more asylum applications than the UK, and very few asylum seekers make it to this country.
Asylum seekers made up just 4.1% of immigrants to the UK in 2014, and the UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees; those figures are from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2014. The fact is that the vast majority of the world’s refugees live, often in camps, in the poorest developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the middle east. Between them, those regions host more than three quarters of the world’s refugees. Turning specifically to Wales, an answer from the Immigration Minister on 28 January stated that just 1,086 asylum seekers were accommodated in Cardiff by Clearsprings in 2015, and just 2,384 were accommodated in Wales overall.
I know that other Members will want to get into the detail of their concerns in their areas, but as I have stated publicly before, no one is asking for special treatment for those seeking sanctuary in Cardiff, Wales or anywhere else in the UK. We are simply asking for them to be treated with the dignity and compassion that we would all expect from our fellow human beings. It is easy to pick up a few examples of alleged luxury accommodation or temporary accommodation in mainstream hotels, for example after arrival at an airport, but the reality in Cardiff for many of those seeking sanctuary who I have met and heard from appears to be very different.
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), outlined to the Minister the direct comments of those in Cardiff who have experienced discrimination as a result of being forced to wear the red bands, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central will want to tell us more about that. Over the past few months, I have been approached by a number of constituents whose treatment by Clearsprings is seriously concerning. I have written to the Home Office on a number of occasions to raise specific cases. Numerous concerns and allegations have been raised by my constituents on the substandard nature of accommodation offered. Those reports have come directly from users and others working with asylum seekers in Cardiff.
Allegations I have received include short-notice evictions, intimidating and abusive behaviour, and people having their bedrooms entered without their consent, which, incidentally, the Home Office has confirmed to me in a letter is entirely consistent with the principles and guidance of the COMPASS contract. That raises some serious questions, especially when we are talking about vulnerable women and children fleeing sexual violence. To have their room entered without consent by a man—even in itself that is a serious concern.
One constituent, who I will refer to as Mrs A, fled rape and sexual violence. That horrific circumstance is faced by many female asylum seekers. With her children, she was settling into her new community in my constituency in Cardiff. She was receiving medical support and had a supportive network for her family via the school and local community. After spending time integrating, establishing that network, getting her life back on track and providing a safe space and sanctuary for herself and her children, Mrs A was suddenly informed at short notice that she had to leave and move more than an hour away to Swansea. Clearsprings provided her with no official letter or communication; there was just an anonymous note posted to her room telling her at very short notice that she should pack up and be prepared to leave.
I was approached by another woman in a very anxious and depressed state who had a young child. She had been made to share a room with a woman with mental health issues who allegedly spat on their possessions and crockery and would leave her child’s potty with the pots and pans in the kitchen. The woman was too scared to complain for fear of jeopardising her situation. That is a crucial point. The chief executive of Clearsprings appeared to suggest yesterday that he was not aware of a lot of the complaints or was not made aware of them by staff or others. The reality is that the vulnerable people living in such accommodation have come from countries where complaining to the authorities will lead to them being incarcerated or, worse still, tortured or killed, so they are naturally nervous about raising concerns with authorities.
Another vulnerable young constituent approached my office earlier this month. She had been encouraged hurriedly to sign a tenancy agreement by Clearsprings, but was not told in advance that she would have to share a room. She was bullied and victimised by other tenants and was distressed as her landlord had complained about and then stopped her brother visiting her. He was her only relative in Cardiff and lived in separate accommodation. The young woman complained that her landlord repeatedly let himself into her room unannounced, including while she was in bed or undressed. She was then told she would be moving with very short notice of two days.
Those are just a few of the stories I have had about Clearsprings, on top of the well-publicised information about the standards at Lynx House. The chief executive of Clearsprings admitted yesterday that 11 people had had to share a room there at one point. We see further revelations in The Guardian this morning about a local authority report into the conditions and the serious concerns about the facility. Indeed, in answer to a recent parliamentary question that I tabled, the Minister confirmed that between 2010 and 2015, the Department received 60 complaints in total regarding services provided by Clearsprings. Staggeringly, 59 of those complaints have been made in just the past six months.
Yesterday the chief executive appeared woefully unaware of those concerns. He appeared bemused about the furore over the red bands and only apologised to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee under repeated questioning. Highly revealing, however, was his claim that despite repeated visits from Home Office inspectors, no one had raised concerns about the use of the red bands. Given that the Minister rightly admitted yesterday that they were wrong, can he explain why it took the revelations in the media for action to be taken? It is one thing for the chief executive of Clearsprings to dismiss the concerns, but if the property was being inspected by the Home Office, as many of these properties are, why were they not picked up on previously?
My hon. Friend talked at length about people’s fear in many of those situations. Perhaps the chief executive did not receive complaints because people were too fearful to make them, because they just did not know what would happen as a result.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People who have been through those fearful situations—many of them are fleeing such places as Eritrea, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan—will be fearful of expressing concerns.
The situation is apparently not unique to Cardiff. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who unfortunately cannot be present today, wanted me to highlight her experience of working in the asylum system. She noted how women who have fallen through the gaps of the national referral mechanism for victims of human trafficking have suffered greatly under the lack of specialist provision in Government-contracted asylum accommodation. She told me that, for the women who end up housed in G4S accommodation in the centre of Birmingham, none of the same stringent checks and balances that are normally in place for victims of human trafficking are catered for. There are no non-gendered services and there is next to no security in place to protect that vulnerable group of people. Indeed, she was able to walk into the accommodation and witness the name of a woman who had been trafficked written on the wall in the hall, displaying to anyone who might have walked in looking for her that she was there. That is totally unacceptable and raises serious concerns about the special provision needed for some of the people fleeing such situations.
On the COMPASS contract, an answer from the Minister made it clear that in 2012 Clearsprings Ready Homes was awarded two contracts for the provision of asylum accommodation, transport and related services. The estimated contract value for Clearsprings over the seven years—that is, five plus two—for each region is £75 million for Wales and £55 million for London and the south of England. The Clearsprings chief executive admitted yesterday that in 2015, while things were not quite as profitable as he would have liked, he received a salary package of more than £200,000 in return for delivering the contract. His chair, Mr King, received a package totalling £960,000. Most people, whether they are taxpayers or vulnerable asylum seekers, would find those figures astonishing. Other significant and valuable contracts have been let to other providers, including G4S—I am sure we will hear more about those.
The COMPASS contract has a statement of requirements for dispersal accommodation and transport providers. It is worth being specific about the key requirements under the contract. The first is to provide safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped accommodation to asylum seekers and to ensure that properties adhere to the standards established in the decent homes standard. The second is to provide adequate transport to and from initial accommodation, dispersal accommodation and medical appointments. The third is to abide by contractual management regulations at all levels, ensuring that there is a complaints procedure for those living in dispersal accommodation and that organisations report on their performance against the specified standards. Each of those duties must fulfil the broader contractual duties to promote and safeguard the welfare of children in particular, to ensure the safety and security of those living within dispersed accommodation, and to ensure that staff have an overview of the asylum process and the needs particular to those seeking asylum.
Yesterday, I made that point directly to the chief executive of Clearsprings, who appeared to imply in his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that his duties relate only to the bare provision of housing. The words he used were that he was “contractually compliant”. Given the very specific needs of the group of people he is accommodating, I argue that his company and the Home Office should be acting proactively to ensure that the duties set out in the contract are fulfilled.
I have given a number of examples already, but it is not only from my experience that I question whether the standards are being met. During 2015, the Welsh Refugee Council collated a series of complaints demonstrating persistent failings to meet the standards. Analysis of the data reveals a series of persistent concerns around standards of accommodation, size of accommodation, and harassment and antisocial behaviour experienced in accommodation from other tenants and members of staff.
The complaints reveal that it is not simply the physical condition of the properties provided by Clearsprings—we have heard about the situation at Lynx House—that are of concern for service users and providers; the standards of service provision were identified as a serious concern, and there was a general feeling that the service provider had little appreciation of the difficulties faced by asylum seekers and their reasons for seeking sanctuary in the UK. There was a common perception in the survey that there was a greater focus on internal targets and profit generation than on providing a service that protected and supported vulnerable people.
My hon. Friend is eloquently analysing the structure of the contracts. Does he share my frustration that Jomast, a subcontractor in my area, has some 3,000 properties, and if they are paid £11.50 per person per night, the back of an envelope calculation shows an income of £12 million a year? Such access to taxpayers’ money could surely provide a better service than the one we are currently enjoying.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Serious questions need to be asked when such a large amount of taxpayers’ money is provided under the quite stringent terms of the contract, but are those terms followed through and delivered? Given that Home Office inspectors regularly visit the properties, as the chief executive of Clearsprings made clear yesterday, why have those concerns not come to attention before?
The concerns that sanctuary seekers face are a constant source of worry and anxiety, often aggravating pre-existing experiences of trauma in what should be a place of sanctuary. Some have reported that their interactions with Clearsprings staff are not consistently facilitated through interpreters, and there have been multiple incidents of perceived hostility and verbal abuse from staff towards residents. Another issue that has been raised with me is the question of male versus female staff in the properties. It has been suggested that there is a significant weakness in terms of the numbers of female members of staff, so can the Minister tell us what the numbers are?
The Welsh Refugee Council and various other charities that deal with refugees and asylum seekers have strongly advocated a radical change in the Home Office’s approach to housing. It is clear and evident that more care must go into supporting this distinct group of people with complex needs, many of whom have experienced persecution, torture and violence.
I will conclude shortly because I know other Members wish to speak, but I want to talk about what needs to happen with the COMPASS contract, and I have specific questions for the Minister. It is my belief that the Home Office should initiate and lead a comprehensive review of the COMPASS contract in Wales and nationwide to deal with housing standards and the experience of users. The review should be multi-agency and should involve, at the very least, the Welsh Government, local authorities, key housing bodies, refugee representatives and the support organisations that work with them.
The review needs to have clear objectives, including improving the monitoring and contract compliance practice within COMPASS, and it needs to underscore the existing COMPASS statement of requirements with a new person-centred framework and guidelines to ensure that high-quality planning, policy and practice exist within COMPASS for all asylum applicants in the UK. It needs to look at the Home Office’s wider equalities duties and its commitments to those who face human trafficking, because it is clear that there are failings in that area. It also needs to look at the experience of users. At a senior level, a contractor might promise to deal with X, Y or Z and to uphold certain standards, but if that is not filtering down to those who actually interact with the relatively small group of vulnerable people, that is simply not good enough.
My final questions for the Minister are these: is he satisfied with the compliance of Clearsprings and other asylum contractors with the terms of the COMPASS contract? Does he consider that they still represent good value for money? Why did no Home Office inspector raise concerns with Clearsprings about the red band issue prior to its exposure in the media? What other concerns have been raised with him about Clearsprings operations in Cardiff or elsewhere in the UK?
Does the Minister consider the salaries and remuneration of the Clearsprings directors and CEO to be appropriate for a public sector contract of this nature? The chief executive of Clearsprings admitted yesterday that the £960,000 payment to his chair resulted from a discussion with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about the best “tax approach” to take to a loan. Can the Minister tell us any more about that and whether he was aware of any such discussions involving HMRC? How many individual sites does the Clearsprings contract house asylum seekers at in Wales? Is he aware of plans to expand those facilities? Obviously, I have specific concerns about the plan to expand into another potentially unsuitable facility in the east of Cardiff.
Finally, is dispersal evenly spread across localities and local government wards in Cardiff and other dispersal locations across the UK? I have a concern that we are not dispersing to enough locations in the UK. There is a question of what happens within cities and the localities into which individuals are placed, which is crucial when we consider integration and balance within a city.
I conclude by reminding Members that we are not asking for special or VIP treatment. We are simply asking for human beings to be treated with the dignity and compassion that they rightly deserve, and it is the Home Office’s duty to ensure that that is the case.
I consider myself told, Mr Stringer, and I will duly comply— I will just speak very quickly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) not only on securing the debate, but on a comprehensive speech that shows a clear understanding of the needs of asylum seekers and the problems occurring at the moment. It is important that those of us who stand up for asylum seekers keep on doing it. I am sure the Government must be sick of the sight of us by now, but we have to keep saying it until we get it right.
The situation with refugee support contracts highlights the problems with the Government’s agenda in a number of areas. The contracts singularly fail to deliver a service that supports the integration and success of our refugee communities. They hand over money to the private sector, despite the repeated failure of the companies to deliver the services that they are paid to deliver, and they fail to account for the important differences across the UK in terms of the devolved context and local authority arrangements.
It is only right that we remove the abstraction, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has, and remember that we are dealing with real people who have fled unimaginable horror of a sort that we have been lucky in this country to avoid since the end of the second world war. Now, having safely fled the brutality of a new fascism, people arriving in our communities deserve and need our support to integrate and to build new lives. Hopefully, that is something on which we can all agree.
After the introduction of the COMPASS model in 2012, in which Serco became responsible for the delivery of asylum support in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we had the subcontracting of the contract to Orchard & Shipman. However, as a housing provider operating in Scotland, it is still subject to Scottish housing law, even if the contracts themselves remain under the control of Westminster. Given recent reports from across the UK, it seems likely that the contravention of local housing and environmental health law is of increasing importance.
Across the UK, we have had some truly horrific situations, which we have heard about today and over the past few weeks. We have had refugee houses easily identifiable by the colour of the door; stories of humiliation and harassment caused by the requirement for refugees in Cardiff to wear coloured wristbands; and a level of overcrowding that would be more appropriate in the slums of the 1900s, not the 21st century. It is clear to me that the system is broken, not just in one location and not just with one provider. That is why the Scottish National party is calling for an urgent inquiry. The Government must ensure that those who are given refuge in the UK are not demeaned by being forced to face stigma or conditions that no one born in the UK would be asked to face. Support and assistance must be there to assist resettlement and integration. The refugee situation is not going away. We need urgently to fix the system. That is why we need an urgent inquiry into this matter in the UK.
It is clear that there are problems with the contracts right across these islands. I know of some great local initiatives from community organisations and charities to support integration. In Glasgow North East, and I am sure in other constituencies, there are groups working really hard to support integration. In my constituency, we have groups such as the North Glasgow Integration Network, Royston Youth Action, A&M, and many others. We also have the Scottish Government’s new Scots initiative. But we must accept that the UK-wide contracts are causing UK-wide problems, and they merit a UK-wide inquiry.
It is crucial that we get it right from the moment asylum seekers or refugees arrive in this country, because we are setting the tone for the rest of their stay. Just as we welcome tourists when they come here, we should welcome anyone who comes to these shores. Fifteen Syrian families were brought to my constituency in December, and I want to tell Members what happened to them the moment they arrived. I asked the Home Secretary last year whether we could have welcoming groups to show people coming into this country a true Scottish, Glasgow welcome, and she said that a taskforce was going to look into it. When the 15 Syrian families, who were mainly Muslim, arrived at Glasgow airport, I am told that they were greeted by Glasgow City Council with a packed lunch of ham sandwiches. I have nothing more to add to that.
There are now 15 new Syrian families living in my constituency who, as the Government tell us, were among the most vulnerable of those living in the camps in Syria. I am not in touch with them—none of them know that they are entitled to my help—but there are dozens of asylum seekers in my constituency who are living under the contracts we are discussing and who do know that they are entitled to my help. They do come to me, but I know of many more who are too afraid to do so.
We have seen in recent weeks that, under those contracts, the system is utterly failing. Will the Minister have the courage to recognise that and deliver the urgent inquiry that is so obviously needed?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate, which comes on the back of extensive media coverage over the past three weeks about Lynx House in my constituency and, before that, the G4S accommodation contract in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald).
The coverage initially centred on the Clearsprings policy of requiring people at Lynx House to wear wristbands so that they could access food, which made them identifiable to the public as asylum seekers. Some of them suffered abuse and threats as a result of having to wear the wristbands. That was followed by reports of overcrowding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Lynx House. There is further coverage in The Guardian today about the likelihood of prohibition notices being served on Clearsprings by the City of Cardiff Council, and the partial closure of Lynx House following an inspection last week that was prompted by concerns raised by South Wales fire and rescue service.
I shall offer two perspectives, first as the MP for the constituency in which Lynx House is situated, and secondly the wider perspective of my growing concern at what are at best inadequacies and, at worst, possible incompetence in the management of taxpayer-funded contracts, which are extremely lucrative for the private contractors who have them. I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when he responds. If he is not able to address them all, will he write to me following the debate, as I am yet to receive a reply to the letter I sent him on 1 February in which I raised some urgent issues about Lynx House?
The story about the wristband policy at Lynx House broke on 24 January. I immediately contacted Clearsprings and, that afternoon, spoke to the operations director to raise my concerns. We had a conversation in which he readily accepted my view that the policy was inappropriate and agreed that it would be withdrawn. I asked him to implement an alternative identification system for people to get food, such as photo ID cards. He confirmed that a pilot was already under way and that it would be fully implemented within the next few weeks. That change was confirmed in a statement issued by Clearsprings on 25 January.
The Home Office had declined to comment at all on the issue. I wrote to the Minister on the same day to outline my concerns and to ask him 10 questions about Lynx House. I was grateful for his response on 5 February, but it did not answer all my questions. The policy was implemented in May 2015. The Minister’s letter makes it clear that his Department was aware of complaints about the policy in Lynx House as long ago as October 2015. Between May 2015 and January 2016, Home Office compliance officers inspected Lynx House eight times, but nothing was done about the wristbands. It took an exposé in The Guardian and call from me on a Sunday afternoon for the policy to be withdrawn. I asked for the inspection reports to be published, but I have not heard from the Minister, so I repeat that request today. I also asked what improvements the Minister was making to the inspection and monitoring regime for the private companies with which the Department has contracts, but, again, I have not received a response.
There have been further allegations about unsafe and unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, with up to 11 people having to share a small room. The Home Office inspected Lynx House on 27 and 28 January. Subsequently, people have been moved out to a local budget hotel in the constituency, and some have been moved to London. Clearsprings told me that that was so that some painting and decorating could take place; in the light of the probable prohibition orders, it would seem to be much more than that. I do not know whether the Minister has seen today’s Guardian report about the prohibition notices, but it has been reported to me that another 30 people have been moved out to Southall and to accommodation near Gatwick.
I visited Lynx House in November because I had heard concerns about safeguarding issues. I was reassured that those issues had been dealt with, but the managers told me that the numbers of people being sent to Lynx house were “crazy at the moment”. A lot of single men had been sent through by the Home Office—individuals who had been through a lot to get to Cardiff. Many were injured, and there were cases of scabies. I was told that 397 people were at Lynx House that week. That is the biggest number ever, and the staff told me that it was
“well over double the amount we are here for and can manage properly. It’s a crisis.”
Yesterday, I listened to the Minister, along with Mandie Campbell, his director of immigration enforcement, give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee about the inspection regime and the key performance indicators that are discussed at monthly management boards. I suggest to the Minister that that structure does not seem to be working. Will he please make improvements to the inspection regime?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on setting the scene so well, as he always does for every subject that he speaks on. I thank him for that.
I want to give the perspective from Northern Ireland, which it is always important to do in debates so that other Members are aware of it. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have been aware of the issue of refugees for a great many years and have been trying to make a difference since long before the current crisis.
Although the middle east is the epicentre of where refugees are being created today, there are unfortunately plenty more examples of persecuted minorities throughout the world who are in just as much need of asylum. Tomorrow there will be a Westminster Hall debate on religious minorities in Pakistan, to which I hope to contribute along with other Members. I am not sure whether the Minister will respond to that debate, but none the less it is another very important issue.
Without doubt, one of the defining issues of 2015 was the migrant crisis. It is hard to find a member of the general public who does not have an opinion on it, and it is near impossible to avoid the issue. There are 13.5 million Syrians who need help in that country, of whom some 6.5 million are internally displaced, including 600,000 Christians. Some 4.2 million Syrians have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring countries in the region.
As the Minister probably knows, many people see the potential for a great crisis this summer as the focus on Syria builds. We have seen on our television screens the horrific scenes from the middle east, and I can only imagine what it must be like in reality. The debate about how many people from the region we can realistically take in and how safe that process would be is one for another day, but regardless of how many we take and how we resettle them, we need to ensure that the provision of support is effective and fair.
I am not sure whether other Members have had a chance to look at the Order Paper, but there are three debates today on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees— they are all on the movement of people. It is a testament to just how big an issue this is that we are devoting so much time in Westminster Hall to those debates.
We have all seen how the rows erupted over the painting of refugees’ doors, the coloured wristbands and the like —other Members have mentioned them today. In reality, the purpose behind those measures was to make it easier to identify those who required services, but we have seen the arguments that resulted and how they made it possible for refugees to be singled out for attacks and harm. They had the opposite effect to what was intended. I hope and believe that lessons have been learned about how best to do such things—the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth laid out very considerately and gently what had happened and how things could be done better. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made well-intended arguments, but we need to focus on helping people and ensuring that they have the services they need. We should not use this issue as a political football to score points.
I am happy to report that we do not have the same problems in Northern Ireland; that is good news. The horror stories that other hon. Members talk about underline the lessons that we must learn. We do not want to make those mistakes in Northern Ireland, and I do not think we are doing so. Northern Ireland is taking in its first refugees ever, so providing services to them is new to us. It is for the mainland to lead the way. The Government must work closely with contractors to ensure an effective, inexpensive and safe service. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, housing is allocated regionally, so the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will deal with that. Housing allocation is important to integrating people fully into society.
