Thursday 14 December 2017
[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Twelfth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Session 2016-17, HC 637, and the Government Response, HC 551.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs asked for this debate because we believe this is an immensely important issue. Our country has an obligation under the 1951 refugee convention to provide shelter and support to those seeking protection and sanctuary from conflict and persecution. The Committee found serious failings in the provision, quality and management of asylum accommodation across the country. The Government took nine months to respond to our report. Everyone understands that there was an election in that period, but given the time it took the Government to respond, we had hoped for more considered and detailed responses to some of our recommendations. I was certainly disappointed by some of the responses we received.
This is a crucial time for Parliament to consider this issue, because the contracts for asylum accommodation across the country are open for tender—I understand that the closing date is in three days—and we do not want the failings that we have identified in the last few years in the previous contracts and system to be carried forward into the Government’s plans for the next 10 years, which is the period the new contracts are due to cover.
Let me start with some of the things we have welcomed, both in the report and in our other work. We particularly welcome the roll-out of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I welcome the work done by the former Minister with responsibility for refugees, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who set up that programme and worked intensively with local authorities, community organisations and charities across the country to ensure that it had extensive support. It has been heart-warming to hear positive responses from communities and organisations across the country about the way the scheme is working. We argue in our report that lessons should be learned from the scheme’s success for the wider support of asylum seekers and refugees.
Let me turn to some of the concerns we identified about that wider provision. Extensive delays in the processing of applications mean that an increasing number of people are being caught in asylum limbo and are unable to work or settle. Cases of people whose claims are not valid are still unresolved, which is unsatisfactory for them, for local communities and for the country. In the meantime, too many people are not in suitable accommodation. We were worried that in 30% of appeals the Government’s decision was successfully overturned. That suggests that in a high proportion of cases the Government simply do not get the decision right in the first place, yet they still challenge outcomes even after cases are appealed. That figure has now increased to 38%.
Since our report was published, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has raised real concerns about the quality of decision making and about staffing levels. Staff told the inspectorate that they felt pushed to the limit. Although the Government’s recruitment of additional caseworkers is welcome, there are still fewer than there were in 2014, and in a recent evidence session the inspector expressed concerns about recruitment and retention problems in the asylum casework system. Despite the number of new cases having fallen, in 10,552 cases people have been waiting more than six months for a decision. That represents 14,000 people and is the highest that figure has been since 2010. Some 6,952 people have been waiting more than a year for a decision—2,000 more than when we published our report. It appears that the delays in the system have in fact got worse, not better, since we raised our concerns back in February. I hope that the Minister is able to acknowledge the seriousness of those growing delays and set out what action he is taking to address them.
I raised with the Home Secretary the issue of pregnant women being categorised as “non-straightforward” just for being pregnant and, as a result, not being treated under the accelerated processes for getting decisions made as fast as possible. We heard from the inspectorate that some of those pregnant women were consequently trapped for longer in inappropriate asylum accommodation. I received a letter from the Home Secretary today, which I welcome. She says that she is looking further at this issue and that she has asked for those cases to be looked at to ensure that swift progress is made. I welcome that response, and I hope that she is able to make swift progress on those cases. I do not think any of us want pregnant women to be disadvantaged inadvertently as a result of the way their cases are addressed.
Let me move on to accommodation contracts and the procurement system. We raised a series of concerns about contract structure, oversight, funding and dispersal. I note that in the past two years there has been a small increase in the number of local authorities accepting asylum seekers. That is of course welcome, but we are still talking about just 121 out of 453 local authority areas. As I understand it, most of the increase was in the north-west, which already has the most asylum seekers.
I recognise the point that the Minister made in response to our report that some local authorities may be providing extensive support under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme or to unaccompanied child refugees. Nevertheless, I do not think that gets us around the point that asylum accommodation is still hugely unequally distributed across the country. The Government have not really recognised the seriousness of our point that concentrating asylum accommodation in a small number of the poorest local authorities is really challenging. That undermines consent for the whole system, and it is just unfair on communities—often the most deprived communities—that support is not distributed evenly across the country. All areas should contribute.
I welcome the Government’s announcement that there will be additional provision in the new contracts for funding for the south-east, which should not be exempt from doing its bit to provide asylum accommodation. We recognise that accommodation costs are different across the country, but we would like more to be done to ensure that accommodation is properly distributed.
We recommended that local authorities be given more say and more control over where asylum accommodation goes in their areas. We heard from local authorities that did not want to engage with the Government’s system because, once they signed up, they would lose all control over where accommodation was provided in their area. There is only a 72-hour window for local authorities to respond, which is just not long enough. Most local authorities know that putting accommodation in an area with no support services, or in a ward that has experienced challenging community problems, may not be appropriate, whereas there may be a much better location with much better services on the other side of the district. As long as local authorities feel that they are vulnerable and do not have a proper say, many of them will say, “We can’t take the risk of signing up to the Government’s scheme.” That is counterproductive, because we want as many local authorities as possible to sign up.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady and her Committee on this excellent report. She makes a powerful point on local authorities. Is it not even more powerful when we consider that local authorities are best placed to engage with the local community in order to provide support for those asylum seekers? There are many local communities, churches and other faith communities who will want to be beside and support those people, who, we should remember, are basically destitute. By not using local authorities in that way, we are preventing that extra community support from being given.
That is immensely important, and it shows the stark difference between the national contract-based asylum accommodation scheme and the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, in which local authorities have a central role; local communities and faith groups are involved in providing support and there is extensive planning for the kinds of support services needed. That community support is crucial. Too often in the asylum accommodation system, local communities feel they have had no say, and that asylum accommodation in their area has no links to either the community or local services. It feels distant and detached. That is when difficulties, tensions or misunderstandings can arise.
In the interests of community cohesion and of being able to draw on the very best traditions of our country and of those who want to provide support for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum—people in desperate need of help—we should give local authorities a much more central role in the process.
I thank the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee for giving way, and I commend the Committee on its report. Is there not another reason for greater local authority involvement, in that they will know better how to integrate the services for those seeking asylum—for example, by making sure that women fleeing sexual violence have appropriate access to social work and general practitioner services?
That is exactly right. A whole range of additional services might be needed, such as specialist support for those who have fled sexual violence, those who have been through family bereavement and separation, and those who need additional support for children or from education services. A whole range of different kinds of support might be needed, including different sorts of housing support. I was going to come on to this point later, but I will mention it now: there is also a need for proper support once refugee status is granted, to ensure that people can find a future in the local community, settle and get the support they need.
In response to that point, the Government have set up a handover pilot. I welcome that and would like to see the results of the pilot; that would be very welcome. As I understand it, the concern of some of the charities working with asylum seekers and refugees is that it is quite sporadic and it has not worked effectively in some places. I would be interested to know the Minister’s assessment of how that work is going, because if we can swiftly help people into work and help them to be embedded in their local community, that is extremely important. It is another good example of what has happened in the SVPRS and, again, something that should be provided more widely. I flag up the concern that the delays in the universal credit scheme, which have been widely discussed in other debates in this House, could make things worse for the settlement of refugees once they have successfully claimed asylum.
Returning to the point about commissioning contracts and providing accommodation, the Committee made a series of recommendations that the Government have not engaged with, including the recommendation that local authorities be given more say and control over where in their area asylum accommodation should go. Alongside that, we should be prepared to oblige local authorities to do their bit. If we give local authorities more flexibility and ability to shape the services, then we should also ensure that there is an obligation on them, so that they cannot just turn their backs and walk away without doing their bit for any of the difficult refugee and asylum schemes in place. Everybody has to do their bit.
We also recommended looking at devolving the commissioning of contracts, rather than having big, national contracts that end up being divorced from local communities, centrally managed and therefore not responsive to local circumstances. For example, we recommended handing commissioning over to the regional strategic migration partnerships that have played a central role in the SVPRS. Why not let them do the commissioning? Why not allow for more flexibility in local areas, so that in some areas the accommodation could be provided by local authorities or charities, rather than it all being done through a small number of national companies—particularly given the challenges we have had over the last period with the way those contracts have worked?
It is disappointing that, instead, the Government have stuck to basically the same contract model, rather than learning from an alternative scheme that is working or looking at alternative ways of doing this. Given the challenges and problems, I am also concerned at the idea of locking in those contracts for 10 years, seemingly with no review period built in during which we could change, adapt or get out of the contracts. We also argued for local authorities to be given a role in inspecting the contracts, because we identified that some of the problem—and this was the evidence we heard—was that the quality inspection regime is not working effectively enough. Giving local authorities that role, and the resources that must go with it, might make for more effective inspections.
I am sorry to intervene on the right hon. Lady again. She is talking about contracting; does she think it is an interesting idea to open it up to local authorities, perhaps working through strategic migration partnerships, so that they could compete? We might even see several different types of contract with several different types of provider, so we could learn lessons.
I do. Giving responsibility for commissioning to the strategic migration partnerships would give us the ability to look at the links between accommodation and broader services, and allow those partnerships to take decisions on a mix of different kinds of accommodation provision within a region. Those could include local authorities bidding to provide accommodation themselves, or working in partnership with other local authorities, charities, housing associations or different kinds of organisations. That allows for wide variety, and for different kinds of bids and proposals to come forward. That was our recommendation in the report.
The remainder of my remarks will be on perhaps the most troubling and distressing part of the evidence we took and of the conclusions we came to in our inquiry. This concerns the quality of the accommodation provided. In our report, we warned that some of the accommodation that we saw or took evidence on was just not fit for human habitation. Committee members visited accommodation, and we certainly saw some that was good quality, but we also saw some that really was not adequate.
In one initial accommodation that I went to, I talked to a women who had I think three very small children. She and her husband had to take it in turns to come down to the communal room to eat because they could not manage to get all the kids down the stairs. They had been put in an upstairs room that was not appropriate for them, and they basically had not taken the kids out of a small room in weeks. That was clearly not appropriate accommodation for that family, who had been through very difficult experiences.