Churches have made a massive contribution. That is the way it should be, of course. It is good that churches are helping. The Holy Bible tells all Christians to reach out and be compassionate to their neighbours and those in need. The churches have done that in a practical and physical way by providing clothes and food, and by getting everybody to work together. Society shows itself at its best on such occasions. People come together to help because they want to do so.
Refugees in Northern Ireland are to be offered free English lessons, which will help those vulnerable people to settle and integrate into their host society. It will make life easier for everyone by offsetting the social or cultural tensions that may arise. It is important that we do that. The lessons will cost £20,000 a year, but it is a long-term investment. That sum covers translation services and other expenses associated with providing services to those who cannot speak English. I am not sure whether those asylum seekers will have an Ulster Scots accent when they are taught English, and whether they will speak with my brogue and at my speed. Whatever the case may be, they will be able to use the English language as a means of communication, which will help them to integrate and express themselves. Those lessons will be available only to refugees, not to economic migrants. That will ensure that only those in real need benefit from lessons funded from the public purse, and that illegal economic migrants cannot take advantage of the generosity we are offering to those poor refugees. I am keen to hear from the Minister about what communication there has been with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
We in Northern Ireland are doing our best to integrate Syrian refugees and asylum seekers and to offer support from the Northern Ireland Assembly and Government. That is good, but let us also recognise the contribution of individuals, church groups, charities and others who are doing their best to help. The Government can issue contracts, but it is the people who make it happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important debate.
As we have heard, the COMPASS contracts for asylum seekers have been far from problem-free. When the second five-year contract came to an end in 2010, interim contracts were issued while the coalition Government assessed whether and how to proceed with the COMPASS programme. In 2012, G4S, Serco and Clearsprings were awarded contracts to house 23,000 asylum seekers as part of Home Office plans to save £140 million on the service over seven years. Jomast, from Teesside, was awarded the two-year interim contract for the north-east in 2010, which has since been subcontracted to G4S to provide accommodation. It is interesting that the north-east was the only region of the UK where local authority consortia were cut out of the process. We do not know whether that was a dry run for privatisation, but that is certainly my impression. There is no doubt that there are huge profits to be made in the business, otherwise those landlords would not be in it.
Perhaps of greater significance, G4S had not previously been a housing provider and was completely unfamiliar with the rigours and requirements of delivering services in such a sensitive sector. It is hardly surprising, then, that it completely failed to source suitable accommodation in Yorkshire and Humberside. It was let off the hook only when the previous local authority providers’ contracts were extended to fill the gap. How G4S was able to emerge as the preferred bidder for such contracts, let alone pass the required due diligence test, is beyond me. Will the Minister outline how the Home Office assessed providers’ suitability and how performance and delivery were monitored and assessed? I would be interested to hear whether he still believes that those procedures are rigorous enough.
The Tees valley is absorbing high dispersal rates, but I am concerned about the high levels of uncertainty and opacity. We must make the companies involved more accountable to the taxpayer. Private companies that deliver public services, such as G4S and Jomast, are exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has no power to investigate private contractors. The commissioner cannot serve information notices requiring a contractor to supply information for an investigation, nor can he take enforcement action if a contractor fails to comply with contractual obligations. Bluntly, it is nigh on impossible to get our hands on the details of much of what private companies are up to with public money. That oversight must be addressed. There has long been a lack of transparency around public money handed out to private companies and other organisations. Billions more pounds of public money has been distributed away from the public sector and into the private sector in recent years, so the need for corrective action has become even more important.
Without the transparency of the Freedom of Information Act, we will not be able share what succeeds and bring new ways of working into the asylum system. Critically, unless providers are designated public authorities in accordance with the Act, we will not be able to discover what does not work. Many of those things come to public notice through the media and campaign groups, but we need more information.
I would be the first to acknowledge that freedom of information provisions can at times be cumbersome, but, unlike the Leader of the House, I have no doubt that they serve the greater good. It is a core tenet of our democracy that taxpayers must be able to access such information to examine what is going on. Surely something is going wrong if tens of millions of pounds of public money is being exploited by private developers, which make huge profits, when it could be better deployed through local authorities to improve the quality of service.
The Government decided to ditch local authority housing in parts of the country, and I think we should be able to find out exactly how much profit is being creamed off by landlords. If public and private providers are responsible for delivering equivalent services, should they not be subject to the same scrutiny? Private contractors providing such services should undoubtedly be held to the same standards of responsibility as state providers, and I hope nobody in this room would argue to the contrary.
In the public sector, the amount of available data has rightly expand hugely, but many private companies simply refuse to publish detailed information about how they operate. They choose instead to shelter themselves away from open scrutiny and operate behind a screen of secrecy. That is simply not compatible with the principles of public sector provision. The prolonging of that level of concealment will prevent future contracts, whether delivered by the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence or any other Department, from being properly scrutinised.
Justice First is an excellent organisation in my constituency that works with refugees and asylum seekers. It is run by Pete Widlinski and Kath Sainsbury, who daily see people living on the edge after the most serious traumatic experiences. They know what those people have to put up with, and they question what is being delivered. They tell stories of a house in multiple occupation in which women and children are living; social services had to take action to put things right.
Accountability must not stop where private sector involvement starts, and I hope the Minister will address that anomaly. If large profit-making organisations such as G4S want to operate public sector contracts, they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That will give the public confidence that there is sufficient scrutiny and ensure that taxpayers can see how their money is used. We will know that vulnerable people who need support are not left barely existing while private organisations make millions of pounds of profit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken so far in this enjoyable debate and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing it.
Glasgow City Council was the first UK local authority to accept dispersal asylum seekers, and we are proud of that. Approximately 10% of the UK’s asylum seekers have come to Glasgow. I have concerns about the contract that Serco was awarded in March 2012, which, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), was then subcontracted to Orchard & Shipman to manage the properties.
Before I go into my concerns about accommodation, I want to put on the record a case that was presented to me by the Govan and Craigton Integration Network, which does an excellent job of assisting refugees and asylum seekers. I find it unacceptable that a gentleman was handed an Asda gift card instead of money on an Azure card and then placed in accommodation that was 2.1 miles away from the nearest Asda. He had no access to travel or to breakfast at a hotel. The error was then compounded by the individual being moved to another location where the nearest Asda was 4.4 miles away. I have real concerns about how that situation was handled and have written to the Home Office about it.
The statement of requirements of the COMPASS contract secured by Serco states that its responsibilities include providing safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped accommodation to asylum seekers; ensuring that properties adhere to the standards established in the decent homes standard; providing adequate transport to and from initial and dispersal accommodation and medical appointments; abiding by contractual management regulations at all levels; and ensuring that there is a complaints procedure for those living in dispersed accommodation and that organisations report on their performance against the specified standards. I contend that Serco’s providers continue to fail to meet those contractual standards.
In another case brought to my attention by the Govan and Craigton Integration Network, an asylum seeker was sharing a room with eight other asylum seekers with no financial support. That is a clear breach of point C.1.3.7 in the COMPASS statement of requirements, which states:
“Sleeping quarters must always be appropriately sized for the number of occupants and the occupancy of a room shall not exceed that specified in the appropriate space standard.”
The space standard set out by an initiative of the European National Red Cross Societies states:
“Single adult residents should, as a rule, be housed in rooms with a maximum of four beds, and have at least have six square metres of space in the bedroom.”
That is clearly not being adhered to in the case I describe.
Inspections have confirmed that many properties remain below the required contractual standard, for reasons ranging from minor to major defects. Weaknesses in the frequency and quality of inspections have resulted in vulnerable asylum seekers being housed in filthy conditions, with witnesses citing bedbugs and sores from living in such accommodation. In another constituency case, a single man was allocated a one-bedroom flat alone. On entering the flat for the first time, he discovered blood splattered on the bedroom wall, which had clearly not been cleaned since the previous occupant left. He reported it to Orchard & Shipman along with the non-locking front door, mould in the kitchen, stains everywhere, the intercom system hanging from the wall with exposed wires, and non-opening windows. The response was that he had signed to accept the flat, even though he had not actually seen it, so Orchard & Shipman was not responsible for the flat’s condition. I find that quite disgraceful, and I hope the Minister will respond to it.
In another case, a single mum of two children, aged 18 months and seven months, was housed in a two-bedroom flat with another family she did not know. Unrest towards the young mum from the other family has resulted in them not allowing her to access the kitchen or cooking facilities until late at night, preventing her from being able to feed her young children during the day. She suffers from post-natal depression, which is being aggravated by the situation she finds herself in.
Another of my concerns relates to communication, which the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) touched on. Communications are not routinely translated for asylum seekers, resulting in their not understanding what has been asked of them.
It is clear that my examples amount to serious contractual breaches. I support the review that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth called for, and I ask the Minister to investigate the matters I have raised today. What steps will he take to ensure that service providers are keeping to Home Office contracts?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this incredibly important debate. My constituency has the highest concentration of asylum seekers anywhere in the United Kingdom. In December 2015, we had 1,042 asylum seekers, which is way in excess of the cluster limit. The Minister may say that the number has been reduced by some small amount, but the figures are clear. In some communities, there is an asylum seeker for every 18 residents, and I hope the Minister will take that fact on board.
I am terrifically proud of Middlesbrough’s long history of compassion and support. We have Justice First, the Churches—Methodist Action, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church—and other faith groups, charities and individuals. A fantastic network of love and compassion underpins all that work, and I am delighted to celebrate it.
It was the red doors issue that brought this matter into focus. While I do not criticise Andrew Norfolk of The Times for his excellent piece of work that brought the issue into the light, I do not agree that the local contractor, Jomast, deliberately set out to mark the properties occupied by those seeking sanctuary, but it was clearly known to the contractor. They were its properties and it painted the doors red, so for it to plead ignorance of the issue is indicative of the arrogance that characterises how it goes about its business. However, it was not deliberate so let us paint the doors in other colours and move on.
G4S is the main contactor in my region. It has no record of running housing contracts and yet it still got the contract. The local subcontractor, Stuart Monk of Jomast, then had them over a barrel. He held out for the best deal that he could possibly extract, because he had the properties and G4S did not, and he has made a mint. G4S says it does not make any money out of the contract. Well, diddums. If it does not like it, let us bring the contract to an end and get G4S out of the picture as quickly as possible. It has demonstrated that it should be nowhere near Government public service business. Just look at what it did in our prisons. We only have to cast our minds back to the dreadful fraud it perpetrated on the taxpayer over the prisoner tagging contract. It is not a fit and proper company and the sooner it is out of our national life, the better.
The arrogance and contempt that characterises so much of G4S’s behaviour was never more evident than when John Whitwam, a managing director, recently appeared before the Home Affairs Committee. He quite deliberately tried to leave the Committee with the impression that the local authority was totally engaged throughout the process, but that is simply not true. Indeed, the problem is that local authorities have no standing in the business of housing asylum seekers and have been cut out of the loop. Following Mr Whitwam’s suggestion that local authorities are somehow involved in the approval and inspection of properties, I trust that the Minister will speak to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee because I think that Parliament was grossly misled and I hope that action follows.
What on earth are we doing as a country? Why do the Government think that the right thing to do in response to a humanitarian crisis is to create a structure that is all about making money—profits created by handing over taxpayers’ money to private companies? There is something wrong here. Of course, we want to carry on providing succour and support for our sisters and brothers, but the Government simply abuse our good nature. That support and sanctuary should come with a commitment to support the local services that have to respond. My town has been hammered by the lunacy of austerity. My local authority has suffered cut after cut, so that I am now questioning whether it can even begin to discharge the barest of statutory functions.
In addition, what do we learn today on the back of the abolition of the revenue support grant, which will cripple communities up and down the country? In The Guardian this morning it is laid bare: again, the Tory Government punish Labour councils and give support to their Tory boroughs. The Government’s behaviour is partial, inequitable, grossly discriminatory and ill-becoming a party that purports to govern for the entire country. It is beneath the shires and City bankers to trouble themselves with such matters—leave it to the northerners, the Scots and the Welsh—because those in their cosy world do not want to be troubled.
It will escape no one’s attention that in the Prime Minister’s constituency we will not find a single person seeking sanctuary, even though areas such as his receive the favourable local government finance settlement transitional relief, while areas that take asylum seekers get nothing at all. The unfairness is stark. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s mother should write him a letter. Understandably, the Tories will say, “Look to the regions, look to the Labour heartlands. They won’t protest, they won’t complain, so we can get away with it.” Therein lies the dilemma.
We are proud of our compassion and of the welcome given to strangers in our communities—many of us and the people we represent have been strangers too. We try to recognise our good fortune and to be generous to those who have not been so fortunate. Yes, we will not walk by on the other side of the road and we will try to treat people as we would like to be treated ourselves, but we look to the Government to behave in a patriotic, fair and balanced way. That means that we respond generously as a nation and we do not leave it only to those parts of our country that are already facing immensely difficult times.
We look proudly at our history as a nation. We are rightly marking the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We rightly remember the Kindertransport of the 1930s as a positive response to the crisis faced by thousands of children throughout Europe. It therefore pains me to hear the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland describing the modern-day Kindertransportees as a “bunch of migrants”. I want better from our country’s Prime Minister and so do millions of our fellow citizens. I am afraid that that laid bare the true thinking of this cruel and pernicious Government.
If every town and city in the United Kingdom welcomed 5% of the distressed, vulnerable and persecuted people that my wonderful town of Middlesbrough does, no one would even notice that they were here. What happens instead? The whole exercise has been turned into a profit-making, value-extracting one for the likes of Stuart Monk and his company Jomast to make millions of pounds of profit from.
The Minister is a decent man and I look forward to further discussions with him about how things might be progressed. However, I met with him in November 2014 and many of the issues that are being raised now were raised with him then. I regret to note that absolutely no progress has been made since. I hope that he takes on board the comments of hon. Members from throughout the United Kingdom today and accedes to the request for a formal review of a rotten contract. Let us start behaving properly.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this timely debate and on an excellent speech. Indeed, I am in the happy position of having agreed with pretty much everything that everyone has said so far—though I might yet disagree with myself.
The red doors and red wristbands have rightly grabbed a lot of headlines. As I said in the Chamber at the time of the urgent question on red doors asked by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), such issues have to be looked at and dealt with urgently, but the real concern is that they are only the tip of the iceberg. What hon. Members have set out in the Chamber today about asylum accommodation confirms that to be the case. Members have spoken about the poor quality of accommodation, which is overcrowded and unsafe, inappropriate sharing, poor placement facilities, short notice evictions, issues of privacy and unannounced visits to the property, poor treatment by staff and many other problems.
Red doors and red wristbands were perhaps crass and eye-wateringly negligent rather than anything else, but the growing number and widespread nature of the complaints we are hearing suggest that we need to look much more closely at the operation of the contracts. There is also now a good spread of research that backs up the view of all hon. Members that there are fundamental problems with the operation of the existing contracts. It is worth looking briefly at the detailed evidence and research available.
Back in 2013 the Home Affairs Committee reported:
“The reports that we have received on the quality of the accommodation are extremely worrying...Problems cited in evidence include pest infestations, lack of heating or hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked, lack of basic amenities including a cooker, a shower, a washing machine and a sink and a general lack of cleanliness. Furthermore, many of those who submitted evidence cited difficulties in contacting housing providers and the slow resolution of problems.”
All that sounds incredibly familiar.
In 2014 a National Audit Office report criticised G4S and Serco for “poor performance” and
“still failing to meet some of their KPIs”.
The report found that the companies had taken on rented
“housing stock without inspecting it, and subsequently found that many…did not meet the contractual quality standards.”
The Public Accounts Committee later published a report concluding:
“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families.”
In 2014 the Scottish Refugee Council also undertook research into the extent and impact of accommodation issues in Scotland. In short, it pointed to poor standards, poor treatment by staff, poor information on rights and entitlements, and poor oversight by the Home Office of whether contractors are meeting obligations.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the practices of some of the companies, Orchard & Shipman in particular, which turned up one night with no notice at 9.30 pm to evict one of my constituents? Only by good luck was he able to contact my office and prevent his eviction. Does my hon. Friend agree that such practices also need to be reviewed?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. That case fits in exactly with the narrative that we have heard from so many hon. Members today.
A final piece of evidence comes from an October 2015 investigation by Jonathan Darling at the University of Manchester, which highlighted similar problems, including increased distance between asylum seekers and providers, with buck-passing between contractors and subcontractors; breakdowns in communication between key partners; and considerable variations in dispersal accommodation quality, support and opportunities for community integration. In any view, all that is a considerable evidence base and a considerable cause for concern.
As hon. Members have noted, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), is always quick off the mark, so we have already heard evidence from G4S and its Middlesbrough subcontractors about the red doors incident, and yesterday we heard from the contractors responsible for the wristbands in Cardiff. There was extraordinary consistency between the two evidence sessions. Everyone in essence said, “Our performance under the contract is fine,” and, “We meet our key performance indicators”—indeed, staff at one contractor were actually paid bonuses for meeting those KPIs. “We are inspected,” they said, and Clearel even said that Home Office inspectors were well aware of the wristband scheme and had raised no complaints. Clearel also said, “We don’t get many complaints.” In fact, at one point the Clearel manager seemed to be saying that there had been about 19 complaints from 6,500 householders over a certain period of time, if I noted his evidence correctly.
I am not usually a cynical person, but what all that says to me is that we should also be concerned about the key performance indicators, the complaints system and the inspection system, because those processes are not flagging up red doors or wristbands and, too often, not flagging up the myriad other complaints that we have heard about today. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth made that point well.
On the KPIs, I understand from the evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that nine or 10 things are looked at monthly by the contract management board. An executive oversight board provides further scrutiny. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that that system does not seem to be working at all, because nothing is picking up the problems that we have all been talking about this morning?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I agree wholeheartedly. Having only 17 Home Office inspectors for some 36,000 placements seems wholly inadequate. Furthermore, the lack of complaints is not surprising given the vulnerable nature of many of the people who use the services, as hon. Members have said, and given the evidence that induction packs are often insufficient, if they are even given out at all. It is little surprise that it is not the KPIs, inspections or complaints that are throwing the problems up—it is campaign groups, non-governmental organisations and diligent investigative journalists.
The question is, what more would we discover if we had a thorough inquiry into how the contracts are working? At the moment we can only speculate, but we can all agree that there are enough danger signs for us to say that we definitely need such an inquiry. I have asked for the Home Affairs Committee to undertake that task, although I agree that other possibilities exist.
In fairness to the Immigration Minister, he did not make the decision to switch to the COMPASS contract. That decision was made in 2009, with the then target contracts phased out in time for COMPASS kicking off in 2012. As the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) pointed out, the ambition was to save £140 million on services over seven years by replacing 22 separate contracts with six larger COMPASS contracts.
Although the Minister was not responsible for instigating the contracts, he will soon have to decide whether to extend them and I hope that he will not do so without a thorough and wide-ranging review of contractor performance. I also hope that the Home Office will wait for such a review before pressing ahead with the welcome plans to broaden the number of local authorities involved in dispersal.
We on the Opposition Benches doubt whether such services can ever be amenable to contracting when the only possibility to maximise returns is cutting corners and costs and the people accessing services have no choice in who provides their housing. In other words, they have to like it or lump it, and many asylum seekers will lump it silently. Serious consideration should be given to changing fundamentally how we provide housing for asylum seekers, including a possible return to provision by local authorities. We also have to consider whether the savings envisaged by the COMPASS contracts have been delivered.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important contribution. On local authorities stepping back into the breach, does he share my concern that while that is desirable, it would be a disaster if money did not follow that move? If that path is pursued, my fear is that Government will simply expect local authorities to take that on without that qualification.
Absolutely. There is a huge question mark over whether sufficient resources have been provided to fund the contracts and that remains as a question whether services are returned to local authorities or not.
We must consider whether the savings envisaged in the COMPASS contracts have been delivered by so-called efficiencies or simply by lowering accommodation standards. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for ensuring that the House considers asylum support contracts, which will require even more detailed and thorough consideration in the months ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the debate and for the powerful speech he made at the beginning of it. I pay tribute to all this morning’s speakers not only for their contributions, all of which were powerful and excellent, but for the good work they have done in their constituencies to try to alleviate the problems and shine a torch on where things have gone wrong.
This is clearly a timely debate. As Members have touched on, the provision of accommodation services has a sorry history. The contracts were awarded in 2012, and as has been mentioned, the National Audit Office looked at the transition when it produced its report in January 2014. Already at that stage it flagged up the fact that the transition to the new contracts had been poor, that there was a lack of inspection by the incoming contractors of the accommodation that they would provide, and that the Home Office was failing to apply its key performance indicators.
That NAO report was followed pretty swiftly by the Public Accounts Committee’s report in April 2014. I remind hon. Members of the early warning that report gave:
“The transition to six new regional contracts to provide accommodation for destitute asylum seekers, and their operation during the first year, did not go well. Only one of the three contractors had past experience of managing asylum accommodation and overall performance has been patchy: there were delays at the outset and the Department and contractors have all incurred additional costs. The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor and the providers failed to improve quality in a timely manner.”
The Scottish Refugee Council also carried out work in 2014.
Since then, and particularly in recent months, there has been example after example of the continuing problems. The issue of the red doors in Middlesbrough has been highlighted not only in the press but by my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who have spoken powerfully about it. When it was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Minister rightly accepted that the red doors were inappropriate and wrong, and that what happened should not have happened. He instigated a review, and it would be useful to have an update on that.
In the debate on the Floor of the House, I asked whether the case of the red doors was an isolated example or whether there would be others. Within a few weeks we had the example of the wristbands in Cardiff. That is a different part of the country and a different issue, but again, as soon as the torch was shone on that policy, it was declared by all to be inappropriate, wrong and something that should not have happened. In this debate we have heard powerful examples of other contracted provision that is inappropriate and wrong and that should not have happened. That seems to be the pattern: the flushing out of examples of the inappropriate, wrong use of contracts and then, after the event, a review. Can the Minister give us any assurance that those are the last examples of their type, or whether there are others in the pipeline? The concern when the red doors were first identified was that that was not an isolated example, which gives strength to the call for a proper review.
I suspect that there are further examples to come, and it may be that in the course of the Minister’s inquiry he has already uncovered examples that will need to be dealt with. There is now a short period until most of the contracts come up for renewal, so now is the time for a review to be carried out so that whatever mistakes were made in the past can be avoided in the future. I think some contracts will expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension clause, so time is of the essence.
Last Thursday and Friday, I visited Wolverhampton, Dudley and Oldham. I want to touch on what I found in Oldham, where Serco runs the contract. More than 600 asylum seekers are being accommodated in a town that struggles economically and with the provision of public services. The more I dug down into why so many asylum seekers were being housed in Oldham, the more it became apparent that it was not because someone had assessed the provision of services and decided that Oldham was an appropriate place for asylum seekers, where their needs could be dealt with better than in other places. Nor was it because the local community thought that was the right way to approach accommodating asylum seekers.
I spent the whole day in Oldham, and in the end I came away with the conclusion that the only reason why more than 600 asylum seekers were there was that the unit price per head of accommodating them was lower there than anywhere else. That was the sole driver, without regard to the destitute, fleeing individuals who are in great need, as hon. Members have pointed out, or to the needs of the community. It was solely by reference to the unit price. That needs to be part of a much wider ranging review.
I will put on the table one further concern that has not been addressed, by mentioning the position of a young Syrian woman I met in Oldham. She was 26 years old. She was grateful that the Home Office had processed her claim within three months and given her refugee status, and I applaud that example of a woman in need being recognised and dealt with efficiently by the Home Office. As a result, she came off the support provided to her as an asylum seeker and lost her accommodation —that is a natural consequence of the support regime, and I accept that. She applied for accommodation in her new capacity as a recognised refugee and was told that she was not in priority need and that she would not be so unless and until she slept on the streets of Oldham. She relayed that to me face to face. She is a 26-year-old architect from Syria and the prospect of having to spend some time on the street in order to have priority support filled her with horror. As it happened—and as happens in many other areas—people providing voluntary support for asylum seekers stepped in. There may have been a glitch in the system or a misunderstanding of the rules, but I ask the Minister to look into not only that example but others in which individuals have been told they must spend a period without accommodation before they can move from one regime to the next.
I lend my support to the call for a review. There is now a window of opportunity. I suspect we shall hear further examples of the provision of wrong or inappropriate support, and that the Minister and others will say that it should not have happened. That means, I think, that it is time for a review of the contracts, and of support for asylum seekers in the round.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate, and on his approach to it. I want to give credit to the charities and organisations that he referred to, which provide support to refugees and asylum seekers in his constituency and across the country.
This country has a proud history of many years of offering sanctuary to those genuinely fleeing persecution. We can look at our record with pride. That was underlined in the speech of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who also described the welcome that asylum seekers and refugees fleeing conflict receive in his area. It is important to recognise that clear message, and the Government remain committed to providing an asylum system that protects and respects the fundamental rights of individuals who arrive on our shores seeking refuge from persecution. I have made it clear in previous speeches in the House that I expect those who arrive and receive support to be treated with dignity and respect. I have also underlined the fact that actions that stigmatise, isolate or publicly identify asylum seekers should not be taken. Obviously, several cases that have been mentioned this morning highlight such a picture. Such actions are completely inappropriate, and I welcome what has been done to remedy the situation.
I will come on to the inspection regime and reflect on some of the results of the audit of properties in Middlesbrough. During this financial year, about 50% of properties in Middlesbrough have been visited as part of the most recent audit, in addition to ongoing work. The focus of the team of inspectors is on inspecting about one third of all the properties in the overall portfolio.
The Government provide support through the COMPASS contracts with three contractors—Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Ready Homes. Those contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board accommodation in so-called initial accommodation while their means are assessed and, following that, in dispersed accommodation in dispersal areas throughout the country. Since 2012, following a rigorous governance and approval process, UK Visas and Immigration has delivered asylum support services via the COMPASS contracts with the three external providers: Serco in the north-west, Scotland and Northern Ireland; G4S in north-east Yorkshire, Humber and the midlands; and Clearsprings Ready Homes, in London and the south and Wales. The COMPASS suppliers are contractually required to provide safe, habitable, fit for purpose accommodation to comply with the Housing Act 2004 and the decent homes standard. The Home Office has governance and approval processes for all services that we procure externally, including consultation with other Departments as appropriate. All Home Office service contracts include performance standards, which are defined in the contract and managed using key performance indicators.
I want to talk about the issue raised in the National Audit Office report, and some of the assessments that have been made since. As the report highlighted and as hon. Members have said in their speeches, it was clear that the transfer to the COMPASS contracts in the initial period was difficult and bumpy. There were issues, and that was reflected in the fact that the service credits that we impose where key performance indicators are not met stood at £5.6 million in 2012-13 under the COMPASS contracts.
Since the NAO report we have worked closely with COMPASS suppliers to improve standards, using the NAO’s recommendations. That has included conducting joint accommodation inspections and training to ensure consistency in monitoring activities. It has also involved suppliers improving the policies and processes that they use to deliver their maintenance service, investing in existing stock, and replacing properties that did not meet quality standards. In the early years quality standards were not good enough. The situation has improved since then, and in the financial year 2014-15 the service credits that were levied had fallen to £158,000.
The contracts, with commercial details redacted, are available through the gov.uk website. Obviously I can point the hon. Lady to the relevant details. However, I want to underline the change in the KPI position and the fact that sums levied under service credits have markedly reduced. That is not to say that I am satisfied with the issues that hon. Members from across the House have presented to me today, particularly about the complaints process and the complaints that are being raised.
One issue that has come from the Middlesbrough audit, which I hope to publish later today, relates to inspection. I mentioned that a third of properties were being inspected, and I believe the focus is primarily on the accommodation itself—whether the decent homes standard is being met and what steps are being taken to remedy defects that are identified. The audit has not indicated complaints coming through about the red doors issue, for example, or indeed wristbands. Therefore, as one of the actions coming out of the audit, I have asked my officials to review the issue of complaints and how they are escalated, as well as the questions that inspectors ask the people who use the accommodation, to see that any concerns related to the performance indicator on complaints can more readily come to our attention.
Given the points that have been made today, is the Minister satisfied with what is happening in relation to the specific issues affecting women and children? Is there is the right staffing balance to deal with them, and is there the right level of training, particularly for dealing with people who may have been trafficked or subjected to sexual violence? Will he commit to looking specifically at that issue?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am happy about the steps that we have taken with the national referral mechanism, and he knows the importance that we attach to the issues of enslavement and trafficking. The information received from Europol is that about 90% of those who arrive on our shores have been trafficked in some way to get to their destination.
I want to underline the message that the COMPASS contracts are delivering savings. We see them as being on track to deliver about £137 million of savings. Two of the contractors have said publicly to the Public Accounts Committee that they are making losses in this context, so we believe we are getting value for money. We are getting improvements in the quality of the accommodation; it is the issue of complaints that concerns me. Some of the refugee charities have highlighted issues, which I will reflect on in light of the audit and inspection. I will see how things can be better targeted, how the contracts can continue to deliver and, equally, how the voice of the recipients can be better reflected. That will enable us to improve the way we pick up on issues such as those that have been identified, which have rightly caused concern.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Digital Democracy Commission
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the implementation of the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Just over a year ago, the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission published its report. The commission had been established by Mr Speaker in January 2014 because he was concerned that the world outside Parliament was leaving Parliament behind, and that outside of this place, digital tools were being used to enhance engagement and interact with the public, but we were still living in a different century.
Mr Speaker set up the commission, bringing together a group of outside experts and two MPs: I was one, and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was the other. The eight commissioners pledged that the publication of the report would not be the end of our engagement, which is one reason I am here today. I pay tribute to my fellow commissioners for their continuing support and scrutiny, to officers of this House and for challenging and ensuring that the recommendations are carried through. They are doing too much to highlight in the time I have for this short debate, but I was impressed to work with a number of them on Monday, when we had updates from the House of Commons authorities.
The Digital Democracy Commission labelled its report “Open Up” because it was about opening up not only Parliament but democracy as a participatory exercise, rather than just using technology to carry on doing what we already do. In January last year, we published our report—online, of course—and made five headline recommendations that I will remind the House of, though I know that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons was present at the last debate as well.
We recommended that, by 2020, the House should ensure first that everyone can understand what it does and secondly that it should be fully interactive and digital; we felt that those two things were connected. The third recommendation was that the newly elected House of Commons in 2015—today’s House—should immediately create a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons. Fourthly, secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Finally, by 2016, all published information and broadcast footage should be freely available in formats suitable for reuse and Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015. At the same time, we adopted a declaration on parliamentary openness, which commits us to making parliamentary information more transparent and providing easier access to the public—the very reason the commission itself was established.
I am pleased to tell Members that the new forum for public participation, which has been dubbed by many a “cyber Chamber”, has made great progress in the short time since it was created. The idea was that a third Chamber would be established in Parliament, allowing the public to debate an issue ahead of MPs. We all know from our constituency work how often there are hidden experts out there who have a lot to contribute, if only we know where they are. Sometimes they find us, and this forum is a way to enhance that participation.
The forum has been open since June last year and has so far focused on debates in Westminster Hall. The idea is that, ahead of a debate, the Member who leads it is asked to engage in an online debate with interested members of the public. Up to 1,000 people have participated in a single debate via that route. I pay strong tribute to the one member of staff in the House of Commons who has single-handedly turned that idea into the reality it is today. On Monday, she reported to the commissioners on progress, and we were keen as a group to see more support for embedding the idea of a cyber Chamber as business as usual in the House.
On Monday, we also received updates on the Data.Parliament open data project, on the ease with which anyone can now clip a video from a debate and on how our publications, web content and social media are being developed to make engagement easier and more meaningful—for example, through the use of plain English.
The Petitions Committee deserves a special mention for its swift embrace of the commission’s principles from the onset. Of course, that Committee was only established in this Parliament. It enables hundreds of thousands of individuals to better understand how they can influence policy making, and sets an example for how other parts of the House can embrace engagement better.
When we published our report, we very much saw it as a road map to improve the way that MPs engage with the public and to allow the public to better engage with Parliament. As a commission, we were mindful that we were reaching out to under-represented groups. My fellow commissioner, Helen Milner, who runs the Tinder Foundation, had particular expertise in that area. We touched on how to ensure that we do not leave behind those who are digitally excluded—it is not our intention to do so—but rather, to use digital tools to reach more people where they are willing.
Just as with Government services that are going online, we need to be mindful of those who are unable to use digital options. We see digital as enhancing and improving what we do, rather than replacing human interaction. We want to expand the human interaction we have as MPs week in, week out on doorsteps to digital methods and to the wider House.
Today, my comments will be a little more parochial, focusing on the changes that still need to take place in Parliament and that are within the hands of Members of this House.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the electronic voting systems in place in Scotland and Wales free up a significant amount of time for Members there to focus on more important matters, rather than spending 20 minutes going through the Lobby for each vote?
The hon. Lady must be a mind reader as well as an MP, because I was just about to move on to the issue of electronic voting using MPs’ smart identity cards. We had some serious discussion about that on the commission. I will touch on the history of the idea, which might inform the hon. Lady’s thinking.
The commission’s headline recommendations 29 and 30— we had many more—were as follows. Recommendation 29 said:
“During the next session of Parliament”—
this Session of Parliament—
“the House of Commons should move to record votes using MPs’ smart identity cards but retain the tradition of walking through division lobbies.”
Recommendation 30 said:
“The House of Commons should also pilot an electronic version of the practice of ‘nodding through’ MPs who are physically unable to go through the division lobbies, which would enable MPs who are unwell, or have childcare responsibilities, or a disability, to vote away from the chamber.”
This is not the first time that electronic voting has been discussed here; we may be slow, but we sometimes come back to things. In 1998, the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons issued a consultation paper to Members of the House at the time on voting methods. Just over half of MPs—53%—preferred the current system, with 70% finding it acceptable, although there were suggestions that voting could be made quicker by the use of smart cards, fingerprint readers or even infrared handsets.
The reason that the commission did not push hard for remote voting in the end was a strong concern from Members about losing the opportunity to speak informally with Ministers in the Lobby and to have contact with other Members; the Lobby is dubbed the Lobby for a reason.
I am interested to hear the points that the hon. Lady is making. While it is important for people to be physically present in the Chamber or in Parliament to vote, does she agree that a key part of having an electronic method of recording votes is that people could quickly find out how their MP voted? We would then not have situations such as the one we had yesterday, when an hon. Member asked the Deputy Speaker in a point of order how three members of the Cabinet had voted. Of course, the Deputy Speaker could give no answer.
Absolutely. The problems with the current system will be evident for many people. I have talked closely with the Clerks of the House about how they record votes. For those who are not initiated, once Members have been through the Lobby, we are crossed off a list with a black marker pen. That piece of paper is then taken by parliamentary staff and reconciled. It not only takes us about 15 minutes in total to walk through the Lobby; it is a considerable length of time—some hours—before the vote is published digitally.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on both her work on this issue and on securing this important debate. I very much welcome the commission’s findings, in particular those on electronic voting. My office worked out that in the previous Parliament, we spent 245 hours queuing up in order to cast 1,153 votes. Does she agree that having an electronic way of voting would also mean that we could record abstentions? Abstentions sometimes matter. They do not just mean that MPs were not here; they mean that neither of the two choices in front of them were any good.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. These are all issues that we need to debate and discuss if we are going to make any progress. I hope that, at the end of this debate, we will get some assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House that the matter will be taken seriously and that further work will be done.
As I said, a vote takes about 15 minutes in total—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has also done her maths. In the previous Session of Parliament, there were 544 Divisions in the Commons. Even if three minutes had been saved on each one—a modest improvement on our current practice—it would have meant a time saving of up to 27 hours for each MP. I hope we would have used that time productively; others may want to comment on that. That just goes to show that an awful lot of time is spent on something that could be done more quickly. We have also recently had experiments with iPads. They certainly speed up digital recording, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) indicated, but there are still issues with human error and accuracy.
The record of votes is important. In the modern age, it is ludicrous that people have to wait several hours to find out how their Member of Parliament voted on an issue. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, other things are not recorded. People get confused about what was an abstention and ask, “Was someone not there?” We should be able to record if someone is absent, for instance, because they are on maternity leave, or absent because they are sick or because they chose to abstain. That is common sense, one would think.
Clearly, any new approach will have problems, so it is worth teasing out what some of those are in the hope that they will be openly discussed and resolved. MPs could lose their smartcards, if that system is the one implemented, which may mean that fingerprints could be a preferred method. MPs could pass their cards to the party Whip or other MPs who could impersonate them or vote in their place, so we would need a system for verification. Verification currently allows for those who are on the premises but unable to vote in person to be nodded through by the Whips. I voted that way a number of times after my youngest daughter was born. The Whips nodded me through, but only after an Opposition Whip was satisfied that I was present, so we have a very crude way of verifying now. I think that could have been done differently and, certainly, we could look to improve it.
The cost of upgrading the system is not to be sniffed at. On Monday, the commission had reports from Officers of the House that it could cost more than £500,000 over the next three or four years, if decisions were made quickly. However, the long-term benefit could justify the one-off cost. Restoration and renewal of this Parliament provides a big opportunity to modernise this core activity of MPs.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and apologise that I cannot stay until the very end. On time-saving, time represents cost—it is not just about time for MPs, but for staff and security, especially when Divisions go on late into the evening. The costs involved in a one-off cost would surely be offset by the time saved.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about time-saving, because clearly, some votes are consequential on other votes, so there is always going to be a time when we may have to wait for the result of a vote before we can vote again. However, sometimes, as with deferred Divisions, a number of votes could be carried out simultaneously, whereas currently we have to queue for separate 15-minute time periods to go through the Lobby.
It is worth stressing, as the hon. Member for Torbay said and as we heard from many Members—this is why we did not go for distant, remote electronic voting as a recommendation—that the ability to work closely and talk to Members on a daily basis is a very big part of the work of this House. It is important that that spirit is seriously considered in any change. However, I am directly asking the Deputy Leader of the House to take this matter very seriously and to ensure that the Government do not knock it into the long grass. It is a matter for the House. She is our champion, along with the Leader of the House, to Government. I hope she takes this seriously, because we need a green light to investigate change.
From talking to officials in the House, I know that, at the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm for embracing the commission’s recommendations. A number can take place without interference—dare I say it?—from hon. Members. However, this is one where we really need to be engaged and I hope that today, the Deputy Leader of the House will set out a clear timetable on the measure and commit to serious consideration of its potential benefits and to reporting back to the House on that progress.
We can look at other examples in other Parliaments. Egypt, only two weeks ago, introduced an electronic voting system. It has had some problems with impersonation, so that is a lesson to be learnt. In Romania, politicians have 10 seconds to vote once they have initiated the smartcard voting system. In the United States, electronic voting was introduced to Congress in 1973. Members there vote by inserting their voting card into an electronic dock and by pressing the appropriate button. In South Korea, they vote electronically and can change their vote as they go, so there are very important issues that we might want to discuss about the change of culture that this would bring. Of course, as hon. Members have highlighted, in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, voting is done electronically. It is not a new phenomenon, and we need to ensure that it is properly embraced.
In my lifetime, Parliament has evolved very slightly to reflect technological change. Voice recording was introduced in 1978, when I was a schoolgirl. In 1989, the Chamber was first televised, and only last year, a low-level camera was installed—I was a student in 1989, and I hope that, before I am a grandmother, we might have considered electronic voting, bringing Parliament into the 21st century.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. In the European Parliament model, people can see instantly how the vote has gone. Does she agree that, if we had the technology to see how a vote has gone, it would enable us to hold over votes to a particular time in the day—or at least a couple of times in the day—which would, again, mean that we are not running backwards and forwards from one part of the Estate to the other?
The hon. Lady brings valuable experience from her time in the European Parliament. All these things need to be thrown into the mix. We need to have a discussion about our culture here—it is an important part of this—but there are ways of resolving the issues without sticking rigidly to the current system. A change would save time and money, and critically, just be clearer to the public, so that they can see what is happening.
Overall, in terms of engagement, many people are keen to get involved in Parliament and politics but find them very opaque. This would be one step to improving that. Evidence from a survey carried out by Cambridge University showed that 46% of people say that they would like to get involved in politics and Parliament if they could, but less than 10% are currently engaged with Parliament. As we know, there is often a large gap between those who say that they will get involved and those who actually do, but even if half those who wanted to were able to, it would be a significant increase in the number of people engaging with what we do. That is not to decry what hon. Members do; week in, week out, we engage with and talk to people on the doorstep, but we reach relatively few. With better digital engagement overall—so, just moving away from the issue of electronic voting—we can enhance the face-to-face contact that we have. There are other elements of the DDC that we need to make sure we set in train and with which we can bring about change.
I think we are on the cusp of a revolution. The Digital Democracy Commission’s report lays out a pathway. We hoped on that commission that the new Parliament elected in 2015 would see the opening up of Parliament as nothing revolutionary, but as business as usual in the modern world. In preparing for this debate, I have been heartened by the number of hon. Members who were keen to register their interest, even if they were not able to be here for a short half-hour debate today. I had more than 30 Members who were keen to speak had this been a longer debate, and we may seek a further opportunity to raise the matter, perhaps when we hear from the Deputy Leader of the House about her timetable.
If we are to be more accountable and accessible to the people whom our Parliament serves and who elect us, we must not let this opportunity pass. This could be the Parliament when we finally get into the century we are in. As Members of Parliament, we need to be bold and embrace this change to engage more constructively with the public. We need to open up Parliament, listen to our constituents better and not simply broadcast what we do, which I am afraid to say, is a tendency of this institution.
Mr Speaker had the vision and the commission has done its work. We are now a year on. Officers of the House have made huge progress and I pay testament to them, as do other commissioners, on opening up data, making House publications more accessible, making it easier to use broadcast clips, improving our web and social media interaction and on developing a cyber Chamber. It is now for Members to show that we are firmly in favour of modernising our working practices. We who are privileged to be elected to this House must be the facilitators of this change. We need to lead by example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer, and to contribute to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She is a member of the Speaker’s Commission and has spoken with passion about its work and her views. I thank her for the update on the progress made, including that reported at a meeting of the commission earlier this week.
The commission outlined five key targets, but as the hon. Lady has already stated those, I will not repeat them. There are further recommendations in the report, many of which are for the House to consider and debate. To some extent, a large part of that should be done, in my view, via the Procedure Committee. I will try to highlight key areas where, in particular, the Government can contribute to that debate.