Our report listed serious failings, such as infestations of bugs or cockroaches, unsafe accommodation and inappropriate sharing of accommodation. Our conclusions were that some of the accommodation is a disgrace, and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions. There are different bits of the Government’s response that I disagree with, and we will have disagreements about the policy way forward, but the bit of the Government’s response that troubled me most was in response to our conclusion about the serious inadequacy of some of the accommodation. It simply said:
“The Government does not agree with this conclusion”.
Had the Government said that they recognised that some of the accommodation falls below acceptable standards, and told us the action they were taking to resolve the problem, we would of course have pressed them on their progress, but we would have welcomed the commitment to action.
I am quite disturbed by what appears to be the Government’s failure to recognise that there is a serious problem with the quality of some of the accommodation. We have a responsibility to make sure that the accommodation that people are in is fit for human habitation, but the conditions that some people are stuck in are inhumane. I will give hon. Members an example that I received from the Red Cross since our report and the Government’s response came out:
“My furniture was very old. Some had blood on them. I couldn’t sleep on the bed; there was blood on the bed, like menstruation blood. They gave me new sheets but no duvet. I couldn’t use it. I used my own clothes/wrap as sheets until I got the first money as an asylum seeker and I used this money to get new sheets.”
It is really troubling that somebody is being put in accommodation with that kind of quality problem.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that any accommodation provided to asylum seekers should be from a registered social landlord? Is she aware of instances in my city of Glasgow in which landlord accreditation has been taken away from providers, but Serco has still used them to provide accommodation to asylum seekers?
I am not aware of the case the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I will certainly be troubled if the companies involved continue to use providers who have failed to meet basic standards. The quality of accommodation is immensely important, as is a swift response when facilities or services are inadequate. We need to recognise the importance of providing adequate standards of accommodation.
In another example, a mother and baby were forced to stay in the same accommodation, even though the child had been bitten by bed bugs. This is another example:
“I was not allowed to live in the same accommodation as my heavily pregnant wife and was put into a house more than 3 miles away from her when I first arrived. Despite repeatedly asking to be moved to a house together as the situation was affecting her health, we were not given our own house until the baby was 3 months old.”
Somebody else said:
“it eventually took 5 months for someone to come out and fix the cooker. The G4S officer said we should ‘just eat salad’ in the meantime.”
Those are examples received from the Red Cross and other refugee charities, and they are very troubling. While I recognise that there will always be a programme of work in order to raise standards, I urge the Minister to recognise that some of the accommodation that asylum seekers are being placed in is really not fit for habitation and needs urgent improvement. More action needs to be taken, because if we do not recognise the problems under the last contract, how can we be sure that the issues will be recognised in the new contracts and the new system, and make sure that the problems do not continue?
The Committee also made recommendations on making sure that asylum seekers know how to complain if there are problems and are not prevented from complaining about the quality of accommodation by the fear that it will affect their asylum case, and also on sharing rooms. Serco and Clearsprings do not allow the sharing of rooms, but G4S continues to do so. That is a serious problem. Will the Minister reassure us that, as part of any new contracts, that will not happen?
I will finish where I started. The Government have done some really good work in the last few years with the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I applaud the Government’s work in making sure that that quality support continues, and I hope they will be able to extend and continue not only that scheme for those who have fled the conflict in Syria, but a refugee resettlement scheme for people more widely. However, that good work is being undermined by the lack of quality, standards and safeguards, and the lack of an effective commissioning process around the wider asylum and refugee system.
I urge the Minister to respond in more detail to some of the Committee’s recommendations, and to set out what action the Home Office is taking in response to those recommendations, and how it is making sure that we do not lock in for the next 10 years the problems that have blighted some accommodation over the last few years. Some of the most vulnerable people in the world are dependent on us for accommodation and support—those who have fled torture, trafficking, rape, violence and persecution, and those who have lost their homes, families, friends and countries. We are already doing more for some groups; we can do better for those who really need our help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I appreciate your calling me so early in the debate. It is with great pleasure that I follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I congratulate her and her Committee on an excellent piece of work, which highlights a problem that should concern all of us, because in truth it affects all of us. We all, as taxpayers, pay for asylum accommodation, and we should all therefore, as taxpayers, be concerned about its quality.
The Home Affairs Committee has done the Government a great service in highlighting some of the problems with some of the accommodation. My right hon. Friend has been incredibly fair and patient in stating quite clearly that not all the accommodation is bad, and that some is of a different standard. The Committee has been thorough in its recommendations and I urge the Minister to revisit them, because they are very clear and some of them are worthy of again receiving proper scrutiny.
I speak as the Member for the constituency of Bristol West, where we have asylum seeker accommodation, but also as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees. Earlier this year, the APPG published a report, “Refugees Welcome?”, which is about refugee integration. I am grateful that the Minister read that report and met me to discuss some of its findings. I am grateful to him for giving that time, but I want to remind him of some of the findings relating to accommodation.
The Home Affairs Committee referred to the Government’s review of
“the 28-day grace period for people granted refugee status and the Department of Work and Pensions’ ability to manage applications for support from people transferring out of the asylum system.”
I discussed that with the Minister, and he was keen to address it, so I welcome the comment in the Government’s response to the report that the Home Office has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to establish a new process to address that. I will be grateful if the Minister updated us on how that process is progressing, particularly in relation to the issuing of national insurance numbers. That relates to accommodation, because refugees told us during our inquiry that they had difficulties if their 28-day move-on period, when they have to move out of their accommodation, was over before their national insurance numbers had arrived. Refugees spoke to me about having to try to hang around outside the accommodation they had previously lived at in order to wait for the postman to arrive, but not being able to take the post off them because that is not allowed. Those things were problems and continue to be, and they are related to accommodation and having to move out of it.
Our recommendation was that the 28-day move-on period should be extended. I understand why the Minister does not want to do that, but our counter-recommendation is therefore that, if we are going to stick to 28 days, that 28 days has to work. It has to mean that a national insurance number and a biometric residence permit are with that person in their asylum seeker accommodation on the day that they receive refugee status, otherwise we will create further problems for refugees down the line.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there will be significant problems owing to the roll out of universal credit, given the long waiting times involved in applying for that benefit?
I completely agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point for me, because universal credit is a great concern. Again, I am grateful to the Minister for having allowed me to discuss that with him. I understand that the Government are trying to push the idea that nobody should be out of pocket because they can get an advance, but an advance is a loan. Refugees, by definition, do not usually have other family members to call on who have other funds that they can draw down. They are going to struggle, particularly if they have the compounding problems of a long wait for the first proper payment to come in and a 28-day move-on period, which means they will have often left the accommodation from which they made the application before that has been sorted out. The 28-day period does not marry up with the wait for universal credit, so yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
My experience of some asylum seeker accommodation in my constituency—not all—and the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee has presented makes it hard for me to see why many refugees would feel welcome. The question in the title of our APPG’s report, “Refugees Welcome?”, would have to be answered: maybe not all the time. This is a fixable problem. I reiterate that, as taxpayers, we should be concerned when our money is paying for accommodation to protect people who have the legal right to apply for asylum in this country, but that accommodation is costing us a lot of money and is not fit for purpose. I urge the Government to revisit the Committee’s recommendations.
We have some fantastic organisations in Bristol West working with refugees, with some great volunteers and paid staff alike who are going the extra mile to help people to integrate and cope with often very difficult and unsatisfactory accommodation that sometimes just about meets the Home Office’s key performance indicators but really skirts up against the edges.
On visits that I made following the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and during the course of the APPG on refugees inquiry, I came across accommodation where there are serious problems. I contacted Clearsprings, which is the provider in my area, to ask if I could make an announced visit. I wanted to give the provider a chance to show me its best stuff. The Clearsprings manager who took me round some of the accommodation—some of which I had seen before—did, to be fair, show me a mixture. Some of it was adequate—I would not call it great, but it was adequate—but some of it was not. I was concerned that action was taken only when an MP intervened and said to the Clearsprings manager, “This draught here, this rotten window frame, this problem here, which has clearly been a problem for the tenant for some time, needs to be fixed.” What about all the people in other accommodation—accommodation that we are paying for—that is substandard, unhealthy and unlikely to make refugees feel welcome or in any way integrated, and gives very bad value for money? An MP cannot intervene every step of the way. I am really concerned about that.
I saw some accommodation in which damp or heating were really problematic. In one home where a family was living, the mum had a very serious long-term health condition. Having a damp, underheated or difficult-to-heat home was making life miserable for her and severely impeding her chances of a safe recovery from that serious illness. Her husband was terribly upset by the fact that he felt he was failing to care for his wife at a time of serious illness. To be frank, the house was unheatable due to the fact that it had not been maintained.
I believe that home was unsuitable for long-term use, but the family had been there for a long time because their case had been deemed complex—or non-straightforward, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said. That particularly worried me because children were living in some of the accommodation that was supposed to be temporary. I applaud the Home Office’s determination to stick to the six-month turnaround time, but once we have gone beyond that because a case is complex, people are still living in accommodation that is supposed to be temporary and is anyway substandard. There are real questions as to what we are doing to people who have fled war and conflict and to whom we have a legal obligation.
I apologise that I was not here for the speech by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I am trying to juggle my time with another debate in the main Chamber at the moment.
When the Home Affairs Committee looked into this and went to inspect some of the properties, we too noticed some obvious deficiencies. We were assured that the providers have regular inspection programmes that will reveal all those things, which clearly they do not. More needs to be done there, and I am sure the right hon. Lady mentioned that. Also, some tenants are afraid to report problems because they fear they will be penalised for doing so, so they suffer in silence.
My right hon. Friend did refer to those points, but I would like to reiterate them. That subject particularly worries me, because the Government’s response to the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation about property inspections was:
“The Home Office does not agree that property inspection should be handed over to local authorities as it would reduce the accountability of the Home Office and the ability to hold Providers to account.”