Promoting public awareness of the role of Parliament and of Members of Parliament, and increasing public participation and engagement, are both worthy aims. Much has been achieved, particularly in recent years, as a result of the efforts of many hon. Members and our dedicated House staff—the service and the Clerks—and undoubtedly, that engagement will continue to increase.
The attempts to engage the public in different formats are very valid, as there are several recognised ways of learning and engagement, and people will have a natural tendency towards one or two. Traditionally, people have always had the written word, in the form of Hansard, legislation and business papers, accompanied by the occasional visit to Parliament to see how it works in practice, elements of which are open to everyone in this country. Aural transmission through radio and the screening of proceedings has been a step change. Further elements such as videos explaining Select Committee reports and the use of social media have continued to reach different audiences and interact with people in different ways. They are to be welcomed.
I will try to address the points raised by the hon. Lady and by other hon. Members during the debate. Turning to some of the commission’s recommendations, particularly focusing on the targets, the House service continues its work on engagement and outreach, guided by its strategy—I believe that was praised at the commission the other day—although I think it has found the feedback from the commission helpful, in that it was not necessarily achieving all that it thought it had and had a higher bar to reach. That said, I congratulate those involved in some of the improvements. Improvements to the digital service for both internal and external users are a key priority but there is still a considerable way to go.
The Commission made some useful recommendations about engaging the public. Some aim to improve understanding of Parliament and the work of MPs— for example, simplifying language, clarifying online publications and improving the website, including for people with disabilities or sensory impairments. Much has been achieved in these areas already, but I am sure that there is further to go. Making it easier for people to track specific areas of interest to them is one example of how we could improve interaction. I think some MPs are not aware of some innovations that would be useful to them. I am an evangelist for the apps for tablets and smartphones that have been created and help both MPs and the public in their daily work and to access documents that can be read alongside debates.
The public inquiries team has reviewed and rewritten every Commons glossary entry on the Parliament site and about 400,000 users access this. Content now focuses on explaining in clear, plain English the word, phrase or acronym, and includes links to further learning and business content to extend users’ knowledge. Previously, content had been overly long and often unclear.
A recommendation that cuts through to the legislative process is the commission’s suggestion for a new procedure for amending Bills so that amendments are written in plain English. In my view, this is where the role of explanatory notes comes in. We saw in the last Parliament, and see it more and more now, that Members are encouraged to add explanatory notes to the amendments they table.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation they put before Parliament is of a high standard, but I know we can always do better. It is vital that Parliament has the necessary means by which to perform its scrutiny. Further recommendations to change that process further are for the House to decide, but I suggest to the hon. Lady that we are creating law, so to some extent, the clarity and the explanation come from the debate on Second Reading and the examination in Committee, where the Minister and the Opposition—any Member in fact—can to talk to amendments. We could do more and, in my role on the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, I often push for further detail on the explanatory notes when I do not think they are clear or we need to be more explicit in stating the intention of amendments and clauses.
One recommendation is to improve the search engine. There are other search engines, but many hon. Members use Google to find information on the external parliamentary website. That is a shocker and apparently work is being done on it, but perhaps we should just leave it to the market. If Google and other search engines have already cracked the issue, we may want to use the House’s financial resources for other matters.
The Minister is rightly talking about how better to explain legislation, but sometimes we need to explain better to the viewer what is going on. For example, the most common question I am asked on school visits is why MPs are standing up and sitting down.
That is an interesting point, and new Members often ask that question when they arrive. To some extent, the induction process helps with that. There are matters not covered by the commission that many Members would like to see changed but—dare I say it?—some of the more traditional people, and I include the Speaker in certain elements of this, are resistant to that change. Examples include speaking lists and understanding how to participate in a debate. Perhaps we can do more on the video front and if we stop trying to improve our own search engine, it could free up a bit of cash to do that.
On crowd sourcing questions, the party leader of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch is doing that for PMQs, which is an interesting experiment. I will leave it to hon. Members to draw their own conclusions on whether it is successful, but I am sure it is good for the Labour party’s communications database. It is an interesting approach and some Select Committees have considered it as part of their reviews. I seem to remember the use of #AskGove to generate questions for a Select Committee. It is for Members to decide how best to use that and to manage expectation without just using it as a gimmick.
The Minister rightly highlights managing expectation. I refer her to the Petitions Committee, which has done a good job at a very early stage of beginning to make sure that engagement happens. It is about managing expectation, which is where the clear circulation and exchange of information is important. There is a precedent in that area. I hope that she will have time to touch on electronic voting.
I certainly will—I assure the hon. Lady of that. I want briefly to flag up some of the other recommendations before coming to the issues on which she spent a lot of time in her speech.
For young people the new education centre has been a huge success and I hope the House will record how successful it has been throughout the United Kingdom.
In terms of the new forum, the cyber Chamber has been talked about. The Petitions Committee and the debating of e-petitions have probably been the most significant change in that regard. Parliamentary time is provided to the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers, and now the public, through the organisation of petitions, also have time for their business to be debated. That is a welcome step and although it is in its infancy, the hard-working Clerks and the Chairman of the Committee to whom the hon. Lady referred—the interface between the House and the public—who have taken on the challenging job of moderating petitions, are to be commended on their work to extend that engagement.
I was interested in the idea of trying to delay the selection of Westminster Hall debates to a fortnight to have more engagement with civic society. I think that would take away from Members the element of urgency and topicality.
The daily edition of Hansard, one of the key data sets identified by the commission, is now available as open data in a variety of formats. There is still a lot of work to be done on digital media. “Erskine May” is now available freely to Members and their staff on the intranet. I have spoken briefly to a trustee of the May Memorial Fund about the next edition and I have written to him. He has promised to report back to me and I will share his response with the hon. Lady.
On voting, there are two recommendations. I will touch briefly on electronic voting so that I have time to finish on the other one. What can the Government do on electronic voting? The Speaker’s Commission recommended that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Concern remains about the security of e-voting and it is vital that any new system attracts the confidence and trust of voters. Estonia is often mentioned, but turnout has not increased there and it has a compulsory national identity card. Electronic voting is certainly not a priority for the Government, but the experience of elections, and the referendum on Scottish independence, shows that if people are really interested in the issue being debated, they will turn out to vote using the existing mechanism. After the drop in the number of people turning out to vote in the 2001 election to 59%, engagement and voter turnout has gradually increased to about 66%.
On Lobby voting, the House service has been investigating the electronic recording of Divisions and the hon. Lady will be aware that we had several attempts in the last Parliament and this. Errors occurred, but were addressed by the tellers to make sure that Members’ votes were recorded. Full implementation of tablet recording of Divisions is expected later in this Session—certainly before the summer—but among the many goals set out by the commission, it recommended retaining the tradition of walking through the Division Lobbies.
The hon. Lady referred to swipe cards and raised issues such as verification. I understand that some of the early scoping and ideas that are being discussed so far suggest that Clerks would still do a physical check to ensure that an hon. Member’s photograph on their swipe card goes with their face.
The hon. Lady referred to fingerprints. I think hon. Members would be anxious about that and I suggest, in the kindest way, that it needs a lot more work and engagement with colleagues. She mentioned 30 people. Scottish National party Members are obsessed with electronic voting because of their experience in the Scottish Parliament, but I suggest that the Procedure Committee should look at that.
On time saving and cost saving, this Parliament debates more than any other Parliament in the world. On average, we have 48 hours of debate every week and perhaps longer when we sit on a Friday. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) seemed to be suggesting that perhaps we should have a shorter schedule.
I have only 30 seconds left, and I suggest I continue the debate with the hon. Lady separately because I want to answer the points already raised.
I value the tradition of linking debates to votes, and I think that matters. I realise that the hon. Lady’s swipe card idea would still do that, but the physical presence of MPs really matters. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to abstention. I suggest that voting in both Lobbies is a way to record that now.
On progress, I cannot tell the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch that I have made a timetable. I suggest that considerably more debate needs to be had with a wider range of Members—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Migration into the EU
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered migration into the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. When I stood in this place last year and said that I thought that Germany was bonkers to give permanent residency to all the migrants arriving on the shores of Europe, that was met largely with derision. I stressed the importance of refraining from doing what made us collectively feel better at a time of appalling images of young children drowning on north African beaches and instead supporting pragmatic and moral solutions that represented the views of the British public, but also effectively served the needs of genuine refugees. I stressed that the message that Europe needed to give should be much clearer that those making the journey will not automatically get the right to stay in Europe if they arrive in Europe, and that if we did not break that link, we would have potentially hundreds of millions of people on the move. Within 3,000 km of the Mediterranean, which is four or five days’ drive away, nearly 1 billion people live. If I came from a poorer or less stable country, I might well make what would be a rational decision for my family and myself to move to a more peaceable area such as Europe to settle. However, we have not managed to break that link—that message has not gone out there in the world—and the drowning and the chaos continue. I believe that collectively we in Europe play a part in that, because we have not yet made it clear that if people arrive in Europe, they will not end up staying in Europe. The only people who have really profited from that chaos are the people smugglers.
Since that debate, we have seen the near-collapse of the Schengen agreement as countries opt for razor wire —some of them—over the open borders of the European Union. Sweden is the first casualty as a country that has failed both those whom it was trying to help and its population. With a proud history of taking in refugees from across the globe during the past century, its Government tried to do the right thing, in their view, by taking 200,000 refugees last year, but they have now had to admit that they do not have the financial means to assimilate such numbers and more importantly they have lost the backing of their population. Indeed, this is the great tragedy that seems to be playing out right across Europe. Governments such as those of Germany and Sweden have created a great backlash against even the most deserving people who require support, as a result of what in my view has been incredibly misguided altruism.
Following the debate last September, some newspapers mocked me for a “bizarre rant” in relation to a comment that I had made about a haircut. That only went to strengthen my point that any talk of what we actually do in response to the migrant crisis is almost politically toxic. Only recently, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was accused of using offensive language when making reference to a swarm of migrants in Calais. In my view, the Prime Minister—I am not known for toadying to him—actually has been ahead of the game on this and has realised that, if there is fallout from countries such as Syria, we get the most bang for our buck in terms of aid if we look after people in the region. The Prime Minister has also been very clear, which many of us have not been, that there is a very clear difference between a refugee and an economic migrant. It is fair to say that he understands the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. We must talk about these issues. He will be aware that in The Times and YouGov poll in January 2016—it was very recent—six out of 10 people put immigration and asylum as one of the top three troubling factors facing the country today, so if we do not talk about that as politicians in this place, we are letting our country down.
Absolutely. I read an excellent piece in The Guardian, I think, by Nick Cohen, who said that if we really want to help people who find themselves in difficulties, we have to understand that there is a difference between economic migrants and asylum seekers. Indeed, the vast majority of people who come to live in this country are the former. A friend told me earlier that 90% are economic migrants and 8% are asylum seekers.
To go back to the haircut point, the fact remains that people who have successfully claimed asylum in the UK do indeed go back to places that they claimed asylum from. I would like to thank those members of the public who, after the September debate, sent me emails with many examples that they had known in their own lives. I sense that much of the media and much of the political class are rather out of sync with what the British public think about this issue.
Years ago, I lived covertly in the Sangatte Red Cross camp in Calais. I remember arguing with one of the producers when I was editing the piece, because my experience in the Sangatte camp was that most of the people—99%—were fit young men who had paid people smugglers to make that very long journey and were indeed economic migrants, not desperate refugees. I remember having an argument, when we were going to voice the documentary, about the use of the word “refugee” or “economic migrant”.
During the September debate, one hon. Member accused me of being out of step with what the British public feel about accepting large numbers of refugees, but that does not stack up. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK would resettle 20,000 Syrians, a YouGov poll found that 49% of those asked believed that Britain should be accepting fewer or no refugees, which was a 22 percentage point increase from the month before—my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) pointed that out. I was also derided for “blurring” the boundaries between what a refugee is and what a migrant is, but I think that that point is finally beginning to be taken on board, even by Mr Juncker in the European Commission. I argue that not recognising the difference between migrants and refugees has done more damage to the case of genuine refugees, in terms of public opinion, than any ghastly things that have happened in Paris or may have happened in Cologne. Of course, there is an appetite among Europeans to help people, but there is a limit, and that limit comes in earlier when we fail to recognise that distinction. That really helps no one.
Do not get me wrong. As I have said already, economic migrants make rational choices for themselves and their families, and all of us would do the same, but either we are a nation state or we are not and either we decide who comes into our country or we do not, and at the moment it strikes me that we are not doing that in Europe and we are not doing it in the UK, either.
Absolutely. That was a great bit of foresight, so I completely agree with my hon. Friend.
Some years ago, as a television reporter, I experienced the plight of refugees—as opposed to the economic migrants whom I met in the Sangatte camp—when I was covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia and I lived undercover as a deaf and dumb Bosnian Muslim in Serb territory. I joined Bosnian Muslims and Croats being ethnically cleansed by Serb forces, and we ended up in a refugee camp in, I think, Slovenia—actually, I ended up in prison in Austria, but that is another story. Those people really were refugees. They travelled en masse as families with their possessions over the border into a neighbouring safe country—very different from many young men who travel to a country of their personal choice.
It is hard to swallow the UN figure that 62% of migrants who arrive into Europe must be genuine refugees purely because they come from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Frustratingly, these people continue to be muddled with genuine refugees, and there needs to be a clear distinction. Since September, the enormous number of migrants has continued with some 55,000 making the crossing last month alone, 244 of whom, I regret to say, drowned or are missing. The breakdown of Schengen and the rise of nationalism have been two predictable results of the mismanagement of the crisis by the European Commission. The only encouraging sign is that the Commission has finally admitted that there needs to be some distinction between the treatment of economic migrants and the treatment of refugees.
Last week, it was announced that 40% of migrants, most of whom are Syrian, require international protection. That is a stupendous revelation following much fudging of the figures but it comes too late to stem the millions who are currently en route for Europe. However, despite that realisation, there is still a bit of a gulf between the beliefs of Eurocrats and those of the ordinary man or woman in European cities, including those in Britain. Juncker and many of the political classes are still pushing the view that the Cologne attacks were a public order problem and nothing to do with migrants from different cultures.
The EU has become emblematic of slow growth and rising unemployment. Unemployment across the continent is currently at almost 10% and youth unemployment is almost double that at 20%. Greece and Spain are suffering from youth unemployment rates of nearly 50% and I believe that Italy’s youth unemployment rate is almost 40%. Unemployment is destroying the prospects of a whole generation of young Europeans and the impact of new arrivals can only have a detrimental effect.
The British Government suggested that immigration should be brought down to tens of thousands—incidentally, a YouGov poll found that 78% of the population thought that that was a good idea—but despite the best efforts of my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister, it simply has not happened. It is estimated that more than 1 million migrants will end up in Europe this year, and immigration figures for the year ending June 2015 show total net migration of 336,000 into the UK, of whom nearly 200,000 are non-EU migrants. Under the high net migration assumption of 265,000, the population will grow by 12.2 million over the next 25 years.
The European Commission has proved to be inept at dealing with the crisis and continues implicitly to encourage more people to make the dangerous maritime crossing instead of staying in safe countries. The epic mismanagement of the crisis has been politically destabilising for all concerned. The British Government need to push for what I think the previous Government referred to as extraterritorial processing centres—reception centres in safe countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which surround the conflict zones. At the same time, we must stop the boats that are endangering lives and reducing the security along European borders.
European countries should indeed do more—as the Prime Minister has been trying to do—to support countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are hosting huge numbers of refugees in proportion to their resident populations. Britain is already the second-biggest bilateral donor supporting Syrian refugees but, of course, more can be done. I read in The Economist that the amount of money spent by the international community on looking after refugees in the region is the same as the amount that German citizens spent on chocolate last year, so there is quite a lot more we can do.
Many Syrian families arriving in places such as Germany are professional, educated people—precisely the sort of people Syria will need in the post-conflict environment. Having hundreds of thousands of its most skilled and educated people relocated in Europe will not be very helpful when things improve. Recent refugees from Syria are more skilled than other groups and those who came, for example, during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Those skilled, middle-class workers will urgently be required when rebuilding Syria, and they will not be a lot of use if they are living in Germany.
The decent and humane response is in a systematic manner to process and differentiate genuine refugees from economic migrants, to repatriate those who fail the asylum process and, overall, to try to keep people in their home regions. It is immoral to send out messages to people that if they arrive in Europe, they can stay in Europe. We have to accept some culpability for the deaths of men, women and children in the Mediterranean. As I said in a previous debate, the moral conclusion is that, frankly, we should build a great big bridge from Africa because at the moment we are encouraging people to drown at the hands of smugglers.
The Prime Minister’s recent attempts at renegotiation have shown that the EU is pretty unwilling to change. We go cap in hand and get almost nothing. The British Government currently have a raft of legal constraints. Any one of the people arriving in Europe in a year or two would be able to come to live in the UK. It is self-evident that, as a nation state, we no longer have any meaningful control of our borders. While Britain remains in Europe, it will be impossible to control our borders—a point that was described by William Hague in 2008.
Europe lacks a collective voice and has had no greater tragedy than in Syria, where the EU has been pretty ineffective over the past few years. A failure to offer real solutions in regional geopolitics and to understand that conflicts sometimes only finish when agreements are made with some pretty unpleasant people has not helped the untold suffering for millions of people in Syria and on its borders. The resulting exodus to Europe and the ensuing mismanagement by the EU has highlighted that the whole European project is destined to fail.
With each of the 28 member states having its own economic limitations, historical memory and political culture, it is impossible to reach an agreement on almost anything bar trade and logistics. The varying attitudes and experiences that each country brings have shown that they cannot be homogenised because there is no political will in each country for the EU’s ultimate political goal, and there lies the problem. The migrant crisis has exposed the unsustainability of the undemocratic and bureaucratic EU.
The suppression of the fervent nationalism that contributed to the second world war was the noble aim of the EU’s founding fathers. Through the EU’s failure to create a robust and systematic way of coping with the migrant influx in a fair way whereby genuine refugees are differentiated from economic migrants, it has destroyed its founding principle. Through epic mismanagement and failure to agree on anything between the 28 member states, Schengen is in ruins as countries rapidly get on with their own solutions. With hundreds of millions of people in the borderlands of Europe suffering oppression or wanting a better life for their families, this tide of migrants will continue until drastic action is taken. For a country such as Britain, that can only happen outside the EU.
The migrant crisis, like nothing else, has tragically exposed the limitations of the European project. Undemocratically elected politicians in Brussels talking of the redistribution of hundreds of thousands of migrants across willing Governments only strengthens the vast gulf between the political classes and the people they are elected to serve. That has had disastrous results for countries such as Sweden. Either we are a nation state, or we are not. Either we are serious about helping the many millions of people affected by war and oppression, or we are not. We—not the German Government, the people smugglers or the EU—need to decide who comes into this country. Britain needs to take firm action, but that can only take place out of the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Rosindell.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) has just said, we are facing a refugee crisis in Europe, not a crisis involving economic migrants. I will particularly address the plight of women and child refugees. The First Minister of Scotland has said that we should be in no doubt that what we are witnessing is a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in Europe since the second world war. Most of the people travelling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to try to get to western Europe are doing so because they are desperate. The images of their suffering will continue to haunt our consciences and the reputation of this union of nations for many generations to come if we do not do more collectively to help them.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about public opinion. In so far as I can judge public opinion in my constituency of Edinburgh South West, the vast majority of emails that I have received—many hundreds have come in batches and waves since September—have been asking this Parliament to encourage the Government to do more for the refugees in Europe, as opposed to doing nothing or less.
I recognise that the UK Government are making a substantial contribution to humanitarian initiatives on the ground in some of the countries that refugees are coming from, and I recognise the significant financial contributions that have been made to aid. I also recognise the United Kingdom’s commitment to take 20,000 vulnerable refugees over the next five years, but I regret to say that I do not believe those initiatives are enough. We, as a union of nations, are required to do more, and we are required to encourage the European Union to have a better co-ordinated response. We also need greater international effort through the United Nations.
I often hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the moral argument—that if we encourage people to come, we are simply throwing them into the arms of people smugglers and encouraging them to take their life in their hands. If one looks at the situation in the round, these refugees have not been met with a particularly welcoming attitude in Europe—certainly our union of nations has not been welcoming to them—yet they are continuing to come, so I feel that that moral argument falls down somewhat.
The majority of these people are refugees, not economic migrants. They are, of course, seeking a better life, but their main reason for doing that and leaving their countries is that those countries have been destroyed or deeply compromised by conflict. It is particularly inappropriate for the United Kingdom to wash its hands of taking any of the people who are now in Europe given that we have joined in with those conflicts. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, and there were respectable arguments on both sides, as a Parliament we took the view that we would join those conflicts and interfere in other countries’ civil wars by dropping bombs, which is all the more reason for not washing our hands of responsibility for some of the refugees who are coming to Europe.
I strongly believe that the United Kingdom should take a fair and proportionate share of the refugees who are now in Europe. How we go about doing that, and how we address the situation, is complex, but it is fundamentally morally wrong—I use the word “morally” advisedly on Ash Wednesday—for us to say that we will do nothing for these people who are so desperate. I recognise that we are helping them in their own countries and on the ground, but people are coming to Europe in droves. We see their suffering on the news every night, and it is wrong for a relatively wealthy union of nations such as ours to do nothing about it.
I see where the hon. and learned Lady is coming from, and I appreciate the great good will that she shows to all these people, but in law they are not refugees. Someone is a refugee until they find refuge in a safe country, and at that point, although apparently they can later be designated as a refugee, they are an economic migrant.
My other point is that just because someone comes from, say, Afghanistan, it does not necessarily mean that they are fleeing violence. I met a guy from Afghanistan the other day in the “jungle” camp in Calais who comes from a part of the country where there is no fighting. We need to wise up.
As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, I am a lawyer, but in this situation the niceties of whether these people are refugees in law matters not. We did not bother ourselves unduly in the United Kingdom about the legal position of the Jewish children when we took them in on the Kindertransport, or about the legal position of the Ugandan refugees. Even the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was persuaded to take some of the Vietnamese boat people. So this is not a debate about legalities; it is a debate about the correct humanitarian response, the responsibility of the world’s relatively wealthy nations to take responsibility for people who are suffering greatly and our particular responsibility to do that when we have chosen to become involved in the conflicts that are creating refugees. I hasten to add that I make no comment about the rights or wrongs of that, but we are involved now, so we have to recognise the implications of our involvement.
The position of the Scottish Government has been clear. We will take a fair share of a proportionate number coming to the United Kingdom. Indeed, some Syrian asylum seekers and vulnerable refugees have already been resettled in my constituency of Edinburgh South West.
I am not at liberty to reveal the precise figure. It is not a large number, because the United Kingdom Government do not permit us to take a large number, and it is a reserved matter, so our hands are tied. Our First Minister has made it clear that we are willing to take a fair and proportionate share. How that is done has to be decided at a higher level even than the UK, which is why European Union co-operation is so important.
I want to say something about the plight of women and child refugees, because earlier this month, about a week or so ago, UNICEF reported that for the first time since the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe started, there are more women and children on the move than adult males, and that children and women now make up nearly 60% of the refugees and migrants crossing the border from Greece to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Children now account for 36%—that is more than a third—of those risking the treacherous sea crossing between Turkey and Greece. The figure of 330 having drowned in the past five months has often been mentioned on the Floor of the House. UNICEF has emphasised that children should be prioritised at every stop of the way. Particularly when they get to Europe, they need to be informed of their right to claim asylum and their right to family reunification.
It is important not to forget the terrible conditions from which many women and children are fleeing. It has been well documented that women in Iraq and Syria are the targets of brutal oppression and sexual attacks perpetrated by Daesh. Rape is considered useful by Daesh as it traumatises individuals and undermines their sense of autonomy, control and safety. Rape is always an issue in war, but it is a particular issue in these wars. The former UN assistant commissioner for the protection of refugees said last year that
“Syria is increasingly marked by rape and sexual violence employed as a weapon of war…destroying identity, dignity and the social fabrics of families and communities”.
Female and child survivors of such sexual crimes are often shunned by their own communities, which is all the more reason why they come to Europe seeking refuge. When those people come, it is essential that they are treated with dignity and respect and that their particular vulnerabilities are recognised.
Save the Children has called on the UK to take 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, and there is a moral imperative for us to consider that carefully—I am aware that the Government are considering it at present. I appeal for recognition of the reality of the desperateness of the situation and of the vulnerability of so many of these refugees, particularly female and child refugees. There should be recognition of the reality of sexual violence perpetrated as a weapon of war, which many women and children are fleeing, and of our moral obligation as a wealthy first-world nation to take our fair share of the burden.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for giving way. She is making an eloquent speech, but there is something that I do not quite understand. The thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) is that while hundreds of thousands have already come to Europe, if we offer a home to millions there will be an almost inexhaustible supply of further people who will then want to come, and that is surely unsustainable. I do not understand how she is really addressing my hon. Friend’s main thesis.
I am coming at this from a different angle. These are not straightforward matters, but my point is that we cannot wash our hands of these people. It is not right for the United Kingdom to say that we will take nobody from Europe. We need to get together with our European partners and talk about how to address the complex issues that arise as a result of this massive refugee crisis—or massive migration, depending on the language that people wish to use. It is really tragic that the United Kingdom is abdicating its responsibility to lead at such talks and discussions when we look back at the United Kingdom’s proud history of taking in refugees at other times when countries washed their hands of them—I am thinking of the Kindertransport in particular.
I would be foolish to deny that there is a potential issue in considering how many people may come and the sustainability of that process, but at the moment there is space for the people who are here. There are some estimates that there are 20,000 unaccompanied children in Europe at the moment. Is it really this country’s position that we will not take any of them? We seem to be moving in the right direction on that issue, but it should not stop at unaccompanied children. Sure, there are strong young men who manage to make it as far as Calais, but there are also very vulnerable people. The point of my speech today is an appeal for a humanitarian response to the crisis rather than a purely utilitarian response.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
This debate should focus on immigration and not necessarily on refugee status, because we are talking about people who wish to make a home in our country and not necessarily those who are fleeing persecution. I will therefore confine my remarks more to immigration than to refugees. I say to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that I would not base my views simply on what turns up in my postbag. Many surveys carried out regularly by reputable companies have shown that migration and population control is an important concern of the British public.
No, I will not. The hon. and learned Lady had 10 minutes, and there are many people wishing to speak.
We should be talking about immigration, which includes some people with refugee status but also a large number of people who come to this country either because of our membership of the EU or because they are coming here as economic migrants. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) made a powerful and well informed set of comments, based on having been in the camps, not just on people writing to him in his postbag.
If this issue was not such a concern to the British public, I do not believe that even now our Prime Minister would be trying to thrash out some deal that allays the fears of the British public about our loss of control over immigration into this country as a result of our membership of the EU.
It is telling that Mr Manuel Barroso said last night in an interview that what we are trying to achieve is a form of control on immigration through benefits packages, and that his view is that that will make no difference whatsoever. I share that view, because I do not believe that people necessarily come here because they have been lured by benefits. I believe that many people come here because they wish to work. They wish to take advantage of the opportunities that this country offers and of a better economic future for themselves and their family, and there is better healthcare here, and indeed better package as a whole. Whether we can afford for a large number of people to come into this country—a number that the British public would like to see reduced—is a different debate, but I do not believe that the benefits package that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister might achieve by 18 February, however well secured, will make a jot of difference to immigration. Indeed, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration responds to this debate, I would like to hear whether he thinks such a package will make a jot of difference.
It is interesting that England—not the UK—is the second most crowded country in the European Union, if we exclude the island state of Malta, and the ninth most crowded country in the world when the city and island states are excluded. That contributes to the British public’s perception of whether, and how much, immigration into the UK is a good or bad thing.
I speak as someone with a highly desirable constituency that is surrounded by green-belt land, although it does have areas of multiple deprivation. I can assure the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West that how many houses are built to accommodate newly formed households is a source of concern, and we should look it straight in the face. These are not separate issues, they are all interlinked.
Government household projections show that in England—not Scotland, obviously—we will need to build enough housing to accommodate the additional 273,000 households a year between 2012 and 2037, which is a total of five million homes. That is a vast number of houses and it means sacrifices of things such as the green belt, which many of us have to consider as constituency MPs. It also means that there are huge pressures on jobs in certain areas, and it is no good whingeing about jobs not being available to British workers. I seem to remember Her Majesty’s Opposition saying, “British jobs for British workers”, and the reason they say such things is that they know the British public are concerned about these things.
Currently, there are 2.1—
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the great strengths of this country has been its ability to absorb and to integrate hundreds of thousands of people over the centuries? They have included who have come here to work, my family being one of them. Those people came here to work, paid their taxes, raised their children, fought for this country and died for this country.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady, but it should be up to this country to decide the numbers. I do not disagree at all with what she has said; she is absolutely right. However, the British public tell me that they wish to be in control of those numbers. They also say that to many opinion pollsters, and I believe it is why the Prime Minister is currently negotiating. If they wish to make those numbers even greater, that is the decision of the British public; it should not be a decision imposed by an unelected bureaucrat in Brussels.
In total, 41.5% of the 5 million workers here who were not born in the UK were born in the EU, and most were originally from outside the EU, so some people do cross the EU and come through that route. There are currently 2.1 million EU-born workers in Britain. That accounts for a large number of people who are working and paying their taxes in this country.
British workers say that they are worried about their jobs. It is estimated that only 982,000 of the jobs that have been created recently have been for British workers. We are creating jobs and making opportunities, and that is why immigration is a big pull to our country—we are not the basket case that some EU economies are. They have not got the jobs to offer. I do not blame people for looking for jobs, but the British public expect us to discuss this issue robustly.
What number of people can we accommodate in housing? Where are we going to plan the additional housing that is needed to support and house those workers? House prices are rising because of supply and demand. In areas such as mine, which are near enough to London to commute to it, it is not a surprise that house prices are exorbitantly high, with an average house price of nearly £500,000. It is because of the pressures on getting on the housing ladder.
We are really being unfair to the British public if we do not look at the two sides of the same coin. Overall we are a prosperous country—although some areas of the country are struggling, there are no two ways about it—that offers opportunities to people in less fortunate situations. However, if those people are attracted to our country to take up the jobs that are being created as a result of our prosperity and the Government’s long-term economic plan, we have to accept that they will need housing, services and all that comes with it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham is absolutely right to have secured this debate, but we are tinkering around the edges of the issue if we are looking at red cards and a benefits-based policy. I do not suspect at all that migrants are drawn to this country because they wish to claim a few pounds in benefits. I believe that they want to come for the opportunities that I have described, and it is up to us—as it is to countries such as Australia—to decide at what pace that immigration takes place, how we can accommodate it and the numbers involved in that immigration. We can do that only when we regain control of our borders, which of course we can do only when we leave the European Union and all the constraints that it brings with it.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) on bringing this important issue to the House. It is important to debate these issues and to get everyone’s point of view on the best way forward. I suppose we would all agree—well, maybe not entirely agree—that we should get the balance of the debate right. We should take the level of refugees and migrants to a number that is achievable and sustainable, but at the same time, as elected representatives we cannot fail to be moved by the distressing images of the people on the boats who have drowned. One would need a heart of stone not to be moved by that, and I think everyone in Westminster Hall today would be of that opinion. At the end of the day, we also need to be compassionate and able to integrate the refugees and migrants who wish to come here for the right reasons.
I want to put some statistics on the record. The European Commission’s chief spokesperson admitted that the majority of people moving across Europe are in fact economic migrants, and we need to ensure that we use similar approaches to the English lessons offered in Northern Ireland. I mentioned that in the debate at 9.30 am, which was on a slightly different issue. The Minister who responded to that debate is here again. There will be another debate at 4.30 pm, and through those three debates we will touch on many of the same issues.
When it comes to integrating refugees in Northern Ireland, through the Assembly we have initiated language lessons. The money is coming directly from Westminster. That is an effective way of integrating refugees and migrants into society by enabling them to speak and understand the language and be part of it. Their cultures and ethos can be integrated, but how do we do that? We have got to work at the system, but we also have to put a limit on the numbers that are coming. We have to be careful about that.
We need a system where only those in genuine need can avail themselves of services and where we can discourage those not in as desperate need from making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe—when we see the images, it is difficult not to have a tear in our eye. Of course, it is not just about protecting those coming in. The public are concerned about levels of immigration and have been for many years, so it is no wonder that the subject has been such a hotbed of debate. This debate has shown some of that. We need to ensure that we have a responsible immigration policy at home, especially given that we are outside Schengen. We technically control our external borders with the EU, although it may not always seem like that to many of us in this country.
Without doubt, one of the most defining issues of 2015 was the migrant crisis. It is hard to find a member of the public who will not say it is near impossible to avoid the issue. Whether it is the negative consequences we have seen in Cologne or the success stories of relocated refugees settling into their new society, it is a major issue that will take some time to resolve. I attended a meeting today that was chaired by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The discussion was a Syrian delegation debrief on the humanitarian situation. Several Syrians were there, as were some learned people from Jordan and Lebanon.
We cannot ignore the fact that of the 4.2 million who have been displaced from Syria, 600,000 are Christians. Nor can we ignore the impact it is having on them. In the next week or two, I will have the opportunity to visit Lebanon and Jordan and perhaps see at first-hand how those two countries are dealing with the refugee crisis, because they are feeling it directly. One thing that the Jordanians are seeing is that many of the Syrians coming into their country want to find employment, and why not? That, however, has a knock-on effect on the Jordanians, who are then unable to get employment for themselves. There are many implications for those countries, and we have to look at that.
Syrian nationals were only the fourth-largest group of asylum applicants in the year ending September 2015. We need to be careful about the migrant crisis, as it is clear that the plight of Syrian refugees is being capitalised on by some illegal immigrants set on purely economic migration. The figures from the European Commission are clear. Around 60% of the migrants arriving in the bloc are now economic migrants, according to the European Commission’s chief spokesman. That leaves 40% who are genuine refugees and migrants, and we have to look at how we can help them in whatever way we can.
One thing that came out of that meeting earlier today—the Syria delegation had a chance to debrief us and tell us about the situation—was that they said that the solution for the Syrian crisis is in Syria, and I do not think anyone in the Chamber would disagree with that. If we want to address the issue of refugees and migrants coming, we have to address the issue in Syria. Perhaps peace in Syria will happen, but there is a question over what the demarcation lines will be. The Russians and the Syrian army together have, over the past few weeks, taken more land and are restoring some semblance of peace in Syria, whatever that might be, but those are things that we have to look at.
Regardless of the approach we take, we need to ensure that refugees are processed correctly. We need to give genuine refugees the dignity they deserve and to root out potential criminal elements or security threats. Those are some of the things that we need to look at. Sweden has been mentioned by other Members, and there have been social instruction classes there, particularly around how to treat women. Those classes have been fairly successful in helping to educate refugees and migrants from the middle east on how to behave appropriately in western society.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned the Kindertransport in the second world war. I can proudly say that my constituency as it was then—the boundaries have changed—brought many of the Kindertransport children into our area during the second world war. That was long before I was born, but in Millisle and Newtownards they integrated well, and many of them are still there. Sometimes when there is crisis we have to reach out. We cannot ignore that, and it is important that we do not. We could learn from that innovative approach. Without doubt, it would go some way to improving integration and ensuring that we do not have another Cologne.
My contribution is about getting the balance right with the different opinions in the Chamber. There will of course always be debate on the numbers of immigrants, migrants or refugees we should take and the quality of them, how we control that, how we adapt as a society to accommodate them and whether it should be down to the new arrival to adapt to their host society. There is an integration period and an accommodation period that has to be given, and it needs both sides to look at that. It is a debate that will continue for the foreseeable future and it needs to be discussed in a respectful and rational manner.
We all know of the crisis developing in Aleppo as the Russians and the Syrian army tighten their hold on that part of the country. Many have moved out to the Turkish border. Turkey has said, “No more refugees,” and that is understandable. It has some 1 million-plus refugees on its borders, as do Jordan and Lebanon, so the squeeze is on. Over the next few months, we will be looking at an even greater push from those who want to get out and get away. If we can solve the issue in Syria, many of them will wish to return to their country and move back to the place that they love.
In conclusion, the debate has always been there, but given the threats from Daesh, which stated that it intends to use the migrant crisis to “flood Europe with jihadis”, we can surely all agree that there needs to be a screening process and security checks for new arrivals. That is of paramount importance for our national security as well as for the safety of our citizens at this time of great uncertainty and unease.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) for securing this debate. As always, it is a pleasure to speak after the thoughtful and well-considered comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
In this debate, we have touched on the European Union. One thing I said before I became an MP was that I would not talk about the EU in debates unless it was absolutely necessary, but it is necessary in the context of this debate. As we often find with debates on the EU, polarised viewpoints have been put across today, but the point is that whether or not we are in the European Union, the world as a whole—Britain, the EU and the world—is facing a forced migration crisis, the like of which has not been seen for a generation.
Of course a legitimate discussion can be had about whether membership of the European Union is beneficial in tackling the crisis and the humanitarian challenges that it throws up; but it would be simplistic and wrong to say that not being a member of the EU would make the crisis go away for Britain. We need to be clear about that, because sometimes in these discussions it appears that some of my colleagues think that it would be a magic wand to make the problem go away. The problem is not fundamentally about membership of the European Union; it is about a number of push factors that are due to the humanitarian situation in a number of countries in Africa and the middle east. That is clear from the evidence.
The countries where the majority of migrants come from—particularly when we look at Italy and Greece, the two countries on the frontier of the EU that receive the greatest number of migrants—are Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Greece. Those are the main sources of migrants going into the countries in question. Many of the countries that the migrants come from have serious humanitarian issues or are in war-torn areas. As the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) pointed out, because of terrible domestic circumstances in those countries a large number of people legitimately and rightly come to claim asylum. We have a proud tradition in this country and in the European Union generally of granting asylum to people in genuine need.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the horrific humanitarian crisis. I am pleased to say that in Woking we have, under the Prime Minister’s scheme, taken families from the Syrian camps. My hon. Friend talked about push factors; but surely there are also important pull factors at large. If the German Chancellor says she will take 1 million people and the EU also says it will allow people to stay in Europe, is not that a potential pull factor for economic migrants as well as genuine refugees?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about what the Government are rightly doing in Woking, in Suffolk and elsewhere, in accepting 20,000 refugees during the lifetime of the Parliament, and in their commitment to deal with the tragic circumstances of child refugees. We should be proud of that. It is a good thing that the Government and those local authorities are doing.
On the point that my hon. Friend raised—also an important one—it would clearly be a pull factor to accept migrants into the European Union unconditionally. It is not my understanding that other EU countries—or indeed Britain—are accepting migration unconditionally. However, there is acceptance that we have an international duty to respond to humanitarian crisis. That is why we are accepting 20,000 refugees. We have a proud tradition of doing that, which we have heard about, going back to the second world war, Uganda, the Vietnamese boat people and the Kosovan and other conflicts. We should be proud because this country has always been a home for people in genuine need fleeing persecution. We should never shirk that, and the Government’s current response to the crisis is the right one.
However, we should also make the distinction that others have made during the debate, that, while we have a humanitarian responsibility to people seeking asylum from persecution, we clearly cannot have an open door to mass migration. The country’s infrastructure would not accept that. At the same time, when people have settled in the UK migration has almost always been hugely beneficial to our country. We are very proud of the multicultural NHS that we have, where 40% of the workforce are from outside the UK. In my part of the country, migrant workers come across for the summer period to work in the agriculture sector. Agriculture needs those workers to support the picking of crops, and do other essential work. It would be wrong to lump all migration together as a bad thing, because it has so often been beneficial to the British economy, and if people want to come here and work it can be a very good thing. The NHS would not function today if it were not for migrant workers who have come from Australia, New Zealand and all over the world, as well as the EU, to support it.
I want finally to highlight some possible solutions. Whatever the rights and wrongs, and the terrible record of the Gaddafi Government in Libya, agreement was reached in 2010 with the Libyan regime to work to reduce the flow of migration through that country and across the Mediterranean. Clearly, there is war and a terrible situation in the country. A process is going on at the moment in Algiers to bring the two sides together and I hope a resolution to the conflict can be found. That would be to the benefit of the people of Libya, and it might also make it possible as part of the reconstruction to reinstate an agreement and look at the migrant flow through Libya, as has happened in the past—when it worked to reduce migration.
There are issues involved that we cannot deal with just as Britain. At the EU-wide level, benefits are gained from working together and from supporting Italy and Greece and other frontier states in tackling the problem. That is something that the British Government support, and put money towards, rightly. Both unilaterally and with our European partners we must continue to take in genuine asylum seekers and refugees, and do our best to mitigate the push factors by providing support in the form of humanitarian aid in Syria and elsewhere. We should be proud of the Government and what we are doing on the issue, and of our past and present humanitarian record.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I think I have only three minutes, so I shall be short and sharp.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) on securing the debate. He is straight talking and forthright and, although I fundamentally disagree with him on a number of points, I thank him for giving us the further chance to discuss what is undoubtedly the defining issue of this Parliament.
I want to speak briefly about the argument, which is often put, that we should seek to support refugees near the conflict zone, rather than protecting them within Europe. Who would disagree with that, on paper? I do not think anyone would; but the plain fact is that it is almost impossible for all refugees from countries racked by several years of conflict to be supported in that way. Those countries have neither the resources nor the capacity to cope. It is a challenge, indeed, but it is not unsustainable for Europe to offer protection to more refugees. What is unsustainable is to take the approach of not offering shelter for further refugees.
For millions of Syrians in neighbouring countries there have been years of living in tents with no prospect of education or work. For many, life as a refugee in neighbouring countries is grave. Lebanon, a country the size of Devon and Cornwall with a population of under 5 million, already hosts 2 million refugees. Amnesty International’s report “I Want a Safe Place” notes that Syrian refugee women face the risk of serious human rights violations and abuse in Lebanon, including gender-based violence and exploitation. Jordan, a country of 6 million people, has taken in 1 million since the Syrian war in 2011, but has now blocked access because, it says, international donors have provided only one third of the funding needed to support those already there. Syrian refugees in Jordan also face huge challenges. More than half are children and although legally they can attend school, they rarely do, because most work 12 hours a day in jobs such as scrap metal collection or construction. More than one in four Syrian refugee women in Jordan, as elsewhere, head households alone, struggling for money while suffering isolation and a fear of sexual violence.
We should bear in mind that, although Turkey ratified the refugee convention, it did so with a geographic limitation. It recognises only refugees originating from Europe, so Syrians receive only a restricted form of temporary protection, with limited rights. Its record on respecting refugees is far from unblemished. Asylum seekers’ access to adequate housing, health services and work is limited and bureaucratic problems prevent refugee children from getting access to secondary education.