That would be fine if it was happening, but the evidence that the Committee found, and certainly my subjective and selective experience, was that that is not happening consistently. It may well be happening some of the time—I understand from the Committee’s report that there was sometimes evidence of good inspection, or at least good accommodation. However, given that the Committee and I were able to find accommodation that would not pass an inspection, even though I had asked to see the accommodation and therefore was expecting to see Clearsprings’ best offering, I question the Home Office’s confidence that it is able to hold providers to account. Will the Minister tell us what evidence there is that the Home Office is satisfactorily holding providers to their key performance indicators?
I also came across instances where there were clear problems with damp. When I raised that with the Clearsprings manager, he said that it was due to tenants hanging their clothes to dry on radiators. I asked where they were supposed to dry their clothes; the homes were very difficult to heat anyway, and there was no outdoor space or launderette nearby. I said, “They’re a family with children. They’ve got to dry their clothes somewhere. What’s your solution? You can’t tell them not to dry their clothes, particularly in winter.”
The complexity of the asylum process is compounding these problems, and the fact that an increasing number of cases are being deemed complex adds to the delay. I would like the Minister to address some of the problems with deeming cases complex. In my experience as an MP, the asylum seekers I am supporting through this process ask, “Why is my case deemed complex?” and it is often impossible to work out why. One wonders whether the decision-making process is taking so long that it is easier to deem a case complex than to get it sorted. I urge the Minister to look at what is going on in the nether regions of the process, because it is not good for any of us—the Government, MPs and especially asylum seekers—to have endless delays built into the process, and it is certainly not good for asylum seekers’ experience with accommodation.
As I said, the 28-day move-on period pushes asylum seekers into serious difficulties. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned potential problems with universal credit. I welcome the fact that the Minister has mentioned reviewing that, but I would like him also to commit to a few specific things. Will he, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said, review the process of asylum for pregnant women in particular? It is an indictment of all of us that we are keeping pregnant women in frankly unsanitary or unsafe conditions. That is not the country we want to be.
This is a time when we should be thinking seriously about what sort of messages we want to give out to the rest of the world about who we are and who we see ourselves as. I am proud to be British. I am proud that we have a tradition of welcoming asylum seekers and refugees, and I want to carry on being proud. At the moment, some of the evidence I see from my work as a Member of Parliament gives me cause to feel ashamed. I am proud, like my right hon. Friend, that we have the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to draw on. I urge the Minister to address the fact that if we brought the system up to meet the standards of that scheme, we would be doing everybody a favour.
I would like the Minister also to think about the focus on quality and remember that we, as taxpayers, are paying for substandard accommodation. I know I have made that point several times, and it may seem that I am labouring it, but I do so because this should be everybody’s problem. All too often, asylum seeker accommodation or problems affecting refugees are seen as a niche, minority issue. Actually, this should be an issue for all of us, because we are taxpayers and because this says an enormous amount about who we are and who we want to be seen as in the mid-21st century.
Order. I remind Members that I intend to call the first of the Opposition spokespeople at 2.30 pm at the latest. I call Chris Stephens.
Thank you very much, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and all Committee members for their excellent report. I want to make a number of points, but first I pay particular tribute to some of the local organisations assisting asylum seekers: the Govan Community Project, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and, indeed, the Glasgow SW food bank, which is assisting asylum seekers within the city of Glasgow.
Glasgow was one of the first local authorities to say to the Home Office that it would accept asylum seekers. At that time, the local authority managed those services. I think that we should consider local authorities going back to managing the services. Local authorities knew how to integrate the services; they knew how to integrate social work and the healthcare system, local GP services and the rest. I certainly think that the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers was at its best when the responsibility rested with local authorities.
The work was taken over by Serco, which for a time subcontracted the work to Orchard and Shipman. I have had to be involved in cases in which polythene bags were being used as windows. Constituents were in properties where there was blood on the walls and where wires were clearly not complying with health and safety and were sticking out. We have had instances of women who are making claims, having fled sexual violence, being placed in tenement buildings where the other five properties are inhabited by five single men. We have had instances of shared accommodation in which there has been a clear clash of cultures, which has been very unhelpful, and instances of people being placed in accommodation and then provided with a card whereby they can shop only at Asda, even though the nearest Asda has in some cases been 4 miles away. Those asylum seekers have had to walk to get access to food and so on. Recently, I had a constituency case in which it was clear that the accommodation was unsuitable. There were no carpets, there was inadequate heating, and inadequate bedding was provided.
I want to make a number of points on the report and some of the themes that I touched on in my interventions. Who is providing this accommodation? It is not housing associations, although some housing associations in Glasgow are providing accommodation. It is not the local authority. It is mainly private sector landlords. I would probably go further and say rogue private sector landlords, because recently Glasgow City Council took the decision that when it was awarding landlord accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, those decisions would be taken in front of a panel of elected councillors, and we have found that they have removed the accreditation of landlords, some of whom have been providing housing to asylum seekers.
I want a real commitment today from the Minister that if private sector landlords lose their accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act, those landlords will then be removed as providers of asylum seeker services. If they are deemed unsuitable to provide services to anyone as landlords, that should include asylum seekers. There should be no opt-out in relation to that.
There are devolved Administrations who have different housing standards. I would argue that the Scottish housing standard is a lot better than the decent homes standard, which has been referred to, in the asylum seeker contract, so will there be a commitment to meet the Scottish quality housing standard? As you will know, Mr Hanson, representing a constituency in Wales, the Welsh Assembly will have different regulations for housing. I therefore hope that the Minister will commit today to looking at the housing regulations and laws across the UK and under devolved Administrations.
Another bugbear of mine is that when I, as a Member of Parliament, ask a question of any provider of services, I am told, “I can’t provide you with that information under data protection.” It pains me to say that Serco did that to my office recently when I raised the complaint about housing to which I have referred. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 22 November, but have not yet had a response. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully, because I want to know specifically—I also want a guarantee in this regard—why the Home Office is supporting Serco’s view that MPs’ offices need the permission of the person making the complaint.
Data protection law is clear when it comes to Members of Parliament. We are not required to obtain that, as I hope the Minister will confirm, because we all as Members of Parliament represent every single constituent, no matter where they come from or how they voted. We are here to represent everyone who lives in our constituency, and I will always do that to the best of my ability. It pains me to see Serco trying to frustrate that process. I will continue to represent constituents who are here seeking asylum from other parts of the world. I regard it as an honour to do so.
I want to make a couple of comments about the announcements about the new contract before I conclude. Will the Minister tell us how many welfare officers there will be? There is now a commitment to fund additional welfare officers. It would be useful if we could get a figure for that. I say that as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we have asked Atos and Capita how many qualified doctors there are in those services. It was incredible to find out that there were two qualified doctors in Atos and two in Capita. That perhaps says a lot about our assessment system. It would be useful if we could get a number. It would also be useful if we could get a number for the welfare officers who will be placed in Glasgow, because there is a real issue there with some of the providers. In particular, when Orchard and Shipman had the contract, it was using the police to help to evict asylum seekers. That, I would suggest, was inappropriate, given that a man in uniform means something different to someone who has just arrived in the country and is fleeing persecution from what it means to the rest of us.
I welcome the fact that there will be further dispersal. I have continued to raise that issue in various debates in relation to asylum seeker support services. I hope that the Minister can confirm that he will ensure that funding for local authorities is inadequate. Can he also respond to the letter that has appeared in the press over the past couple of days from 35 organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers? Can the Minister make a commitment that the contract will be independently reviewed within three years of its operation, that there will be independent oversight and accountability to local authorities and that services will be fairly and fully financially resourced across the UK?
It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Again, I welcome the report. I will start my brief remarks by talking about the Government’s overall approach to asylum seekers and refugees. I want to ask the Minister whether he will say on the record that it is a different approach, a different philosophy, from that for dealing with illegal immigrants. The Government have developed what they call the “hostile environment” approach to illegal immigrants. We can debate the wrongs and rights and the shape of that, but the hostile environment policy would clearly be wrong if applied to asylum seekers and refugees. Our country should be adopting an approach of welcome and caring. I invite the Minister to say that that is the Government’s policy and approach. I am sure it is, but it would be very helpful to have it on the record that the approach is very different from the hostile environment approach seen elsewhere in the immigration system.
That is important as we approach the issues raised by this excellent report. There has been some discussion about how we organise asylum accommodation in the future. The report goes very much in the right direction, away from a centralised, private contracting approach to a different model. In many ways, the report could have gone even further, but its stress on involving local authorities is absolutely right, and the idea of strategic migration partnerships at the heart of the system is vital. Those partnerships are beginning to bear fruit. They were a good policy innovation, but they need to be developed further, because they will solve many of the Government’s problems, as well as making the experience of asylum seekers and refugees far more acceptable and improving quality.
I think there is a huge appetite in local authorities and local communities to do more and be involved, but at the moment they are excluded. That is not sensible policy, is it? If there are people out there who want to get involved and play an active, positive role, we should try to facilitate that. The current contracting model militates against that—it excludes. I do not think it increases accountability, far from it, it is the reverse. Accountability is not direct through the Home Office, but to the people and the communities. If they are more involved it will be a much better system.
We all know that civil servants in Whitehall like to have one organisation to deal with. They do not like lots of organisations, as that is all too time-consuming and complicated. I am sorry, but they are going to have to get used to dealing with more than one organisation. Given that we have these 12 strategic migration partnerships, at least they have a model that means they do not have to deal with every single local authority in the country.
I want to stress the point about involving people in civic society. I recently visited Lancaster where I met a wonderful lady called Mo Kelly from the local Quaker movement. She was looking at how refugees were welcomed in her city. She found that there was no real provision of accommodation or services, because the local authority had not thought that it should volunteer. Given that the Government are seeking more local authorities to step up to the plate, her experience, and what she did with others, is quite telling. They went out and petitioned in the streets. They asked the people of Lancaster, “Would you like to see Lancaster as a city, and our overall community, welcome asylum seekers and refugees from Syria and elsewhere?” Although, of course, a few people did not want to sign the petition—you will not be surprised by that, Mr Hanson—the vast majority of people did. The people in Lancaster—I do not represent it—said “Yes, the local authority and our community should be moving forward and offering to the Government that we should be part of it.” That is the point I am trying to make: if we give that opportunity to people out there, they will be far more welcoming than, say, the Daily Mail.
There is a big point about how we change the nature of the discussion, the debate, about foreigners in our country. I am really worried, not just because of Brexit, but because of other things we see, that we are seen as an uncaring, unfriendly and unwelcoming country, which is completely against British traditions. If we reorganise many aspects of policy, and this is a good one to start with, we can begin to change that.
That brings me to my final two points. I know this point is not directly within the remit of this report, but it links to it, and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) mentioned it. The point is the right of these particular asylum seekers awaiting decisions to be able to engage in work and voluntary work in the community. My experience of asylum seekers, and I deal with quite a lot in my surgery, is that they want to be involved, to give and to contribute, and when they are stopped from doing that, they are frustrated. Guess what? It does not help their health, their relationship with other people in the community, or the taxpayer—it does not help anybody. Why do we put barriers in the way, particularly of this group? People say different things about illegal immigrants or whatever, but we should surely be allowing this group to engage in activity, whether it is paid work or voluntary.
I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman. In my constituency, asylum seekers have approached me who have waited years for a decision. They are qualified in health and I am sure they could make a contribution to our national health service by working. That would not only help their mental health, but help them to be part of that community. At the moment they feel that people in other areas of the community who are also poor look at them as if they are getting something special, but they are not. Does he agree that the right to work should be looked at as a matter of urgency?
I do. I can give an example from my own constituency from a few years ago of a gentleman from Kosovo who, with his wife, had suffered terrible trauma in that country during the troubles. It took me three years to get him the right to work. When he got it he went off very happy. He came back the next week in tears, because he had applied to work as a bus driver and the bus company wanted him to be there for 12 months to justify the training. I had to ring up the bus company and say, “I will personally guarantee your training costs, just give him a job!” He got a job. He was one of their best bus drivers; he took all the overtime, and helped old ladies on and off with their shopping. He then set up a business and now employs other people. He pays more tax than I do. His wife, having had huge mental health problems, is now working in our NHS. If we engage with people as human beings—guess what—they want to give back and act as human beings, and be part of our society. We have to do everything to enable human beings to be human.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point, particularly about mental health. Does he agree with me that one thing that asylum accommodation needs to do better is ensure that people who have come from traumatic experiences and are possibly further traumatised by the conditions in which they find themselves have access to good quality, appropriate mental health support?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have been talking about mental health for all people in this country, but the people who have been traumatised and tortured, escaping violence and persecution, suffer the most.
I will end on one further point, which is not about asylum seekers, but about failed asylum seekers, specifically those failed asylum seekers whom the Home Office rightly does not want to send back to their country, because their country is benighted. It is a very odd class of people, but they exist in quite large numbers. I had a lot of cases of people from Zimbabwe in this situation in years gone past. They did not meet the Home Office tests as an asylum seeker, but we were not sending them back, because of our concerns about what Mugabe and ZANU-PF would do to them. Those people were in limbo. They had no support, no right to work, but they existed as human beings. We need to think about that group of people, because they are the most destitute and vulnerable people living in our country today. I do not know whether they can be included in a new approach to asylum accommodation, but I think they should be considered as the Government review this area. I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and her Committee for this report, and I hope the Government respond positively to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hanson; you have evidently had a busy week. I welcome the opportunity to debate the Home Affairs Committee report, “Asylum accommodation”. I was pleased to have been involved in that inquiry. I thank my colleagues and the Committee Chair for all their work on that project, and for securing this debate.
In this debate I speak as the Scottish National party spokesperson, rather than as a member of the Committee; happily, from both perspectives, I fully endorse the Committee’s report and recommendations. Indeed, I pretty much endorse everything that every right hon. and hon. Member has said. Their critiques of the system have been knowledgeable, and there is absolutely no point in me repeating those powerful and damning criticisms.
Instead, let me address what needs to be done to resolve the problems that have been highlighted. Implementing the recommendations in our report would obviously be a significant start, but ultimately we need a radical rethink of how we approach asylum accommodation to address two overarching concerns.
First and foremost, we need to recognise that we have a system that demands that accommodation fit the budget, rather than ensuring that accommodation fits the asylum seeker. Secondly, the system drastically fails to address much more than provision of a roof and four walls—and even that, as we have heard, is often not up to scratch. There is so little in the system that takes into account broader issues of community cohesion, integration, or health and welfare concerns. In some instances, those other concerns are neglected absolutely; in others, local authorities and health boards have to pick up the pieces, and indeed the tab. “Savings”, as they are called under the COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts, are almost certainly just part of a cost-shunting exercise.
As other right hon. and hon. Members have said, if the Minister really wants to make savings, he could consider letting those asylum seekers who have been waiting more than three months for a decision take up employment, pay for their own accommodation and pay tax. That would be good for asylum seekers, the communities in which they live, and the taxpayer.
As right hon. and hon. Members have suggested, there is a strong case for providing local authorities, perhaps in combination with other local service providers, with overarching responsibility and, crucially, proper funding for providing asylum accommodation in their locality. They are best placed to know in which areas accommodation would be appropriate, to link it with other necessary services, and to ensure accountability for standards. Of course, that would include the continued use of private accommodation. For all I know, it could continue to include the use of private contractors to assist in sourcing accommodation. Whereas private contractors now call the tune, that would place local authorities in control, but funding would have to match the cost of appropriate asylum accommodation, rather than accommodation matching a cut-price budget.
Glasgow City Council has a long track record of housing asylum seekers, under both the previous Labour administration and the new Scottish National party city government, which I am delighted to learn is determined to continue that tradition. In fact, that new SNP administration has intimated an interest in bidding for the new asylum accommodation contract in Scotland, but as right hon. and hon. Members have said, the odds are stacked against it. Most obviously, the contracts are divided up into huge chunks—this one is Scotland-wide—making it far from easy for a local authority, or even a combination of local authorities, to bid. A key concern is that the funding involved will not allow local authorities to deliver to the standards that they seek.
In fact, the new proposals seem so little different from the current contracts that they are more like COMPASS 1.1 than COMPASS mark 2. The system is set up in such a way that the current providers are absolutely odds-on favourites to win. It would be wise to pause and reflect on who we are talking about here, because along with the Home Office, those providers have to share the responsibility for the mess of the current contracts. One of them is also responsible for the scandal in the Medway secure training centre and the shocking scenes recorded at Brook House detention centre. Another provider was previously banned from bidding for Government contracts after involvement in an overcharging scandal. Will the Minister therefore meet senior representatives of Glasgow City Council when he is next in Scotland—if I understand correctly, that will be very soon—to discuss how such a public sector bid can be facilitated, so that we can at least ensure a level playing field?
I want to address what I understand to be the announcement of new move-on support to be provided to local authorities in 20 dispersal areas in England. Don’t get me wrong: any sort of support for local authorities that are taking a disproportionate share of asylum seekers is absolutely positive and very welcome, but a number of concerns have arisen. This comes just four days before the deadline for intimating interest in the contracts. For a start, that suggests that the Home Office has not for a moment contemplated that local authorities might want to bid for the new contracts. Otherwise, why would such a material consideration not have been made public many months ago?
Furthermore—perhaps the Minister can clarify this—I understand that most of the funding comes from an underspend at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that it is essentially one year of funding, with local authorities expected to fund year two. As this is an England-only scheme, it will not be open to significant asylum dispersal areas such as Glasgow, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Belfast. Cumulatively, those five councils alone account for more than 6,000 asylum seekers.
Will the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations about that issue, and whether there will be Barnett consequentials? I assume that there must be, because if there are not, it signifies that the Home Office does not see this as really being about the reserved issue of asylum. Will he also confirm whether the money comes with any strings attached, such as obligations to share information with the Home Office? Although I welcome the additional funding, it does not yet seem to represent a joined-up, holistic approach to the challenge that local authorities face in housing asylum seekers.
I am a realistic person; I know that the Home Office has a lot on its plate, and is struggling to cope with what it does at the moment, never mind the prospect of Brexit, so let me focus finally on two changes that I hope it will consider, even in these difficult circumstances. First, as other hon. Members said, it would be totally unacceptable to sign up to 10-year contracts that bind our hands even if the mess continues, so there must be some sort of review or break clause after three or five years. Secondly, local authorities must be given genuine power, and resources to play a far more significant role in how asylum seekers are housed. Those two small but significant asks are crucial for asylum seekers, local authorities and their communities, and I very much hope that the Government will listen.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Our asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose. Those who come to the UK for protection are housed in appalling and at times unsafe conditions.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on securing the debate. She does an excellent job as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. Today, she has clearly and forensically exposed the Government’s failures to implement the Committee’s recommendations on asylum accommodation, and I, too, agree with most of the contributions we have heard from hon. Members.
I will take a slightly wider view this afternoon. The issue of asylum accommodation exposes three underlying issues in the Home Office that run through everything it does: first, the inability to deal with its workload and process cases efficiently and fairly; secondly, the lack of transparency and accountability; and thirdly, the pursuit of cost savings above what is best for communities. There is an urgent need to change our asylum accommodation system. We have that opportunity, as the current contracts are coming to an end, but so far the Home Office has not been listening. Now is their chance.
The Committee highlighted in its report that demand on the asylum system has increased and that the Home Office has not been able to keep up. The backlog is significant. The chief inspector of borders and immigration said of his recent report:
“Given the life-changing nature of asylum decisions, the Home Office’s performance needs to improve.”
When the Home Office takes too long to decide a claim, real people suffer. When it makes inaccurate decisions, people suffer.