On Monday, the Secretary of State for International Development said:
“If we can give Syrians hope for a better future where they are, they are less likely to feel that they have no choice other than to make perilous journeys to Europe.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2016; Vol. 605, c. 1320.]
Again, implicit in that is a recognition that many have felt and continue to feel that they have no choice but to make that journey. The question remains the one that I asked on Monday: what happens with the million that are already in Europe and the other million that will come before the measures announced on Monday are put in place? The only possible answer is the sharing of responsibility throughout the EU, as proposed by the Commission. It is time for this Government and Governments on the continent to step up to that challenge.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), a colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, on securing this debate. He will be surprised to hear that I agree with him on the need to differentiate between refugees and immigrants. I was very pleased that he made that distinction in his comments, but that is the only common ground that we have. However, I congratulate him on securing the debate and on speaking about the subject so forthrightly. It is an issue that we sincerely need to discuss, and we have had a good debate with some good contributions.
I want to briefly touch on immigration since other hon. Members have touched on it today. I hope the hon. Member for Gravesham will forgive me for doing so, given the comments that have already been made. Immigration is a good thing for the United Kingdom. It has been a good thing for a long time past. Huge contributions have been made by immigrants and refugees to all of our communities the length and breadth of the country. Similarly, within the European context, freedom of movement is a good thing. It is good for our economy and it is good socially. I am somebody who has benefited. There is a great myth that somehow it is only the United Kingdom that bears the brunt of freedom of movement, whereas the reality is that UK citizens benefit from freedom of movement as much as EU citizens benefit.
The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) was keen to highlight the English challenges, which I am sure there are. She made a sensible case for devolution of immigration because it is something that the Scottish Government have looked for. It would benefit the Scottish economy, so we want more immigration. I know that the agriculture sector in my own constituency benefits, as it does in the constituency of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who also highlighted that the NHS benefits hugely from immigration. We in Scotland are keen to see more. The hon. Member for St Albans made her case on behalf of her constituents and I respect that, but there is a case to be made for devolving immigration. In fact, in countries such as Australia, different states already take responsibility for immigration.
On refugees, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) made an impassioned case. The hon. Member for Gravesham talked about how many we should take. We should certainly take a lot more than the 0.25% we currently take. The EU is looking to relocate 160,000 refugees, and that goes to the heart of the points he makes. I hope the Minister will give a thorough explanation about why the UK Government are not opting into the project. The United Kingdom has taken 400—0.25%—of those 160,000 refugees. That is a disgrace. Ireland, our neighbours to the west, have an opt-out, as has the UK, and Ireland has decided not to use it. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why the Irish have decided not to use their opt-out but the UK has. I am sure he will cover that.
Furthermore, I hope the Minister will touch on why the Government are not taking up offers of support from the Scottish Government. They have offered to help the UK Government and to take more than our fair share. Some 40% of the refugees who arrive are going to Scotland—the first batch went to Scotland. The Scottish Government have put their money where their mouth is. We are not just talking about this; we are doing it and we are taking action. Will the Minister touch upon the Scottish Government’s offers of help?
On the issue of refugees, we are talking about people fleeing conflict and failed states such as Libya. The United Kingdom had a hand in its becoming a failed state. We spent £320 million bombing Libya and then £25 million on reconstructing it. I believe we have a responsibility in such areas.
We also have the dreadful civil war in Syria. I was fortunate enough to spend time in a refugee camp on the Turkish border. I met one person who did not want to go back to their country. The only reason he did not want to go back was because he could receive the medical treatment for his wounds from the conflict only in Sweden, where the last remaining members of his family lived. We need to remember who is holding the front line on this—countries such as Macedonia, Croatia, Italy and Greece—and we have an obligation to show a little bit of European solidarity. I hope the Minister addresses that point.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) ably pointed out, immigration has a huge impact, but it is a positive one. I noted his remarks about the Kindertransport children in his own constituency. We also have to remind ourselves of the challenges that refugees face. There are 2.5 million refugees in Turkey, and one in four people in Lebanon are refugees. The challenges are huge. That was something that my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned. I hope the Minister addresses those issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) for securing this debate. It is really important to discuss these issues, even if there are deep divides between us on the right way forward. The challenge of migration into the EU is clearly a huge one. Last year it was the biggest challenge in a generation. All the forecasts are that migration into the EU is likely to be greater this year than last year, so there is no doubt as to the nature and scale of the challenge.
Syria has been discussed this afternoon. When we look at the size of the challenge, it is worth reminding ourselves of the figures in relation to those fleeing Syria: 13.5 million of the population of 22 million are in dire need and 6.6 million are displaced, of whom 4.3 million have fled abroad. That is a huge issue that will be even bigger this year. Last year, nearly 1 million of those fleeing from Syria claimed asylum somewhere in the EU.
It is important to reflect on the causes of migration into the EU, which are predominantly persecution; gross human rights abuses; extreme poverty; and climate change. We can find all those causes reflected in any refugee camp in Europe. I was in Calais, which the hon. Member for Gravesham mentioned, and Dunkirk at the beginning of January. In Dunkirk there are many families. One of the men spoke to me and explained that he had fled from Kurdistan as a result of ISIS taking over his town, and he ended up in Dunkirk. There are lots of different reasons why people are on the move in the numbers that they are.
The first imperative in dealing with the challenge is joint international work upstream to try to reduce the conflicts that cause so many people to leave in the first place. I concur with the comments about how the vast majority of people from Syria would very much prefer to be back in Syria at the first opportunity. We must have upstream work to de-escalate conflict, and we must work with our international partners wherever we can to reduce the likelihood of people having to flee their home country.
There is also the question of people smuggling. Our Government and various Departments are working jointly with partners in Europe and beyond to deal with people smuggling, not only in Europe but upstream. My staff in the Crown Prosecution Service were involved in that when I was the Director of Public Prosecutions. Again, that is work that needs to be done upstream.
As for our contribution to rescuing those who are desperate and at risk of losing their lives, I thought it was a wrong turn when we withdrew some support for the rescue operations. I am glad that we are now fully engaged in those exercises on the Mediterranean again. Assuming that all that work is carried out, we then have to consider how to process individuals quickly when they get to Europe.
I have been pressing for some time on the issue of family reunification. There are rules, such as the Dublin III agreement, on family reunification and the rights of some of the people who are currently in Europe to reunite with family here. In some of the camps, such as Calais and Dunkirk, it is absolutely clear on the ground that those rules are not working in practice. We could do more about the refugee crisis than we are currently doing. Of course it is welcome that we are relocating 20,000 people from the camps outside Syria, but, along with others, I am concerned about the number of unaccompanied children in Europe. It is not only about the number, but the fact that more than 1,000 have disappeared. They are particularly vulnerable, so I urge the Government to do more for unaccompanied children.
We must also address the question of how we support people if and when they arrive in this country. This is the second of three Westminster Hall debates on refugees and migration. We had a debate this morning on the support for asylum seekers when they arrive in this country and how the contracts to provide accommodation are not working as they should.
The central point of this debate was made by the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter): in the light of the scale of the challenge and the reality of the steps that need to be taken, leaving the EU will not help. We need to be playing our part upstream to reduce conflict, playing our part in rescuing those who are desperately in need, and co-ordinating the response to the challenge in Europe. I do not think that there are many Members of this House, or many members of the public, who genuinely think that we should simply step away from Europe, or who think we should recognise the huge numbers of people fleeing into Europe and the desperate conditions from which they are coming and simply say, “It’s not our problem. We will somehow exit from Europe and play no part.”
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, if we exit Europe, unless we become a city state like Singapore—a tax haven on the edge of Europe—and have absolutely no trade agreements with Europe, we will still be subject to all the surcharges on everything we make and export? Unless we do that, we will have to abide by the rules and regulations that apply for all EU member states, along with those states that trade with them, such as Norway and Switzerland. That includes the rules on the free movement of people. Whether we leave or not, it is not going to make any difference to the free movement of people across Europe.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree. I have tried to make a similar point about criminal justice measures. A number of EU criminal justice measures are critical in the UK and used 24/7. Almost all those involved in criminal activity above a certain level operate across borders, and we rely heavily on EU criminal justice measures to combat that activity. By that I mean that we locate our own staff in Europe and are co-ordinating with our partners all the time. Without those measures, we would be at much greater risk in relation to criminal justice.
If we come out of the EU, I accept that there is no rule to prevent us from trying to renegotiate the economic and criminal justice measures, but it would be a very difficult renegotiation that would, in all likelihood, take us back to precisely the same measures. Take, for example, the European arrest warrant. It is extremely unlikely that our European partners would negotiate with us an approach to such warrants that was different from the existing arrest warrant. We would therefore step outside Europe and have to renegotiate the same provisions as we have now, but we would lose all influence. I saw that when I was Director of Public Prosecutions: the moment the Prime Minister suggested that there was going to be an EU referendum, our voice around the table on what future measures should be crafted to deal with crime was reduced in both volume and influence.
There is also a point of principle, touched on by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), as to whether we really want to retreat from the world stage or play our part. We see our role in the world as one in which we will involve ourselves in, for example, the conflict in Syria. The argument that the Prime Minister made to the House before the vote on Syria was premised on our responsibility as a nation state to play our part in combating Daesh. That is the sort of nation that we are: we want to play our part in combating Daesh. I voted against the motion before the House, but not because I disagreed with the principle that we should play our part internationally to resolve the crisis in Syria. So, too, with humanitarian aid—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Mr Deputy Speaker in the Chair]
It is a rare privilege to see you in Westminster Hall, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and previously that of Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) on securing this wide-ranging debate, which has touched on a number of issues relating to migration into the EU. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.
It is important to set out the context of the debate, as others have. We are experiencing movements of people into the EU on a scale that has not been seen for generations. Some have sought to liken it to past events, but the situation we are dealing with is very different, given the number of nationalities involved, the nature of the situation and the mix of refugees with those who come to the EU seeking a better way of life, so looking for parallels with past events is challenging.
We can be clear that European member states face an unprecedented number of refugees and migrants, primarily from the middle east and Africa. More than 950,000 refugees and migrants reached the EU last year on the Mediterranean routes. About 800,000 arrived in Greece, the majority of whom were Syrian. Some 150,000 arrived in Italy after making the dangerous sea crossing from Libya. More than 3,500 people drowned, and many more have died or suffered at the hands of smugglers and traffickers en route.
Some Members called today for the Government to provide a humanitarian response. Some, such as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), even suggested that we were washing our hands of the problem. I would rather characterise it as the Government and the country rolling up our sleeves. We can be proud of the steps that this Government have taken, which reflect our moral approach to such issues. We have considered the problems at hand, dealt with them at source and brought countries together to solve the problems that lie behind the migration crisis into the EU.
It is notable that this debate comes hot on the heels of last week’s London conference, where nations came together to pledge £10 billion. Important though it is, however, this is not just about money; it is about direct assistance for hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, the conference’s outcomes included the commitments to create 1.1 million jobs for Syrian refugees and host country citizens in the region by 2018, and to ensure that none of the more than 1 million affected children will become part of a lost generation, with assurances about quality education and equal access for girls and boys. The UK has contributed an additional £1.2 billion, raising the money that we have committed to £2.3 billion. We are not “washing our hands”; we are responding appropriately to a huge crisis.
People have asked about our contribution within the EU. The UK has just increased its aid to migrant children in Europe and the Balkans to £46 million, divided among the most affected countries and including specific support of £2.7 million for UNICEF. We have also announced in recent weeks a new £10 million fund to support the needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children in the EU.
Securing the EU’s external borders is a key part of addressing the crisis. Although the UK does not participate in Schengen border arrangements, a well managed external EU border is in our national interest. The Government fully support the European Commission’s hotspots proposal, which is aimed at addressing the continuing failure of some member states quickly to fingerprint and process arrivals and to provide protection to those who need it and return those who do not. It is unfortunate that implementation has been regrettably slow, and we will continue to press the Commission and all member states to act with urgency in establishing processing centres. We will also provide resource and expertise as and when required to ensure that people are processed when they arrive in the Greek islands or elsewhere, and that those in need of support and those not can be identified.
I support my right hon. Friend in that aim. Frontex has shown that more than 1.8 million people have entered Europe illegally, yet only several hundred thousand have been sent back, so there is an obvious need for the additional support that our country has given.
We will provide assistance to the European Asylum Support Office and to Frontex to help with the establishment of processing centres right on the frontline, to help deal with the problem and co-ordinate things on the ground. That is a core priority. We also continue to support Frontex in its mission to rescue people from the sea. I pay tribute to the Border Force officers, Royal Marines and military medics currently on the VOS Grace, which has rescued several thousand people over recent months and will continue its operations, transferring to off the coast of Libya at the end of this month.
The link between organised crime and migration is clear and unprecedented, and has contributed directly to ongoing suffering and loss of life. For that reason, the UK is playing a leading role in tackling people smuggling and is increasing joint intelligence work to target the cruel gangs that exploit human beings for their own gain. The work of the organised immigration crime taskforce is progressing, bringing together 100 officers from the National Crime Agency, the Border Force, immigration enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue and disrupt the organised crime gangs operating across Europe and Africa. We are also harnessing intelligence through Europol, which is proving helpful and fruitful.
I have been challenged about our response in Europe, and I have already identified not only the support that we are providing in the Syrian region but the direct support that we are providing in Europe. Since the crisis began the Government have been clear about our view on relocation: it is the wrong response. It does absolutely nothing to address the underlying causes of the crisis, and it does nothing more than move the problem around Europe. The reality is that it has not even been good at doing that. Commitments have been made over recent months to relocate 160,000 people, but only 497 people have been relocated to date. Instead, we believe that it is most effective to provide support to countries facing particular pressures, and our focus will remain on helping the most vulnerable who remain in the region as part of a comprehensive strategy to end the crisis.
We have clear rules in Europe that those in need of humanitarian protection should claim it at the first opportunity. We have provided aid assistance and expert support within Europe, and we stand ready to commit more to the hotspots initiative, ensuring that those in need of protection can be better identified. In the past fortnight, we announced the £10 million fund that I mentioned earlier, part of which is intended to harness the Dublin regulation by supporting effective identification of children who need to be reunited with their family. Where family reunion under the regulation is achievable, we will help to match things up by having better systems in place. That is about direct assistance.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), is the Minister suggesting that Malta, for example, should deal with the refugees that arrive there on its own without the UK lending a supporting hand?
As I have indicated, the UK is more than lending a hand by dealing with some of the significant factors that push people to cross the sea and with the organised immigration crime that is facilitating that. We are also providing expert support to the European Asylum Support Office, Frontex and Europol. The UK is demonstrating, through a broad range of measures, its commitment to solidarity with European partners in dealing with the crisis at hand.
On returns, which some Members have referred to in the debate, the unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe mean that it is more important than ever that each and every EU member states fulfils its responsibilities to process all those arriving, provide refuge to those who need it and return those who do not. As part of those efforts, all member states must have legislation and processes in place to identify and weed out abuse of their asylum system.
Will the Minister praise the work of local councils in stepping up to the plate when it comes to the migrant crisis? For example, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council has dealt with a large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and has become a beacon of best practice in the west midlands.
I commend a number of councils on the support that they have provided in welcoming refugees under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and I commend my hon. Friend for highlighting his own council. I pay tribute to councils in Scotland that are providing such support, as well as to the charities and other organisations standing behind them. On the work on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I recognise the pressures in counties such as Kent, and measures in the Immigration Bill, which is currently in the other place, are intended to assist with that.
The Government’s consistent focus has been on finding a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the refugee crisis. The Prime Minister has continued to emphasise the need for the EU to deal with the root causes of the crisis, not just to respond to the consequences. In Syria that means working with the international community to bring about an end to the brutal conflict there and to defeat Daesh. The UK has been at the forefront of the response to the crisis in Syria and the region. In Libya that means helping to form a Government of national accord who can regain control of Libya’s borders and tackle the smuggling gangs. In Turkey it means working towards comprehensive border management, ensuring a humanitarian response to those reaching that country and disrupting the organised criminal networks that look to profit from the plight of others. The UK is also playing a leading role in Africa.
The migration crisis continues to evolve. The Government maintain a leading role in seeking to join together international partners in the EU and elsewhere. We can be proud of our response, but we remain vigilant. We need to carry on providing support in many different ways, but the UK can look with pride at the steps that have been taken already. We will continue to do our bit.
In summary, we have got to do what is right, what works, what is sustainable and what is moral, not just what makes us feel better about things. A good example of what I am talking about could be the case mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), of someone from Kurdistan in Dunkirk whose town had been taken by ISIS. The rest of Kurdistan is relatively peaceful and, after 18 months, the peshmerga had taken back places such as Sinjar, so there is no reason for someone to move from Kurdistan to Calais to seek safety. There is plenty of safety in other bits of Kurdistan and within the region. The driver in that case is, I think, economic; it is not about security.
When we think about the refugees, we should be helping the many, not the relatively privileged few who have the money to make long journeys. We should be helping people in the region, and helping them properly, as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration have done. We have to send out a firm message to the hundreds of millions of people within only a few days’ drive of the Mediterranean: if they come to Europe, they will not stay in Europe. Until we do so, the crisis will go on and on.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered migration into the EU.
Mobile Infrastructure Project
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the mobile infrastructure project.
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
The purpose of the debate is to express the concerns of four distinct communities in my constituency, in Ebbesbourne Wake, the Woodford valley, Broad Chalke and Bowerchalke, with what is in essence the failure of the mobile infrastructure project. We hoped that the project would improve the poor or in many cases non-existent mobile phone coverage in those areas, but none of the proposed masts at those sites have been seen through to completion. I will set out the challenges of the project and the lessons to be learned from it. I will also make constructive suggestions about how we can move forward. It is heartening to see a number of colleagues in the Chamber with experience, I suspect, of similar disappointments with the project.
The mobile infrastructure project, on which I am sure the Minister will give us authoritative detail later, was first announced in 2011. The Government envisaged working in partnership with a private firm, Arqiva, and providing it with capital funding to build new mobile phone masts. The masts were to be operated by four large operators, which would fund the operating costs for 20 years. The aim was to improve the coverage and quality of mobile network services for the 5% to 10% of consumers and businesses living and working in areas with poor or non-existent coverage, and to ensure that 99% of the population had mobile service.
In a series of debates on broadband infrastructure and mobile telephony everyone has been impressed with the progress made by the Government generally in increasing the percentage of people who can access new services. For those who cannot, the situation is extraordinarily frustrating. My understanding is that 600 potential sites were identified at the beginning of the project, and the contract with Arqiva commenced in May 2013. By December 2015, a couple of months ago, the project had cost £9.1 million and only 15 masts were live. The Secretary of State announced that the project will not be extended past its deadline of March 2016, so it is anticipated that by the time the project ends only about 50 masts will have been built, which is perhaps a sixth of the number of masts envisaged five years ago.
The project faced significant challenges from the beginning. First, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport was told that Arqiva had to wait almost a year to receive accurate data on “not spot” zones aligned with operators’ network maps. Arqiva said that it had not anticipated that delay when the project was scoped.
Secondly, perhaps the most typically vexing experience has been of the delays in planning permission and the difficulty of obtaining it for a number of sites. The Minister contacted me about sites in my constituency, acknowledging uncertainty over where they might be, and I engaged with the parishes concerned in an effort to find agreeable sites quickly. In such rural areas with the poorest mobile coverage, however, two factors are significant. The proposed sites are often in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks—we have both in my constituency—which can provoke numerous representations, because if a mast is not in the right place, it is there for a long time, causing significant environmental challenges. We must, however, recognise the need to overcome that obstacle, because better mobile coverage is absolutely necessary. Getting right the planning permission, with an economically viable power connection, has been a significant barrier.
We had three proposed masts in my constituency, one of which will be going ahead and will be transformational, proving the possible impact. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lesson we might have to learn if the scheme returns—I hope there will be some kind of renewed funding—has to be on the basis of communities coming forward to an extent and being proactive and willing to accept masts, so that we know there is a good chance of getting planning permission? Instead, the other way around, we have been saying, “Here’s a load of money,” and people get excited, but nothing actually gets delivered.
I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. That is where we need to get to by the end of the debate: a real sense of what can be achieved, with a call-out to those communities that are most keen to secure a mast location under the MIP or a successor project, if there is one, so that we can make things happen. Raised expectations that are dashed after two or three years is a most frustrating phenomenon for constituency MPs to deal with.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important subject. Does he agree that it is not so much that the project is at fault, but that perhaps it was a bit over-ambitious in the timeframes in which masts can be brought forward, noting difficulties with planning permission, which as he will fully know can be protracted, and issues around the powering up of masts? Perhaps he may want to encourage the Minister to extend the programme.
As ever, my hon. Friend and neighbour alights on the right points. I would like to talk about the short timeframe, because Wiltshire Council tells me that Arqiva contacted it on numerous occasions but the project was dropped at the first sign of local difficulty in obtaining a planning consent because the short timeframe to deliver on a completed mast made it too difficult. The other issue Arqiva said it experienced was that initially the coverage was intended to be for 2G voice and data services, but there was a subsequent extension to future-proof the project with capacity for 4G. I suspect that change of scope mid-way through the project did not help the smooth delivery of masts.