Research by Refugee Action found that on average, people spend 37 days in initial accommodation, waiting for their claim to be assessed, despite the fact that the Government have recognised that such accommodation is not suitable for long-term stays. The temporary nature of initial accommodation prevents people from registering with GPs, placing their children in school or appointing a legal representative to progress their asylum claim. Will the Minister regularly publish data on the length of time people spend in initial accommodation? Do the Government even collect that data?
I am deeply concerned about the extent to which the Home Office evades transparency and accountability. Contracts to provide asylum accommodation have been granted to private companies and look like they will be again. As complex services are outsourced, they evade scrutiny. The Home Affairs Committee report found that the
“current compliance regime is not fit for purpose.”
Will the Minister assure us today that he will provide an independent oversight and accountability role for local authorities, as the Committee recommended?
Asylum accommodation deals with some very vulnerable people. The Committee’s report highlighted deeply concerning reports of unannounced visits. One person came home to find a housing officer going through their phone. The report found victims of trafficking being re-traumatised by officers entering their property with keys, without waiting to be let in, as well as threats of repercussions if people complained, and rude and intimidating behaviour.
I seriously question why the Home Office has granted contracts to companies that have very dubious records in other contracts they hold. Only recently, staff of the security firm G4S were found to be abusing detainees at Brook House. The conduct of the staff was disgraceful, but so was the lack of Home Office oversight. What assurance will the Minister give that companies with such terrible records will not continue to be granted asylum accommodation contracts? Will he confirm that when we find appalling practice, we can terminate the contract? Will the Minister agree that councils are much better placed to manage the service? They already manage integration and other public services that asylum seekers would be accessing.
The new contracts are being advertised for 10 years, with no break clause. From a purely practical point of view, that is wrong. Asylum is a volatile and unpredictable area. We need proper accountability and the ability to change contracts that are not working. Will the Minister commit to a review of the new contracts within three years of operation to check whether they are performing well, need reform, or need to be halted?
The Home Office’s aim was to save £140 million through the COMPASS contracts. It seems unlikely that they will achieve those savings. The dispersal system has not worked. Instead, asylum seekers are clustering in some of the most deprived areas of the country, which are already at the sharp end of cuts to local government and are now being asked to absorb the significant extra costs associated with housing and integrating high numbers of asylum seekers and refugees.
The report highlights some success stories. The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme has involved local authorities in designing the process to offer holistic support to refugees and facilitated integration. Will the Minister re-examine the dispersal policy and roll out the resettlement scheme’s approach to all asylum seekers in the UK? Does he agree that privatising that service provided this Government with yet another reason to cut funds from already stretched council budgets? Councils are not being given the opportunity to use such funding to invest in the local area for the benefit of all; instead, it is being used to provide substandard housing to make a profit.
Standards in asylum accommodation are shocking. Nobody should live in a vermin-infested house, or in fear of officers who could arrive at any time. The Home Office’s approach to the issue highlights underlying trends: an inability to deal with its caseload, a lack of transparency and accountability and the pursuit of cost savings above what is best for communities. I encourage the Minister to re-examine that approach and accept the Committee’s recommendations.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
Many specific points have been made and questions raised during the course of this debate. I will do my best to cover them, but I will also make a point of going back through the debate, and if there are any points that I do not cover in the next few minutes, I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee to cover them. Although we have quite a lot of time, I want to leave time for the right hon. Lady to respond.
Before responding more generally, I will say that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) seems to have a better grasp of my diary than I do. I do not doubt that I will be in Scotland shortly. I am not sure whether I will be in Glasgow, but I am happy to meet or talk in Glasgow or in London, whichever works.
Many speakers this afternoon have outlined the ethos and the moral position. The Government agree on the overarching principle of how we look after, support, work with and integrate people who gain asylum here. Although we might disagree sometimes on the details, I would like to think that we agree across the House on the principle.
I urge slightly more caution in the comments made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). It is dangerous and wholly inappropriate in a debate such as this to confuse asylum with detention for returning people. They are different things, and bringing them together in the way that the Opposition spokesman did is wrong and does a disservice to the position that we take as a country. We try to be clear about how we want to deal with asylum seekers, and I will come to that.
The opening and closing remarks made by the hon. Gentleman on the state of accommodation in asylum were also somewhat misleading. Hon. Members from his own party have said that much of the accommodation is very good. I will come to that point. I do not deny that any property that is not up to the right standard, whether it is social housing or accommodation for asylum seekers, is not acceptable. However, to cast it in the way that he did is simply wrong. Having visited Barry House recently, I disagree with him categorically.
Similarly, I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to make about what I always refer to as the compliant environment. Again, it is not helpful to have that in the same conversation, because it does not apply to someone who is gaining asylum. He is right about that. Somebody who is gaining asylum will hopefully play a hugely important part not just in our economy, but in our communities and our society. Much as he described, when I have travelled around the country meeting people who have been resettled, whether they are refugees or people who have gained asylum, I have seen that they play an important part in their local community and are valued by the community. He made a good point about that. I am happy to confirm that the compliant environment is a different thing. It is about people who are here illegally, which is different. Personally, I try to keep them in different conversations, because asylum is different from being here illegally.
To ensure that things are clear, I am not saying that all accommodation is poor.
That is what you said.
Well, we can check that again. Some of it is appalling. The key point on which I wanted clarification is whether the Minister, in saying asylum and detention are being mixed up, is saying that asylum seekers are never detained.
I am saying that confusing the completely unacceptable and abhorrent scenes that we saw in the “Panorama” programme on Brook House with somewhere like Barry House and the work done by organisations around the country on asylum accommodation is simply wrong. It is a mistake to go that way. It gives the wrong impression and confuses two very different things.
Ultimately, the United Kingdom has a proud history of providing an asylum system that should look to protect and respect the fundamental rights of individuals seeking refuge from persecution. I have always been clear that I personally and we as a Government are committed to continuing to ensure that destitute asylum seekers are accommodated in safe, secure and suitable accommodation. They should be treated with dignity while their claims are considered.
Since the current system for asylum accommodation contracts began in 2012, there have been changes. It is important to be aware that the contracts for the provision of housing for asylum seekers demand high standards of accommodation—in many areas, higher than in the social housing sector. I should also be clear that a third of all properties are inspected every year—more than in social housing—and where it is required, appropriate and requested, that is done in conjunction with local authorities, to involve them in the process. It is a requirement that every property be inspected every month by the accommodation provider. We encourage service users to report defects to their provider as they arise.
The contracts also contain strict time limits within which repairs must be made, and we in the Home Office have an inspection monitoring regime to ensure that those time scales are met. The vast majority of accommodation provided has been maintained at a good standard, but as with all housing, property defects and issues can and do occur. Where they do, our providers are required to rectify them. If any hon. Members have examples of where that has not been done, I want to know about them so that we can chase them through the system.
Does the Minister understand that despite this apparently significant sanctions regime, the fact that so many problems still seem to arise repeatedly and routinely across the country has utterly undermined faith in the inspection regime? Is that not all the more reason to hand the inspection role to an independent organisation or to local authorities?
I was just going to say that since the Committee published its report almost a year ago and started its inquiry two years ago, a number of improvements have been made to the contracts and services provided. We must be cautious about accepting some of the things that we read and the stories that we hear. That is why, if somebody raises an issue, I always want to look into it to get the detail. For example, if there is a complaint about accommodation, I will want to chase it further, and I encourage Members to give me details.
We need to be cautious about some of the examples. An hon. Member mentioned a case involving blood on the walls. Members should be aware that we have investigated that allegation, which has been repeated a few times. When questioned about it, the service user who was living there confirmed that the marks on the wall turned out to be not blood at all, but spilt fruit juice. We need to ensure that we are clear that the issues are issues; if they are, we should deal with them.
My right hon. Friend and predecessor informed Parliament last year of a number of changes made to the contracts already in place, including the provision of additional funding to increase the number of housing officers. Members have asked about asylum case working and welfare. We are increasing the number of asylum caseworkers. In particular, we are focusing on non-straightforward cases to reduce the number of people awaiting a decision. The Chair of the Committee referred to the letter that she received from the Home Secretary outlining the work that we will be doing and delivering on, particularly relating to pregnant women. As the letter outlines, there are some complications, but that highlights why we should not have a blanket approach; we should look at every person’s individual needs. We are looking at changes such as additional funding for increasing the number of housing officers, providing more funding to allow providers to procure properties for the increased number of service users, and exploring different commercial models to encourage providers to procure additional accommodation. Those changes build on feedback from stakeholders, including people who provided the evidence found in the Committee’s excellent report.
As well as those contractual changes, the Home Office has continued to inspect properties to ensure that the accommodation is of the right standard. Interaction with service users has increased by asking questions about their treatment and by ensuring that they are aware of their rights and of how to raise any concerns that they might have. We will continue to meet non-governmental organisations to discuss housing issues formally at an advisory board that we run, and informally by providing avenues for them to raise issues with senior officials.
Can the Minister assure us that the providers of housing services to asylum seekers are accredited properly and are registered social landlords? Will the contractor or the Home Office keep a register of social landlords, so that if anyone loses their accreditation, they will no longer be allowed to provide housing services to asylum seekers?
I am happy to liaise with the hon. Gentleman further on that, but I encourage him to look at the changes that we made in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which I am closely aware of after taking it through Parliament. We made a lot of changes in terms of requirements for housing providers, including the private rented sector. It is worth him having a look at that because it partly covers what he outlined, but I will take his points on board.
That links to the hon. Gentleman’s point about welfare officers. It is worth noting that in the contract extension, we agreed to put in an additional £1 million to support additional welfare officers.
I recognise that there will be issues with asylum accommodation at times as defects arise. With over 40,000 people accommodated by the Home Office, it is important that we deal with issues where we find them. I believe that the standards required by the contract, the inspection regime and the avenues through which people can raise issues and concerns, should they have them, mean that things can be resolved at an early opportunity. As I said, however, I encourage all hon. Members to contact me about any specific allegations, so that we can follow them up.