I absolutely agree. It is critical that we have additional capacity for spectrum frequencies delivered in a cost-effective way. There is no point in taking a quick option that is now out of date and it is imperative that we take that lesson on board.
I want to be constructive in how I address the Minister in the debate, because whatever has happened, the Government’s aims were absolutely correct. It is extremely disappointing that the project did not meet its original aims. It has underspent and I understand that that money has been returned to the Treasury, so there is scope for representations to be made to the Treasury in the coming weeks to look to repurpose that money for further projects. I want to put on record my support for the legally binding deal the Government secured with mobile phone operators to guarantee mobile coverage for 90% of the UK land mass by 2017, tackling partial “not spots”. However, that is of little comfort to those who have no hope because they are in “not spots” where there is no prospect of achieving mobile coverage. We need to intervene quickly.
If we are to be successful, we need to overcome the planning permission issue. Given the need to gain planning permission for such a large number of sites, was the project’s three-year timeframe realistic? Wiltshire Council found the timeframe that Arqiva had to deal with the technical feasibility, stakeholder engagement and planning processes too short.
Questions should be asked about the tender process for the contract. Arqiva made much of its ability to engage with stakeholders and obtain planning permission quickly—I saw that in an article on its website last year—but it would be useful to understand what the Department believed Arqiva was capable of doing in terms of the project’s aims and what its assessment was of why technical and planning difficulties were not overcome.
When there are future projects to tackle “not spots” and improve capacity, the Minister should consider working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to create fast-tracked and more streamlined infrastructure planning consent routes specifically for that purpose. I am a strong advocate of this Government’s and the previous Government’s commitment to localism and working constructively with local councils, but I would observe the feedback I received from Councillor John Thomson, the deputy leader of Wiltshire Council. He told me:
“we feel the lack of early and timely engagement with the right stakeholders such as AONBs and the right landowners from the very beginning of the project has significantly contributed to the failure across all nine potential sites. Wiltshire Council have asked Arqiva for an explanation as to why individual sites did not get taken forward, but to date have not had any report from them”.
The project has been deeply disappointing and frustrating for so many of our constituents. Future projects must work with stakeholders, who are often committed to the aims of the project and want the work to be completed, but it seems that when anxiety was expressed in the early stages, projects were pushed aside and not completed as they should have been.
In conclusion, I would like to focus on the challenge. I know that the Minister has worked extremely hard to find solutions, but we are all very aware that we need to have timely, appropriate and technically achievable goals that we can take back to our constituents and say, “This will be delivered in a reliable timeframe”, because many people are cynical about the initiative.
I am anxious that the Minister should update us on what the Government are doing to tackle poor mobile phone coverage in the light of the experience in Salisbury and south Wiltshire and the failure of the project, notwithstanding the positive initiatives in other respects. We need to give business the infrastructure it needs and meet its need for connectivity. Some of these communities have poor landline connections, broadband is intermittent and they are not in the phase 2 for the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wiltshire.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. These issues affect not just Wiltshire residents, but Dorset residents. Doubtless the Minister will be positive and bullish, as is his custom, but I would invite him to recognise that while the 90% target is good, for the 10% who are left, including those Dorset residents who do not have coverage, it becomes more and more frustrating for them as more people get coverage.
My hon. Friend makes the exact point that we all wish to make. There is real urgency around the project. We know that the money has gone back to the Treasury, but I urge the Minister to focus on how we can re-establish the scheme and ensure that individual applications can be expedited quickly in the second half of the year, when so much work has already been done, so that we can go back to our constituents and say, “There is hope.” There will be an opportunity and if applications are in and certain criteria are met, we can go back to our local authorities with an assurance and deliver on a promise, which, while I do not want to be melodramatic, has been cruelly taken away. That is a significant inconvenience to businesses, individuals and families who find themselves unable to speak to other family members—they cannot ring their children—and feel totally cut off just five or six miles from the city of Salisbury. It is not good enough, and the Government need to address that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I still fondly recall my visit to your constituency to see the wonderful heritage and that brilliant museum that you have there—what a lucky MP you are!
I feel in a relatively philosophical mood as I gaze at 12 colleagues who are a sort of jury, ready to give a verdict on the programme. I must admit that I am guilty as charged. I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think that Ministers often say that about their programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) predicted that I would be bullish about the programme in my usual bombastic—he did not say that word, but perhaps he meant it—fashion, but I will not be bullish about it.
I think that when Ministers defend their programmes, they should have credibility. I am happy to defend the superfast broadband roll-out, which I think has been an unequivocal success despite the occasional criticism I receive. I am also happy to defend our record on libraries, despite the brickbats that I get from library campaigners, but I am fully prepared to stand up in the Chamber and admit that the mobile infrastructure project has not been as successful as we had envisaged. We set aside £150 million. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place. We wanted to eliminate “not spots”, precisely because of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) raised: mobile phones are essential to many people in their daily lives. We wanted to eliminate the “not spots” that exist as best we could. I am grateful to him for securing this important debate.
I am rather concerned, because the Minister seems to be beating himself up. The truth of the matter is that if his Department is guilty of anything, it is perhaps not having anticipated how long it takes to get infrastructure projects of this sort off the ground. All he needs to do is say that the project essentially is a good one but we need to allow it a little more time, so that projects of the sort to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) alluded have a chance.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will address that point in a minute.
I want to start with some of the obstacles that we encountered. First, there was the issue of coverage. I said earlier that I was in a philosophical mood. What we had to try to establish, to quote Shakespeare, was, “What is a not spot?” Trying to establish where a “not spot” is—that is, exactly where we will get no mobile coverage—can be difficult when dealing with radio frequencies. For the benefit of hon. Members who have not taken a close interest in the programme, a “not spot” is where no mobile operator can get a signal. A partial “not spot” is where there may be a signal from one mobile operator but not from another.
We therefore had to narrow down what a “not spot” is. That proved a useful exercise, because it allowed us to work with Ofcom and the mobile operators for the first time to establish a much more robust system of identifying where we were not getting mobile signals. Of course, the programme was announced at around the same time as the 4G auction, so we ran smack bang into the middle of the 4G roll-out programme, which was clearly going to change coverage criteria and therefore add another factor.
The next issue was planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury makes a good point—we had not anticipated just how difficult some of the planning issues are, particularly when we were dragging four operators with us, metaphorically kicking and screaming. Although we were paying for the mast, we were asking them to meet the operating costs going forward, which include the land rental as well as the transmission costs for what is, by definition, an uneconomic area.
As an example, I will take my hon. Friend through the saga of North Hill farm in his constituency. A planning application was approved at the end of October 2015, but the council—I am sure he knows some of its councillors—then decided that even though planning approval had been given, the colour of the mast had to be subsequently approved. Apparently, if a range of colours had been given, that would not have caused a delay, but the council wanted specific approval of the mast’s specific colour. That was compounded by the fact that the council and the area of outstanding natural beauty partnership did not respond to Arqiva’s request for guidance on what colour mast they wanted, to enable the council to make an application to discharge the planning condition—in other words, the colour of the mast.
I just want to finish the saga. Arqiva submitted a discharge of condition application in November. That was received by Wiltshire Council, which discharged the condition on 30 November. That was a full month after the deadline we had set for all planning applications to be determined, thus taking it out of the MIP programme.
Planning issues have proved difficult. We have had communities campaigning against masts and putting concrete blocks in front of the base stations to prevent any further work.
It is good to hear the Minister nailing his colours to the mast, as it were. We have had similar issues in South Suffolk. It seems to me that all of the problems point to this: masts can go up and we can have new projects, but we have to learn lessons, and the communities that want the masts will have to be far more engaged and willing to come forward and accept them, rather than just be passive in the process.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
Let me say what we have done since the MIP programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury talked about light at the end of the tunnel and giving people hope, and we have made some important changes. For a start, we are bringing in changes to allow mobile operators to erect taller masts, which will enable the signal to go further and have a significant impact in rural areas. We are going to change the electronic communications code, which governs access to masts and has a significant effect on the cost of maintaining infrastructure. We want to bring that forward through a digital economy Bill.
Subsequent to the MIP programme, we negotiated a change in the licences for mobile operators so that they now have to meet 90% geographic coverage, not just the 98% premises coverage. That will make a difference. The merger of O2 and Three, which we are waiting to see the result of, may make a significant difference. We have made Government property available for mobile masts, and all hon. Members might consider engaging with their councils on any property that would accommodate a mast. Those are all significant changes.
Of course, the emergency services programme that is just getting under way with EE should see the erection of 300 masts across the country, which will have a significant effect on “not spots”. As the 4G roll-out continues, we expect the area of “not spots” to fall to as low as 2% of the entire country, and the area of partial “not spots” to fall to as low as 12%—half what it is at the moment.
I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury says about a possible way forward, and I will certainly keep my mind open. We would have to overcome the scepticism of the mobile operators. One difficulty of the programme is that the companies do not want to participate in it—I do not say that pejoratively—because they are landed with the operating costs of the masts. We, the Government, pay the installation costs, but the companies are landed with the operating costs for masts that are, by definition, uneconomic.
I am sympathetic to the proposal about communities coming forward with sites where the council is willing to give planning permission. I remind my hon. Friend that planning permission for a mast still exists on the site I mentioned, should he be able to tempt a mobile operator to erect a mast on it.
The Minister will be aware that permission has been given for a very large mast in Exmoor, which my constituency covers. Unfortunately, the licence for the site is running out because it has taken so long to get, so we cannot build a mast. Is there any way that extensions could be given where masts have been given approval but cannot be built because of that problem?
I am not sure which licence my hon. Friend is referring to, but as he and I talk almost every day about broadband issues, I am happy to follow up on that specific point about licences. I have to put on the record what a vociferous constituency MP he is on behalf of his constituents’ broadband and mobile coverage.
I thought I had a third hon. Friend wishing to intervene, but they seem to have disappeared. I am not sure how long I have, Mrs Main.
All I will say in the time remaining is that we have erected 16 of the masts and are hoping to get 60 up and running. Arqiva has a chief executive in the saddle, Simon Beresford-Wylie, who is very much focused on the project and has pushed through a lot of the applications.
A lot of my hon. Friends have suggested that the scheme could be extended. We took the tough decision, given the problems we have had with it, to impose a deadline. We had regular meetings about the scheme and how we could make it work more effectively and so on, and it was finally decided, partly in the light of the changes I outlined earlier—the taller masts, the electronic communications code, the emergency services programme, which is significant, and the changes to mobile licences—that it was right to concentrate minds and bring in a deadline. However, the Government’s mind remains open to any suggestions from my hon. Friends who are quite rightly advocating better mobile phone coverage on behalf of their communities.
There is a juxtaposition: there is, of course, a social priority for good mobile phone coverage, but it remains the case that the mobile phone operators are private companies. They are therefore investing their own money in building networks, as well as paying the Government significant sums for the spectrum allocated to them that they won in an auction.
Just as we have done with the superfast broadband programme, it is right that the Government intervene as and when we can. Given the significant difficulties we have come across with the mobile infrastructure project, the way forward is changing the licences, changing planning regulations to allow taller masts and give better coverage, and implementing the emergency services programme, which comes in behind. I should add that the emergency services programme will benefit from the MIP, because a lot of the groundwork on identifying “not spots” and identifying some of the very significant logistical errors in erecting masts will go a long way towards informing the emergency services programme.
I am sorry that I sound a bit Eeyore-ish in responding to this debate, but hon. Members can tell that I have been living with this programme for the past three or four years, and I thought it was time I came to the House and gave a frank view from the Government Benches on how the programme has worked.
The Minister says, absolutely fairly, that the last scheme was stopped. Perhaps, to interpret what my hon. Friends are suggesting—this is certainly what I feel—we could have an improved and amended scheme in the months ahead. Therefore, if there is a village that does not have access to the emergency services programme and has no credible other technology to provide a mobile signal—for instance, if it is in a dip and needs a mast—will there still be the potential for a scheme whereby willing communities can come forward within the next 12 months?
At the moment, no. To meet my hon. Friends halfway, I suggest that if we had a series of proposals whereby a community was genuinely willing to have a mast and the council was onside, it would be incumbent on the Government to consider those proposals. To refer back to my earlier remarks, we need to look at the particular sites that concern my hon. Friends, then see whether they fit within the emergency services programme and consider the potential way forward. I suggest that if my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury convenes a group of colleagues who wish to come and see me with definitive statements of masts that they would like to see progressed, I will happily hold that meeting after the February recess.
Notwithstanding the reticence of the operators to engage in the project, there is a real imperative for the Government to force them to deal with this issue. I hope that the Minister recognises the widespread interest in the matter across the House and across our constituencies, where many people feel let down. However, I am grateful for what he has said and for the hope that he has given so many people who have contacted me in recent months.
Question put and agreed to.
Refugees: UK Government Policy
It is perhaps a little bit more politically correct.
Make no mistake—this country faces its biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. The civil war in Syria has cost the lives of almost a quarter of a million people since it began. The UN estimates that over half of Syria’s pre-wartime population of 23 million is now in need of emergency assistance. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt have so far received over 3 million people, with the figure set to increase by another 1 million this year. Some 1.2 million refugees have managed to navigate their way to Europe, with the estimate, again, of up to 1 million to come this year.
The total estimated figure for displaced persons as a result of the Syrian war now amounts to just under 4 million people. Syrians are now officially the most displaced population in the world, with the majority of those displaced being children. The war has not only sparked the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, but has exposed a region, already destabilised, to becoming one where chaos reigns freely on the ground. In my view, that is the core reason why so many have left their homes and their lives in search of a more secure immediate future. It is not just Syrian; Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans and others are all fleeing this destabilised region and we must recognise that the UK has played its fair share in the actions that have resulted in that destabilisation.
People’s lives and their human dignity are on the line. The perils of a journey across the Mediterranean pale into complete insignificance for them, compared with the terror that they leave behind. Only last week, more than 50 people drowned in the Aegean sea. The numbers continue to grow as the weeks and months go by and they will not slow down if we stay on our current course.
Such people are certainly not making an easy trip to claim benefits from our welfare system. Do we honestly believe that people fleeing for their lives have logged on to the Department for Work and Pensions website, analysed our benefits system and said to themselves, “Do you know what? The UK will do for me.”? To suggest so is to misunderstand completely the situation that these people find themselves in.
The benefit-chasing myth—so easy to peddle and excite UK Independence party voters with—should be dismantled here and now. These are human beings fleeing terror and likely death. They want to work in an environment where their families are safe and can be provided with a good life—that is it. These are values that we all share as human beings and I say that we should approach this problem, first and foremost, in our capacity as human beings.
I voted against UK airstrikes in Syria because I believed that the risk of exacerbating the problem was too great even to quantify, and a few months on there is little sign that our involvement has in any way stopped the war or the flow of refugees. However, because our pals were doing it, we thought that it was the right thing to jump in with them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The reason why airstrikes on Syria are required is to stop these murdering people from carrying out further murderous crimes and to keep them bottled up. That is why I support airstrikes and I hope that in the end, that is what will happen: they will stay there and be bottled up until we can find a political solution. That is why airstrikes are necessary.
Of course, I disagree with that assertion. There was a very prolonged debate on the Floor of the House when both sides had the opportunity to put their points of view across. I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman’s assertion is proved correct—history will be our judge—but my view is firmly on the other side of that argument. I hope he can respect that difference of opinion.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Like him, I voted against the airstrikes for similar reasons. It is right for us to address the refugee crisis as human beings, and does he agree that a credible proposal to establish, through concerted international action, safe areas within Syria in which people could seek refuge would be worthy of international support?
Yes, of course; I agree completely with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although we must find a solution to the war, that focus should never alleviate our responsibility as human beings to do something more about the displacement and creation of refugees. I have started by summarising the current state of the problem facing us in the hope that Members present will take an open-minded approach, as human beings, to why the UK response to this crisis is inadequate and falls short of the moral and necessary minimum.
Let me be clear that nobody here doubts the efforts made by the UK in the large camps that litter the middle east. I welcome the UK’s leading role in that. I accept that the UK is a major donor to that effort, and I support those initiatives and commend the Government for their efforts in that regard. However, I make this plea to the Minister: when he sums up, will he please not waste time waxing lyrical about our efforts in the camps? We all accept that. The point of difference is what extra we can do, and I hope his comments will be restricted to that point.
I am proud to say that two local authorities in my constituency, Camden and Brent, have pledged to take in 50 families between them, despite staggering cuts in their local government budget and the fact that these families will cost between £29,000 and £40,000 per family per year. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should work with these local authorities to help them to fulfil their pledges and with other local authorities to see how many families they can take in? Collective effort will put pressure on the Government to do something about the refugees.
I agree completely with the hon. Lady. Later in my speech, I will touch on some of the alternatives that the Government could use to encourage other people do more. We have all but turned a blind eye to the crisis facing our European partners and the Government seems to have joined the race to become the least attractive place for someone to seek refuge in the hope that refugees will aim to settle elsewhere. If that is the foundation of this Government’s response, it is truly pathetic. The focus does not seem to be on how much we can help, but on how little we can get away with.
Every Member is entitled to their opinion and I stand by my statement. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady and I disagree about it.
The Prime Minister and the Government have massively underestimated the scale of the problem. The UK’s response to the crisis has been a commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees in this five-year Parliament. It is a welcome contribution, but falls way short of what could be described objectively as a fair share. Oxfam tells us that a fair share would be 23,000 in 2016 alone and my simple calculation is that we seem to be taking in around 20% of what others are telling us our fair share is. Twenty thousand may sound a lot, but colleagues in the Chamber should recognise that it equates to six refugees per parliamentary constituency per year between now and 2020. If that is the extent of our humanity, I am deeply embarrassed.
The number could easily be larger, and the refugees could be accommodated through charitable initiatives and adequate partnerships between charities and local authorities. The Government could even ask people whether they can help. They may be surprised to learn that not everyone hovers between Tory and UKIP. Only this week, the Prime Minister used the incredible argument that if we left the European Union, we could end up with camps like that in Calais in the south of England. The implication was clear: it is fine if they are in France, but we do not want them here. I find that attitude inhumane.
The hon. Gentleman is making the important point that the numbers need not be large if they are spread out across the country. Will he make it clear whether his view is that it should be imposed on local authorities to take a certain number of refugees? I say that having spoken to local councils who have told me that it is important that they can choose how many to take.
The responsibility is with the Government and this place to decide what our moral contribution is. There should then be discussions with local authorities to see what capacity they have and to come to some sort of agreement. The responsibility rests with this place and its elected Members to decide what our moral obligation is.
Striking the right balance between helping people in the region and those who have fled is crucial and the Prime Minister should encourage further debate in Europe on how those currently displaced within the EU could be spread proportionately. Would it not be refreshing if the UK was the voice of humanity in the EU?
It is estimated that 26,000 unaccompanied children came to Europe in 2015. Last month, we were told by Europol that 10,000 of those little kids are missing. A third of the total number of refugees entering Europe are children. Article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights and the European convention on human rights remind us that we have a moral duty to ensure that these children receive an education. That is non-negotiable, yet the ever-likely scenario is that these unaccompanied minors are more likely to fall into the hands of trafficking rings than to attend a lesson that could inspire their future.
We fully back Save the Children’s call to the Government to give sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. If we do not do that, what will we say to them: “Oops, sorry, we are one of the richest countries in the world, but we can take only a few hundred of you”? Will that clear our conscience and alleviate our moral obligations as elected Members? I think not. The UK must act now to take more than a fair share of these kids. They are children, for goodness sake. I cannot imagine that this place will ignore that call. Surely it will not.
There are strong economic indicators and arguments for welcoming refugees into the UK, supported recently by 120 leading economists in a letter to the Prime Minister. Even the Home Office has admitted in its own reports that migrants have offered a net contribution, which runs into billions. Time and again, migrants prove that they put in more than they take out, which prompts the question: what are the UK Government afraid of? Call me a cynic, but I think it is UKIP.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing the debate. I did not agree with all of what he said, but he made some important points about our moral obligation and how we should raise our sights as high as we can when considering what we can do about the humanitarian crisis that is upon us. I had my airtime on this topic a couple of weeks ago, so I will be brief.
My perspective is that one cannot help but feel compassion when one sees the pictures of refugees, wherever they are in Europe, including Calais. That includes the pictures of Alan Kurdi on the beach last year and of the 70,000 or so refugees massed on the Turkish border right now. One feels that compassion, but we must approach the situation with our heads as well as our hearts and make sure we do the right thing as well as being humane. I visited a refugee camp in Turkey last year, having visited the camp in Calais, which was so much worse than what I saw in the camp in Turkey. I have spoken to several local councils to hear how they are getting on with the resettlement of refugees under the Government’s programme and how well the new arrivals who have already come to the UK are getting on.
My hon. Friend refers to “refugees”. My wife, who is a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, reminds me that refugees are people who are fleeing from a country in fear of their life, and that economic migrants are people who are trying to find a better life. Not all migrants are refugees, and the vast majority of those at Calais are probably economic migrants.
Indeed. What they need to do is to apply for asylum and go through the process, when it will hopefully become clear what their right to remain is.
I want to share a few reflections this afternoon. First, although we want to bring refugees here and give them a chance of a new life—it can be life-changing—there is no point in doing so unless we genuinely give refugees a chance of a good life and a good experience here. It would be terrible to bring thousands of people here and for them to be put in an area that does not want them, in poor-quality housing, or for there to be resentment in the community surrounding them because it believes they are competing for housing and jobs, or just that there are too many people from another culture being imposed on the area.