Since autumn 2016, we have undertaken work to design and develop a new model for asylum accommodation and support for after current contracts expire. We have undertaken extensive engagement with local government, non-governmental organisations and potential suppliers in a range of sectors to understand their experience of the current arrangements and their aspirations for the future.
Hon. Members. have touched on the length of the new contracts. We must find a balance between ensuring that the contract is robust, reliable and delivers the services that we want, and ensuring that it is long enough for organisations to make the investments that we want to see, which are backed up by a good business case and by confidence about their future business model.
Given that those companies were all willing to sign up to a five-year contract plus a two-year extension, surely that should be the most that we consider? There is no need to sign us up to a 10-year contract this time round.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that there is a difference between the business model and the kind of investment that people make on a longer contract compared with a shorter contract. That does not change my point about wanting to get the balance right to ensure that we have a contract length that encourages and requires organisations to make good, solid investments.
With those contracts, we will make a number of improvements as a direct result of stakeholder feedback, which I will outline before I give the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford a chance to reply. I will respond more fully to the Committee on the points that I have not been able to cover. It is important to note that we will require more proactive property management and will continue to operate a rigorous inspection regime. We will stipulate more standardisation in the initial accommodation estate—the full-board accommodation that many asylum seekers enter if they have an immediate housing need. That will ensure that there are dedicated areas for women and families and more adapted rooms for people with specific needs, including pregnant women.
The new contracts will improve service user orientation to help them live in their communities and access local services. Underpinning that will be better data sharing with relevant agencies so that they are in a better position to join people to the services they need, which covers the point that a number of hon. Members made. Building on enhancements to safeguarding that have been put in place across the immigration system in recent years, other changes will focus on safeguarding and supporting vulnerable service users. They include the introduction of standardised health checks to identify people with specific physical and mental health needs, and more uniform training for providers’ staff on safeguarding best practice.
Alongside the new accommodation and support contracts, we will introduce a national contract to provide users with advice and assistance for completing applications. It will support service users through the end-to-end asylum support system, help them to co-ordinate the issues and problems that they encounter, and ensure that they are referred to the right people so that those problems can be resolved.
The advice, issues resolution and eligibility contract will provide a single contact point for service users to register complaints—thereby building a relationship—and to report problems. It will build on the work that we in the Home Office have undertaken with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that newly recognised refugees can swiftly access benefits and employment support services. We will commence procurement for that contract in 2018.
I am grateful for hon. Members’ interest and input in the debate and for the passion and clarity with which they made their cases. That shows a common view that in principle, we want to ensure that we provide for people seeking asylum. That experience means that when they gain asylum, they can take part in and make a valuable contribution to society and have a valued life of their own. That is something that we should be proud of as a country and I am determined to continue that.
I thank all hon. Members from the Select Committee, the Back Benches and the Front Bench who have contributed to the discussion, which I hope has been helpful. I welcome some of the points that the Minister made about the specific provisions they will put into the contracts to try to improve quality. I also welcome his commitment to ensuring that there is proper, respectful and quality support for all asylum seekers and refugees in this country.
I press the Minister on a series of additional points. First, will he or the Home Secretary come back to the Committee in a couple of months to discuss the progress of cases, specifically of pregnant asylum seekers, to ensure that they are being dealt with? Secondly, will he further consider the action needed on the issues of quality that have been raised by many hon. Members and on the individual cases of substandard quality and conditions that are not fit for people to live in, for example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)?
Thirdly, will the Minister reconsider the contract structure? I understand his point about the impact that a long contract can have on costs, but evidence across the public sector shows that those long-term contracts often need to be adjusted, which adds costs because circumstances change. I am not convinced that a 10-year contract is in any way a good thing for a service such as this where demands change so substantially.
Fourthly, in addition to restricting the time length and adding an additional inspection, I ask the Minister to look again at the role of local authorities. He is missing a trick and missing the opportunity to bring in the positive commitment from people in communities who want to provide support and to be part of the process of providing help for people fleeing persecution, but who, because of the way that the current system is designed, see it simply as a private sector contract and a professional process that has nothing to do with them or with communities.
The Minister referred to partnerships working together and data sharing. Data sharing is a minimum, but it is not sufficient. Local authorities have to have some responsibility and funding in place to get those partnerships in place. There needs to be a different approach that allows the positive commitment that so many communities have to supporting refugees and asylum seekers to be part of the process.
I hope the Minister has listened to the points that have been made. I welcome the fact that he has moved and responded to some areas. I hope we can continue this dialogue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Twelfth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Session 2016-17, HC 637, and the Government Response, HC 551.
UK Victims of IRA Attacks: Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and Weapons
[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons, Session 2016-17, HC 49 and the Government response, HC 331.
It is a pleasure to introduce the debate. If I may, I will start with the words of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In 1972, he announced on Libyan radio:
“We support the revolutionaries of Ireland, who oppose Britain and who are motivated by nationalism and religion…There are arms and there is support for the revolutionaries of Ireland…We have decided to create a problem for Britain and to drive a thorn in her side so as to make life difficult…She will pay dearly.”
Well, we did pay dearly; specifically, the victims of Gaddafi and of the IRA paid dearly, and continue to do so to this day. From the early 1970s to the 1990s, the Gaddafi regime provided many tonnes of arms and ammunition, millions of dollars of finance, lots of military training and bucketloads of explosives. A series of shipments in the mid-1980s delivered up to 10 tonnes of Semtex, an explosive synonymous with the bombings in Enniskillen, the Baltic Exchange, Warrington, the Docklands and elsewhere that we are all familiar with—all of us who saw them night after night throughout the troubles, on our television screens or more directly.
I was not a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs when evidence was taken, but it is very clear from reading the report that the most powerful witnesses were the victims. If I may, I will read out some of the accounts given in the report, because it is important to put our debates in this place, which are often rather academic, into a personal framework:
“Mrs Hamida Bashir, whose son was killed in the Docklands bombing in 1996, told us: ‘My words are sadly not sufficient to express the tremendous pain I feel as Inam was a lovely and kind boy’. Mrs Gemma Berezzag, whose husband was left blind, paralysed and brain-damaged in the same attack, told us: ‘My Zaoui is now very ill and getting…worse…but I will do my best to care for him as I love him and can’t imagine my life without him’. Mrs Berezzag passed away in 2016, having provided daily care for her husband for 20 years…Colin Parry, whose 12-year old son, Tim, died following the Warrington bombing in 1993, told us: ‘Describing the final moments of your child’s life is beyond words…because, as a parent, there is no greater pain or loss than the death of your child’.”
I do not think that it is possible to have taken evidence from those victims, or from others whom I have met in my current role, without being overwhelmed by their dignity, stoicism and patience. They are the politically inconvenient, the ignored, the sidelined. They deserve better.
The Committee had hoped that its report, published on 2 May, would encourage the next Government to adopt a fresh approach. What we got was this Government’s flat rejection of all 12 of our recommendations. To put it mildly, the Committee was disappointed.
Let me go through some of the background. In April 1984, PC Yvonne Fletcher was murdered outside the Libyan Embassy. Our diplomatic relations with Libya, which had always been strained, were—of course—severed. On 21 December 1988, PanAm flight 103 was blown up; it crashed into the town of Lockerbie and 270 people died. The Libyan convicted, one al-Megrahi, was jailed for life, released by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds and welcomed as a hero in Tripoli. He died three years later.
After sponsoring 25 years of mayhem in the UK and elsewhere, by 1995 Libya was said to have started coming in from the cold: it confessed to the scale of support that it had been giving to republican terrorism, and it appeared to have stopped giving assistance to the IRA. That led to Sinn Féin-IRA realising that the game was up, and thus to the negotiations that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. Mr Blair restarted diplomatic relations with Libya in 1999, and compensation was paid to the relatives of Yvonne Fletcher and the victims of PanAm flight 103.
There followed something of a love-in between Gaddafi and Tony Blair. Mr Blair said of the man responsible for wholesale murder and butchery in the UK:
“He’s very easy to deal with. To be fair to him, there’s nothing that I’ve ever agreed with him should be done that hasn’t happened.”
No doubt he was as pleased as Punch that Shell signed an agreement at around that time for half a billion dollars-worth of gas exploration rights and that BP resumed its investment in the region. That was great for business, but it did nothing for Gaddafi’s victims. I am left wondering whether those are the British values that Tony Blair was so pleased to espouse. Well, they are not my values, and I hazard a guess that they are not the values of right hon. and hon. Members gathered in the Chamber, either. It is clear from the evidence given that the then Government missed a vital opportunity to act on behalf of IRA victims at a time when Libya was seeking a rapprochement with the west.
Of course, the UK was not the only country with Gaddafi victims among its citizens—and this is where the UK Government’s position starts to look especially shameful. The US was much more proactive, amending legislation to allow access to the frozen assets of terroristic countries and of the companies that were doing business with them. Libya then settled, but President Bush deleted the UK co-litigants from the deal. Evidence heard by the Committee suggests that the Government of Gordon Brown decided to get involved at a very late stage and that any pressure on Washington was purely tokenistic. That approach continues under the current Administration, I am sorry to say: in a letter of 20 November, the Foreign Secretary ruled out even the threat or intimation of accessing or continuing to freeze terrorist funds. That stands in stark contrast to the United States’ policy.
In 2004, Libya agreed to pay compensation to the French Government for the 170 people killed in the bombing of UTA flight 772 in 1989. The previous year, the French Government had done what the UK Government would not and still will not do: they threatened to use France’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block the lifting of sanctions in order to extract rightful compensation. The Foreign Secretary’s letter of 20 November makes it plain that the UK still will not use its influence in the way that the French Government, with their more muscular approach, have done to good effect.
The German Government secured $35 million in compensation for the German victims and families of those killed in the 1986 bombing of the La Belle discotheque in Berlin. It was clear to the Committee that the UK Government did not pursue compensation for UK victims with anything like the determination and vigour of the Governments of France, Germany and the US, and UK victims are entitled to ask why not.
In the early years of the coalition Government, post-Gaddafi, it seemed from the Committee’s analysis that a more robust approach was being taken. David Cameron was quite upbeat about it in his first days and weeks in office. He said:
“We need to be clear that this will be an important bilateral issue between Britain and the new Libyan authorities. Clearly we have to let this Government get their feet under the desk, but this is very high up my list of items.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 33.]
However, nothing transpired. No leverage was placed on de facto Governments. I visited Tripoli three times as a Defence Minister between 2012 and 2014. If victims featured at all, they were in the margins. I very much regret that and am sorry about it. Why have consecutive UK Governments taken such a laissez-faire approach to victims, in stark contrast with the US, France and Germany?
In the previous Parliament, Lord Empey’s private Member’s Bill placed a statutory duty on the UK Government to take every step they could to prevent asset release until a compensation package from Libya was agreed. That most reasonable and moderate Bill was passed by the House of Lords, but there was not enough time for it to be considered in the Commons before the end of the Session. Lord Empey’s Bill would not have challenged EU or UN strictures on seizing assets, but would have been a sign of Government intent to lever justice for victims. I commend it to the Minister and seek his advice on its further progress.
My Committee’s report put various points to the Minister. He is a good man and I know he did his very best to answer them fairly, frankly and openly. However, we are left wanting more. We need to know why the Government consider claims for compensation to victims to be a purely private matter when the US, France and Germany actively espouse the causes of their citizens. In the Minister’s view, will Libya ever offer financial compensation or are we simply kicking the can down the road? Although it is not an option I personally favour, why precisely is a UK reparations fund to give financial compensation to victims not a viable option in place of extracting reparations from Libya, a course of action the Government seem reluctant to take? What exactly will the Government do to be
“more visibly proactive on this file in the future”,
as stated in the Minister’s recent letter to the Select Committee?
The Committee that I chair is completely resolved that we will move on this matter and that justice will be done for victims. We will call the Foreign Secretary before the Committee on a regular basis to explain what progress has been made. Although our sessions are always cordial, he cannot necessarily be assured of an easy ride until this is resolved.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this afternoon, Mr Gapes. It is good to see the Opposition spokespersons in their places. I am very pleased to see the Minister, who is held in high regard across the House. We look forward to his response to the speech from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I commend his powerful critique of successive Government failures in this area, and the commitment his Committee has shown to trying to shine a light on the issue to get movement and justice for the victims who have been repeatedly, as he has ably described, let down. I am grateful to the Committee for its report and to the Government for their response, disappointing as that was.
I will be relatively brief, but I want to make a contribution primarily because in 1996 a bomb was exploded near Canary Wharf in what is now my constituency. Two people died, as described by the Chair of the Select Committee. Many were injured and many more were adversely affected by being made homeless and by the loss of business, employment and the rest. Local residents have been campaigning for compensation since that dreadful event. Indeed, the Belfast media yesterday reported:
“Tory grandee Lord Tebbit has led a delegation of IRA victims from across Great Britain to meet Home Secretary...in their quest for justice.”
Jonathan Ganesh was part of that delegation. Although he was seriously injured by the Docklands bomb—he is one of my constituents—he has tirelessly campaigned for other victims since then. For some, any solution will be too late. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire described, some victims were killed in the various bombings, and some have subsequently died because of their injuries. Jonathan, among many others, was supported by Mr Andrew Mackinlay, a former hon. colleague who still takes a great interest in these matters today.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report covers the history of UK-Libyan relations since the bombing and discusses compensation options. It clarifies how frustrating the issue has been for the victims, who are still waiting. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire described, there have been several exchanges recently between parliamentary colleagues and the Foreign Office, specifically the Foreign Secretary, to try to move the issue on. The fact that there was a meeting yesterday with the Home Secretary and a meeting last month with the Foreign Secretary indicates greater Government interest, which is no doubt very much due to the efforts of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I want to highlight three misunderstandings that I think still exist between us, in the hope that it is helpful, but first I recognise the excellent work being done in the other place by Lord Empey and supporters to address this long-standing grievance. As the Chair of the Select Committee said, we hope that his sterling efforts might yet bear fruit. The three areas of misunderstanding that I wish to address, and hope that the Minister will comment upon, are: first, the power of the UK Government to take legal action against Libya; secondly, the ability of the UK Government to compensate victims until Libya can make good its debt; and thirdly, the shape of some of the compensation.
In discussion with the Foreign Secretary, colleagues from Northern Ireland expressed the view that there was a need for a new institution there to treat the serious health issues, especially mental health and trauma issues, faced by victims. I do not want to disagree with that—I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is here—and I do not know whether that is needed, but those parliamentary colleagues know their area much better than I. My point in respect of that as an issue for the Foreign Office is that it does nothing for my victims and is therefore not a complete solution.
The second point is whether the Government should fill the vacuum until the situation in Libya stabilises, after which we might be able to reach agreement on what is owed by whom. Again, that was raised by the Chair of the Select Committee. This would include the £9.5 billion of assets frozen in London and mentioned in recommendation 9 on page 5 of the report. What is most upsetting for victims is that other countries have secured compensation as outlined in the report, but our Government have not, as is mentioned in recommendation 12 on page 8.
That brings me to the third point of misunderstanding. Other countries have been able to secure payments from Libya. When we met the Foreign Secretary, I understood him to say that in the case of American victims, for example, the Libyans paid up under the threat of legal action—a threat that the USA then waived. Perhaps that is my misunderstanding of the discussion that we had with the Foreign Office, but the bottom line is that US citizens, and those of other countries, received compensation, whereas our victims are dying, or struggling to live, without any.
The correspondence of 20 November from the Foreign Secretary to parliamentary colleagues who attended the meeting mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire clearly highlights the misunderstandings I have referred to. In the letter, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I was also pleased we were able to agree that…we should not call on UK taxpayer monies to establish a compensation fund…we concluded that UK Government discussions with the Libyans should focus on exploring the possibility of a fund to focus on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and not on monetary compensation for individual victims”.
Colleagues who were at that meeting did not agree that we should not call on the UK taxpayer. The Government might think that it is not appropriate to do so, but some of us believe that it is. As for the focus on community support, some colleagues in Northern Ireland want some community support, as I mentioned, but that was not the focus for many of those representing mainland victims.
The Foreign Secretary went on to say:
“At our meeting, we discussed the feasibility of the UK using its veto in the UN Security Council…to prevent the unfreezing of assets until the Libyans had agreed to pay compensation to UK victims.”
He went on:
“The Foreign Office’s assessment is that it is extremely unlikely any other members of the Security Council would support such action to block the unfreezing of Libyan assets”.
I thought that the essence of a veto was that we did not need the other members of the Security Council. If the UK imposes a veto, it applies to everyone. That is one of the most powerful weapons that we have for reaching an agreement in our negotiations with the Libyans. I know that the Libyans say that we owe them money for other aspects of foreign policy, but it is a negotiation, and so far we do not seem to be entering into it.
Finally, the letter clarifies the position:
“In the US, an exception to the defence of dispositive foreign immunity was provided to enable victims to sue foreign States who are designated as being state sponsors of terrorism…the UK has no such exemption for state sponsored terrorism”.
The question that some of us were asking was why we do not have the same power in the UK, for our victims, as US citizens have for theirs. If that would take Government regulation, or legislation, I should think it would command support across the House.
In concluding I want to quote the words of Matt Jury of McCue Law, which has been involved with colleagues, in supporting the victims over many years. I think that what he says applies to the majority of those campaigning on the issue:
“Most of us involved continue to oppose the Government’s policy on this. The Government should be espousing the victims’ claims rather than obliging them to fend for themselves. The Government should be taking proactive steps to use the leverage it has to force a resolution. Payment of compensation directly to the victims is the only satisfactory resolution…Assessing victims’ eligibility for such compensation is no barrier and can be readily done. If Libya will not settle the victims’ claims now then, as recommended by the NIAC, the Government should do so in lieu and recover such monies itself from Libya at a later date. The Government should give further consideration to the use of its veto at the UNSC to prevent the unfreezing of assets until Libya has paid compensation.”
The campaign continues. There is renewed interest from the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary, and the Government are demonstrating much keener interest in the issue than any UK Government have done for years; I hope that indicates that they are more interested than they were in a resolution, in spite of the misunderstandings I have mentioned—on which I do not place huge importance, because everyone can take different things from different meetings. I hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement and say that the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee takes us further along the road.
It is a pleasure to contribute to a debate on an issue that greatly affects us in Northern Ireland. I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), for raising the issue and setting the scene so well, and my colleague the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who outlined the case on behalf of his constituents.
It is important to have a Northern Ireland perspective on the matter, because the report was produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I was not a member of the Committee when the report was produced; I have been on it only a short time, and am pleased to serve under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire. I make no apologies for rising to speak again on the issue. Indeed, instead of an apology I make a promise, along with the rest of my colleagues in this place—those who are not here but would have liked to attend and speak—that we will keep on raising the issue until our constituents receive some form of recognition and justice.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his place, as well as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The Minister knows that everyone in the House has the utmost respect for him. It goes without saying that I do. However, there are things that must be said today, and I do not want him to feel that I am in any way attacking him; I am not, but I have to make my points clearly. I want to say that before I begin, because it has never been my way to attack people. I do not do that in the House; it is not my form.
There may be some who think that we have heard it all before and do not need to hear the details of the atrocities again: we know it was terrible. However, I will repeat what was done with Libyan-sponsored Semtex and arms, to remind the House that what we are discussing is not simply statements of support, which are bad enough, but action that caused horrific deaths and injuries that have lasted until today. Many people carry and share those burdens of injury and trauma: families who are without parents, without children, and without loved ones. At present they are also, I am sad to say—with great respect to the Minister and the Government—without a Government who are determined to put oil interests aside and put the interests of justice and their people first. I hope I am wrong in saying that. I look kindly towards the Minister and want him to prove me wrong, please.