It is critical that refugees who have come all the way across continents to come to the UK have a good experience, because if they do not, it may well be better for them to stay in the region, closer to extended family and closer to being able to get home afterwards. To ensure that refugees here have a good experience and are in good housing, that their children can go to school and that they can get jobs and are welcomed by communities, it is critical to continue the current scheme of local authorities stepping forward and saying that they believe that they can take two families, five families, 10 families or 50 families. They are the ones saying, “This is what we believe as a community we can do, and this is what our community will welcome.”
I agree with many of the hon. Lady’s points. My constituent, Alix Wilton Regan, has just come back from volunteering in Calais, and she said that the majority of people she met there were midwives, nurses, doctors and so on. Those are skills that we could use in our country; there is a shortage of such professionals in the UK at the moment. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be mutually beneficial if we could bring such people over? It would not just benefit them, it would benefit us as well.
I am surprised by that account, because of what I saw when I was there. I think that it is widely accepted that the vast majority of people in the Calais area are men rather than women. Of course, that is not to say that there will not be both men and women from those professions. It is tempting to have an asylum policy whereby we welcome people who have particular skills that we need as a country, but I do not think that would necessarily be right. I think it is better to prioritise people by their need, rather than our need. Also, I would be worried about taking people from Calais, because I think that that would create a pull factor for people to come across Europe to Calais. It is so much better to take people from the region, rather than tempting them to come here.
As I said, I have been to Turkey. The conditions in the refugee camp that I saw were pretty good. I know that many people are choosing not to be in the refugee camps, because they want to work, but for most people it is at least a safe environment. I know that it is not for all people, and particularly for some from minority religions, but for many people in the region it is safe.
By and large, I agree with my hon. Friend that this pull factor is a dreadful thing, but could there be an exception to the rule for children who genuinely have not a soul left in the world? There is no pull or push factor for them. They are abandoned. Surely we have a duty to take them.
I would defer to my right hon. Friend the Minister for a more detailed reply on that point. One’s compassion for children means that of course it feels awful to imagine children abandoned. I think that we have to be very careful, though, not to encourage a situation in which we might see families and even parents letting—no, encouraging their children to try to head into Europe, because of the chance that they might have a new life. That would be really dangerous, and I imagine that there is a risk that it could happen were we to take children. There is a risk of that pull factor, although we are absolutely right to be looking at what we can do for those children, particularly those who are in Europe in awful conditions. How can we help? I do not think that it is remotely an easy answer.
On the point about children, I want to give the Kent perspective, as I represent a Kent constituency. We have more than 1,600 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers in Kent at the moment. We have appealed to other areas of the country to help Kent look after those young people, as Kent foster homes and the Kent fostering system are kind of full. Only about 90 have been taken by other local authorities, so in welcoming other children and child refugees, we need first to ensure that we are doing a good job by those who are already in the UK. We need to ensure that we look after those we have, not just try to help others. Let us do a good job for those who are here now.
As I said, when I went to Turkey, the conditions in the camp were relatively good—not lovely, but pretty good. Often, the grass looks greener in Europe to refugees, and we think, “Wouldn’t it be better if we could have more refugees here and help them get here?” But the grass is not necessarily greener in the UK—it would not be if we were to take huge numbers—and we know that the British pound goes much further in the region than it does here. Therefore, we are right to press on with the strategy of taking a limited number of refugees—those we can particularly help because of their health needs and what they have been through. However, all of us as MPs can press the local authorities in our areas to work together and say, “Let’s see whether we can take more”. Maybe—let us hope—we can take more than 20,000 and do it faster, but we should do it from the bottom up, and we can all play a part in it.
Diolch yn fawr, Mrs Main. I will do my best to keep to the time limit. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) for securing the debate.
It is safe to say that the geopolitics of human suffering that is bringing tide upon tide of desperate refugees to Europe is the greatest ethical and moral challenge of our time. Plaid Cymru has constantly and consistently called on the UK Government to recognise the enormity of the crisis and to respond appropriately. We have also joined charities such as Oxfam and the Welsh Refugee Council in urging that the nations of the United Kingdom take our fair share of refugees. However, the number of people reaching Wales remains small. It is a distressing fact that more people lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year than found refuge in Wales.
Wales has a proud history of offering sanctuary to refugees, but we need to do more, and doing more means that there is a complex jigsaw of authorities, responsibilities and budgets to negotiate, against a background of austerity. The UK Government, the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and Welsh charities need to pull together to ensure that refugees are welcomed in Wales, that they have the means to settle and thrive and that their host communities are sufficiently resourced. There are concerns that the funding allocated to individuals for health services may not be sufficient in specific cases. I have spoken to my own local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, about that.
Both the Home Office and a given local authority might feel that individuals with certain health conditions—perhaps disabled people—should warrant humanitarian priority. I ask the Minister to consider special categories of health needs and to ensure that local authorities can afford to provide proper care. Councils and communities should not be placed in a situation of picking and choosing who to accept from the camps not on the grounds of need but on the grounds of affordability. It is to be feared that the result of that, as matters stand, will be leaving sick and disabled people in the camps, which must be the least suitable place imaginable.
With specific reference to Wales, I would also like to address concerns about asylum accommodation. The recent exposure of systematic failings by Clearsprings in Cardiff warrants an urgent inquiry. It is clear, following yesterday’s evidence session of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, that Clearpsrings was aware of the practice of using red wristbands and decided not to challenge that practice. I propose that that indicates an unjustifiable level of insensitivity to refugees’ experience that calls for an inquiry.
I would like to take this opportunity also to raise the plight of ethnic groups suffering at the hands of Daesh in countries beyond the boundaries of Syria. The media news cycle is fickle. What pulls at our heartstrings one week is next week’s recycling fodder. Two years ago, the fate of the Yazidi community was headline news when Daesh besieged thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq between August and December 2014. Daesh’s cynical demand of “Convert or die” amounted to nothing less than a veil to conceal genocide. Members of the Yazidi diaspora talk about 35 mass graves containing 6,000 dead. The Yazidis are a community of 500,000 people who have suffered extreme religious persecution. They have been displaced from their homelands in Sinjar, the Nineveh plain and Syria, where they have lived for 3,000 years. The Yazidis, as I am sure many people are aware, are not a Muslim people, and they have been treated with particular harshness because of that.
Yazidi women have been, and remain, the victims of systematic sexual violence at the hands of Daesh fighters. They are especially vulnerable to enslavement and forced sexual abuse because of their ethnicity and religion. This week, I had the honour of meeting a young Yazidi woman, Nadia Murad, and learning something about her experiences. I was horrified to learn that some 3,400 Yazidi women and girls—children among them—are still held captive by Daesh.
My request is that the degree of our concern is not dictated by the latest media story, and that the quality of people’s suffering is not defined by the immediate horror of today’s news bulletin. Along with many hon. Members, I urge the Government to take our fair share of refugees from Syria and beyond, and to ensure that we provide proper care for them here in the UK. I beg the Government to remember the other ethnic groups caught up in the maelstrom, in the name of religion, in the middle east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing an important debate. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Lady—I am not going to insult her by trying to pronounce the name of her constituency in Welsh—who made a powerful speech about Yazidi women.
The refugee crisis facing Europe is one of the defining challenges of our time. Millions are fleeing the catastrophic conflict, and are asking and pleading for our help and humanity. So far, the UK’s response has been shamefully inadequate. While other nations in Europe have stepped up and offered refuge to tens or hundreds of thousands, the UK has committed to taking just 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. That pales in comparison with the numbers taken by other countries in Europe. Although I do not want to put an arbitrary number on how many refugees we should accept and by when, I would very much like to see the UK Government step up their efforts to support those affected by the Syrian conflict and others by providing shelter and refuge.
As an MP for Glasgow, I am proud and heartened that Scotland has led the way in welcoming refugees from Syria—a nation all but destroyed by civil war. A third of those who have come to the UK thus far have been settled in Scotland, which is down to the work of the Scottish Government, councils, housing associations and other organisations that have put a concerted effort into making that the case. These people are not simply coming to our shores in search of a better life. They are desperately seeking any kind of normal violence-free existence—the kind of life we all take for granted.
The plight of child refugees fleeing conflict zones is especially touching, and is an area in which the UK Government could and should make tangible progress. The Government have recently announced their intention to identify and help more vulnerable unaccompanied children who have already reached Europe from Syria and beyond, but that simply is not enough. Save the Children estimates that in Calais and Dunkirk alone, 2,000 unaccompanied children are living in refugee camps in horrific conditions that we would never wish our own children to be anywhere near. Many of those children already have families living in the UK, but the reunification process can take as long as 11 months to complete. Save the Children estimates that there are more than 20,000 unaccompanied children without shelter and stability across Europe, and they are vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Any truly humanitarian response from this Government would treat helping those young people as an urgent priority and ensure safe refuge. Sadly, the Government’s record has been to put many refugee children back into harm’s way rather than to rescue them. This week the Home Office admitted that, over the past nine years, 2,748 young people who sought asylum in the UK as unaccompanied children were deported to conflict-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—the place we are taking refugees from. I hope the Minister can justify that situation.
It is deeply disappointing that, instead of stepping up and offering leadership in tackling this humanitarian crisis, the Prime Minister has chosen to denigrate refugees seeking asylum and to treat them as political pawns. In referring to vulnerable people desperately seeking our assistance as a “swarm” or a “bunch of migrants”, he betrays a callousness in his approach rivalled only by the UK Independence party.
Language matters. Sometimes in the debate about refugees, humanity is lost. Refugees are ordinary people like you, Mrs Main, and like me. They are people with lives, not merely pictures on a screen. They have lost their homes, their dignity and their way of life. They are scarred by conflict and are fleeing in very real danger of their lives. In October, I met people like us in Camp Newroz in Rojava in northern Syria. Many of them were Yazidis who have suffered the most catastrophic and horrendous circumstances and continue to do so. Their homes in Sinjar have been completely destroyed—their way of life obliterated. They cannot see a safe future in returning to Sinjar. It speaks of the scale of horror and destruction if it is safer in the sea than it is on land. Does our humanity allow us to turn our back on those people?
It is deeply concerning that, instead of leading efforts in Europe to find a humane and sustainable solution to the crisis, the Prime Minister has dragged refugees into an EU referendum campaign. A constructive vision of how co-operation across Europe can provide answers to major contemporary challenges such as the refugee crisis would be a far better argument for staying in the EU than his petty scaremongering that a vote to leave would see refugee camps at Dover.
The simple fact is that the refugee crisis is not going away, and the UK Government must step up their plans to support desperate people fleeing warfare and disaster. That means reviewing their refugee policy here in the UK and engaging far more actively at EU level to find a Europe-wide solution to this global humanitarian crisis. The Government still have an opportunity to act, expand their support and improve their international engagement, but they must first admit that they need to do more. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Main, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing the debate.
I start on a positive note by paying tribute to the Minister for his work in resettling 1,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees. These things never operate completely perfectly but on the whole the resettlement scheme appears to have got off to a positive start and I thank him for his contribution to making that happen. More broadly, we should recognise that, compared with many countries, the position of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK is positive. However, the role of the Opposition is to point out what the Government could do better, and there is a lot that the Government could do better in their treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. I could probably speak all day on this subject so please do not treat this short shopping list as a comprehensive one. In the time I have, I will try to make three or four short points.
This morning we had an excellent debate on asylum accommodation and the COMPASS housing contracts. We heard about the red doors in Middlesbrough and the red wristbands in Cardiff. More broadly, we heard of myriad complaints about poor accommodation standards and services in various parts of the UK. Many hon. Members argued that, before the Government consider renewing the contracts, there must be a thorough independent review of the operation.
This afternoon, we had a robust debate on migration into Europe and our approach to the refugee crisis. In my short speech I made the case for UK participation in the relocation of refugees around the EU. More than 1 million people fled to Europe by sea last year—about 800,000 to Greece and 150,000 to Italy. Some 84% of those people were from refugee-producing countries. Almost half were from Syria, 21% were from Afghanistan and 9% were from Iraq. On any view, hundreds of thousands of refugees are among those arrivals. Many more—probably a greater number—will be coming this year and the year after.
No two countries can possibly cope with the task of receiving, registering, checking, supporting and processing claims for the refugee status of thousands of people every day, and no two countries can reasonably be expected to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are among their number. Nor, indeed, can they take on the task of removing all those who require to be removed. Yet, in essence, the approach of this Government appears to be that Greece and Italy should have to serve as home for all several million refugees.
I agree that the failure has not only been of the UK’s participation in the relocation scheme. Even countries that, on paper, have agreed to take part in the relocation scheme are not doing so. Germany and Sweden have tried to take well more than their share and have run into difficulties. Ultimately, 1 million people among two, three or four countries is an almost impossible task; 1 million people shared around a union of 500 million is a tough challenge, but it is surmountable. I honestly think that when we look at the maths, the only reasonable approach is to share responsibility for those who have made that journey.
Two other causes for concern will suffice before I run out of time. I continue to object to the fact that destitution appears once more to be becoming a tool of choice for immigration control. My party shares the concern of the British Red Cross that certain provisions in the Immigration Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Lords, and particularly the end to section 95 support for families with children who have exhausted their appeal rights, will force those families into destitution and put them at significant risk of harm. It will also increase the risk that such families abscond, and it will pass significant costs on to local authorities. We also recall that a similar project by the Labour Government had precisely those results and made immigration control harder, not easier. Again, when the Government look at the evidence, I ask even at this late stage for them to reconsider their approach.
My final key point is on immigration detention. The current system is in need of urgent reform because it detains too many people, because it detains people who should never be detained, because it detains people for far too long, and because it is costly and inefficient. Our estate is one of the largest in Europe, with places for almost 3,400 people. This country detained more than 30,000 different people in 2013, which is significantly more than any of our European colleagues. Some 4,300 people were detained in Germany, which, incidentally, received more than four times as many asylum applications. We are locking up vulnerable people, including victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence, with absolutely no need.
We welcome Stephen Shaw’s very thorough report and the Government’s fairly positive response, and we will be pushing for the report’s implementation as soon as possible. On another day we could discuss the use of fast-track detention, the right to work, the problems with decision making, the policies on unaccompanied children, the inclusion of refugees in the net migration target and the Secretary of State’s rather alarming speech on redefining the concept of what it means to be a refugee, but I finish by paying tribute to the Minister’s work and ask him to persuade some of his colleagues to up their game, too.
Order. Before I call the Front Benchers, I remind Members that this debate will finish at 5.43 pm. It is customary to allow a minute or two for the proposer of the debate to sum up at the end. I will be calling Anne McLaughlin as the Scottish National party spokesperson, although she is sitting on the Back Bench—I am just explaining for other Members who are watching.
I did not realise that I was supposed to sit on the Front Bench. I will do so next time.
I am delighted to sum up for the SNP in this debate. There have been a number of interesting contributions, and it is important that those of us who are fighting for better and more support for refugees continue to say so. I said that in the debate this morning, and I am sure the Government are getting sick of the sight of us, but many refugees listen to or read these debates. Opposition Members cannot change much of the Government’s policies at the moment, and although we find that incredibly frustrating, we should not underestimate how much of a difference it makes to people seeking asylum to hear words of support from those of us who will, at some stage, be in a position to make changes.
That said, there are countries that help nobody and I acknowledge, as others have, that the UK at least helps some people—it does not help enough, but at least it does something. A number of crucial points have been made about the UK’s policy on refugees, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) on securing this debate and on a fantastic speech. He said that half of Syria’s pre-wartime population is now in need of support from the rest of the world, which is frightening. He also said that the UK has played its part in causing some of the refugee crisis in some of the region, which we cannot deny.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) gave an excellent example of some of the people we are helping, such as the Yazidi women who in many cases are victims of brutal rape and who cannot be protected in their own country. They are just some of the people about whom we are talking. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) talked about the importance of language, and I completely agree. Some Government Members need to change the language that they are using. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) talked about his concern, which I share, about policies coming through now that will lead to further destitution and, disturbingly, further destitution for families.
The most powerful argument comes from the fundamental disagreement between Members of this House. Some of us believe that refugees make a positive contribution to these islands, and others believe that they do not. They may say they believe that refugees make a positive contribution, but they are paying lip service because their actions speak far louder than their words. If Government Members truly believe that refugees make a positive contribution to the wellbeing of the UK, their policies and rhetoric would be very different: as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, they would not have an ethos that asks not how much we can help, but how much we can get away with. I know that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), for whom I and a number of SNP Members have a lot of respect on a number of issues, is unhappy, but the way that we treat asylum seekers in this country can often be described only as horrendous and shameful. Actions speak louder than words.
We are trying to have a debate about refugees, and we all know the definition of a refugee, and still the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) felt the need to state that the majority of people in the Calais camps are economic migrants. Apart from the fact that I do not know how on earth he knows that—I am quite sure he does not—what, as they say in Glasgow, has that to do with the price of fish? We are talking about refugees, and I will not be deflected from that.
Like many Members, I was surprised when I looked back over the historical contribution that refugees have made to the United Kingdom. I was not surprised that they had made a significant contribution; I was just surprised by how significant that contribution was. When I looked at the list of British institutions and facets of everyday life shaped by refugees, I started to recognise how the nations of these islands have been shaped by people fleeing conflicts. Marks and Spencer, Burton, Hampton Court Palace and the Mini Cooper—refugees are often as British as fish and chips, which apparently also have a refugee connection, believe it or not.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution of refugees to UK society. Does she agree that the thousands of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in 1972, and who were initially the subject of much anxiety, made a huge contribution to British life and are a perfect example of why we must do more for refugees?
Absolutely. We need to get away from the idea that refugees take and do not give anything. They are not a burden; they are part of the fabric of our society. The much lauded Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the contribution made by a large number of new arrivals would cause a significant reduction in the national debt as a percentage of GDP. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) rightly said that we need to approach this with head and heart, and it is logical that educated, self-funded migrants, as many refugees are, will make a great contribution to the UK. Should we not have an asylum policy that says “We will support you to escape persecution, now let’s see what you can do to help us improve the economy and build our country”? We should be doing that, rather than leaving people languishing in limbo for years, losing their professional skills and the entrepreneurial impetus that they could have been using to benefit their host country.
I do not have time. I am being told to wind up.
In the history of the UK there are some astounding stories of people fleeing tyranny, arriving here and contributing in all sorts of ways. Refugees are not a long-term burden on society. We are lucky to have them and their contribution, and our policies ought to reflect that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairladyship, Mrs Main. [Interruption.] I am taking my lead from the SNP.
This is an important debate. We have had three debates today on aspects of the refugee crisis, which is clearly the issue of our time. I will not take up time by repeating the numbers, because I know the Minister wants to respond to some of the questions that have been put to him. Millions of people have fled Syria, as everybody knows. Millions are registered as asylum seekers in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now of course in Greece and Italy. There are millions, taken together. We stand at a moment when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the EU are calling on the international community for a collective response to a huge crisis. We have not seen a crisis of this size and order for many generations.
I pay tribute to the work of this Minister in particular—the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees—in this field, and to what the Government have done. The steps that have been taken are welcome. However, in 20 years’ time chapters in history books will be written about this moment in world history, in European history and in our own history, and I have concerns that—on reflection and looking back—our response will be judged as reluctant and limited, and in comparison with others not fair and not proportionate.
I just remind hon. Members that, back in January 2014, we agreed only to aid the neighbours of Syria in their efforts but not to have any part in the resettlement scheme at all. That work was extended in 2014 but only in relation to vulnerable persons—broadly speaking, those who had suffered sexual violence and torture—and it was expected that a few hundred people might resettle. Then, in September 2015, there was the resettlement programme for 20,000 Syrians.
Those steps were all welcome, but all of them were, in truth, a response to overwhelming pressure from the public, the media and the Opposition in this House. The same is true in relation to unaccompanied children. There has been a debate about this issue for some weeks. There was a statement just a few weeks ago, but again it was more limited than many of us had hoped for. There is the sense of reluctant and limited steps being taken, welcome though those steps are.
There are a number of questions for the Minister to deal with now and in the coming weeks and months. The first is this: can the hard stop line about Europe really be maintained any more? In other words, can we really say that we have no responsibility to deal with those people who have arrived in Europe and that we simply have to put the burden on the states where they are now, and play no part in relocation? I understand why it is important not to undermine the Dublin III agreement, but on the other hand there are countries that are clearly struggling with the number of people they have, and I wonder whether that hard stop line can be justified for very much longer.
I also raise again the question of unaccompanied children. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) said about this issue, and it is an argument that is made about the influence that our action might have on future action. However, we have to face up to the fact that these children are in Europe right now, unaccompanied, and they are desperate, and the push-pull factors do not apply to them, as others have already said. Also, a number of these children are disappearing. Are we really going to stand here and say that, for fear of what might happen in the future, we will do nothing for them now? I am very uncomfortable that, as a country, that could possibly be our position, and I think that view is shared across the House in different ways and with different forces.
I am grateful for that intervention and I agree.
I will use up my remaining 30 seconds simply to say that whatever processes are applied, either to unaccompanied children or to adult asylum seekers arriving in this country, they have to be better managed than they are now. There are disproportionate burdens in different areas, and we have to address that sooner rather than later. Also, as we debated this morning in relation to accommodation, there are real concerns about the way that services and accommodation are being provided to asylum seekers.
These are big questions, but they are the questions of our time.