I read a summary in The Guardian that set the scene well, and will quote from it to give a wee bit of perspective on where we are, among the passionate contributions that have been made to the debate so far, and those that will follow:
“In the early 1970s and later in the 80s, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime supplied the Provisional IRA with tonnes of weapons including semtex explosive, which was made in the Czech Republic. The odourless semtex was used as a powerful booster for bombs that devastated parts of the City of London”,
as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned,
“as well as other British cities during the latter days of the Troubles.
The Gaddafi regime also supplied more than 1,000 assault rifles to the IRA—enough to arm two infantry battalions. On top of the guns the then Libyan regime also smuggled flame-throwers, Soviet-made grenades, mines and anti-aircraft weapons to the IRA”
to take down helicopters. Those were weapons of war to murder people across the country of Northern Ireland—men, women and children.
I suppose we all watch war films, but that was not the stuff of “Rambo” or “The Expendables”. It was about the lives of people in my community, members of my family and, indeed, members of other communities across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. People’s lives have been torn to shreds, and that was facilitated by Gaddafi and his regime. Today we in this House are charged with the responsibility of making the point clearly and as strongly as possible, and of looking to the Minister for a comprehensive and helpful response.
Libyan-supplied Semtex was used in bombings that included the Harrods department store attack in 1983, the Warrington bomb in 1993 on the mainland, which has been referred to, and countless atrocities in Northern Ireland—almost too many to mention. We could do a roll-call, but it is not about that; but we need to encapsulate the issue and the strength of feeling. As we stood around cenotaphs in Northern Ireland, we thought not only of those who died in the world wars and other wars, but of the service personnel who lost their life in the troubles. Even more poignantly, this year we marked the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing, when 11 people were murdered at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. That murder was carried out by way of a bomb made up of products supplied by Gaddafi. There is no argument about that; it is what the facts of the case say.
Thirty years later, while Americans who were injured or bereaved in this way have seen their country secure a form of restitution, our people who lived through some of the most horrible atrocities day in and day out, and who saw entire communities shredded to pieces, are still asking for some form of recognition. Quite clearly, our point of view has to be heard.
I have said it in this Chamber before, and I will say it again, as other right hon. Member and hon. Members have done: no amount of money can heal a broken heart, but it can help to pay the bills of those who are left behind, such as the one-parent households where there should be two parents. Money cannot walk a daughter down the aisle when her dad is not there, but it can take off some of the burden and stress of paying for the wedding, which will not be the same. Money cannot bring mothers home, but it can allow a dad to work less, so that he can do more elsewhere. My constituents deserve reparation, as do yours, Mr Gapes, and the constituents of all of us in this Chamber. The Government must do their part to provide it.
It is for that reason that I feel particularly disheartened by the response of the Government up until now; I am almost grieved to say that I feel so annoyed about this issue, as many others do. I am particularly disheartened to find that the call by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for a reparation fund—I sit on the Committee now but did not at the time it made that call—has been summarily rejected, and that there is to be no use of the UK’s influence regarding its political or financial support to Libya as leverage to secure reparation. How frustrated are all three of us who have spoken today and those who will follow afterwards? There are people in the Gallery who are victims, or supporters of this cause, and they feel equally burdened and let down.
I constantly ask Ministers to use whatever diplomatic pressure they can to bring about changes in human rights in countries that we give financial aid to and trade with. That is part of my job as the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief; the Minister speaks out forcefully on those issues, as we all do. I am given assurances that we use that influence in those cases, so why is this situation any different? Why are we making this point in the House today? Why is it not in the UK’s best interests to use what influence we have to get justice for our own? Are we a second-class nation, compared with the USA? I certainly hope that we are not. The USA secured a $1.5 billion compensation fund for American victims of terror attacks that were blamed on Libya, including the Lockerbie bombing, which many of us vividly remember.
Are our deaths less important than those US deaths? Do we care less for our own than the US does? Are we the poor relations to Americans and their rights? Quite clearly, the answer to that is: no, we are not, and neither should we be. We need to address this issue. We are the greatest seat of democracy in the world, and what a privilege it is to sit in this House as a Member of Parliament and to speak on behalf of our people. Why are we not able to use that influence to help our people who have been hurt by an evil man who was set on destroying British people by any means possible?
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire gave the real thrust of what Gaddafi was about. These were attacks on our democratic process, our British way of life, and our right to stand up for freedom and democracy. That is why we speak out on behalf of the victims today.
The response of the Government to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s report is—may I say so, Mr Gapes?—insulting at best and at worst could be classified as neglectful. As I have said, it was not statements by Gaddafi that led to these atrocities; it was actions. It is not statements of sympathy by this Government that will lead to healing; it is action. With respect, it is not platitudes or words that we want; it is actions and compensation for the victims of Libyan terrorism.
The refusal of the Government to step up and move out for our people cannot be accepted. That is why we are today again talking about the Libyan state sponsorship of IRA terrorism. We demand more from our Government and from our Minister. Please give us no more words of sympathy; give us action. Stand up and use what we have to say to people, “Your—our—loss is important enough for us to take real and meaningful steps. You are as important to us as the US citizens are to their Government.”
We can understand how frustrated, angry and dismayed people are when they see what is happening. We are expressing those feelings on their behalf in a small way—not with the same personal feeling, because we were not part of those events, although some of us served in uniform so perhaps were, in a small way, part of the process in which those around us lost their lives.
Minister, here are some direct questions that I feel I must ask and that we need a response to. Taking into account the indisputable fact that the Libyans played a massive, direct, deliberate, murderous and brutal part in a campaign of murder of hundreds of people UK-wide, why is a UK reparations fund for victims not a “viable option”? What does “not a viable option” mean? Do the Government not understand the issues? Why is it not in the UK’s national interest to use political or financial support for Libya as leverage to secure compensation for victims? As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said, why not use the funds that are frozen in British bank accounts? If we have them, let us use them for our people and make sure that they are looked after. To whom is our responsibility? To our people, so let us have answers that grasp the importance of the issue, and the nettle.
My conclusion is simple. I say to my Government, my Prime Minister and my Minister that if we wanted to take back our sovereignty—that is why we are leaving Europe—it is because we wanted as a nation to stand on our own. What kind of a nation would we be if we did not stand up for our own? What kind of people are we when we do not look compassionately at lives decimated by evil, and do not offer more than sympathy? That is not the country that I believe we are; I believe that we are better than that, and we need to prove it. We must act in this matter in a very British way, which is supporting the rule of law and justice, standing up and speaking out for what is right, and championing the underdog, which is what many of us do in this Chamber on a regular basis.
Minister, we look to you, because you are the Minister who will respond, and I urge you to do the right thing. Provide the support; take steps to see moneys released; and send this statement to those who target our citizens for whatever reason: “Target us and we will not take it lightly, but will instead respond”—not necessarily militarily, but in a way that is financially helpful to the victims. The sun never set on our nation; that was something I learned at school, which was not yesterday. Our nation abolished slavery, championed the right to live a free life, and promotes the most basic of all human rights: the right to life. That is the nation that I am proud to be a part of—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. All of us in this Chamber are part to be proud of it, and are of the same mindset.
Renew our pride, remind other nations exactly who we are, and let us do what we should have done years ago: get recognition and financial help for those who have been bereaved or injured by Libyan-sponsored state terrorism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
I welcome the work of the Committee and its report, and I commend the Chair, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), for a very powerful contribution setting out the Committee’s findings, as well as its response to the Government’s response. I note the cross-party and consensual basis on which the Committee has operated, both before and after the election. It is one of the few Select Committees of the House on which the Scottish National party does not have representation, but I have read the Committee’s conclusions and the Government’s response with some interest.
The delay in the Government’s response is perhaps yet another regrettable consequence of the general election, but I am glad that following its publication we now finally have the opportunity to debate both it and the Committee’s report.
I think that it is pretty clear—from the report itself, from the Government response and from the contributions that we have heard today—that successive United Kingdom Governments have been found wanting in this area. There has been a series of missed opportunities, dating back at least to the time of Tony Blair, to sort out the issue of compensation.
It is also clear that there must now be renewed efforts, dialogue and fresh thinking to ensure that the victims receive the support and compensation that they deserve. I note in the findings of the report—the Chair of the Committee also emphasised this—that for some of these victims and their families time is beginning to run out, and we must make every effort to make sure that justice delayed does not turn out to be justice denied.
I accept that there is a range of diplomatic and legal challenges, which have already been set out and covered. Of course, there are serious issues about the stability of Libya, including the efforts to establish a functioning Government with which we could have any kind of diplomatic dialogue. As an aside, I note that the UK Government have spent much more time bombing that country than they have done trying to rebuild it and restore some kind of stability. I also understand that there might well be legal hurdles in releasing frozen assets, but the question has rightly been asked about whether every legal and diplomatic option is being pursued. What support can the Government provide for efforts such as Lord Empey’s Bill, which was mentioned?
We welcome the support available for victims and their families, and the Government’s response lists various trusts and funds that victims can turn to. We need to ensure that everyone who might have cause to access those things is aware of the opportunities. I pay particular tribute to the work of the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation. I had the privilege and honour of visiting the Peace Centre in Warrington earlier this year. I have a number of constituents who have been affected not by IRA terrorism, but by terrorism overseas and, sadly, the growing terrorist threat leads to a continuing need for the work of that centre. I was deeply moved and inspired by the innovative work that goes on there, and I had the privilege to meet Colin Parry briefly in passing while I was there. I pay tribute to the work that is going on, but more clearly needs to be done.
We recognise the importance of and sensitivities around this issue. We hope that progress will continue to be sought on a cross-party basis and as consensually as possible. It is clear from the contributions to this debate and from the report that the UK Government must leave no stone unturned in seeking compensation and providing victims with the support they need and deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. First, I bring the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). He has an engagement in his constituency and I am standing in in his place.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for his work and that of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He made a powerful speech. Excellent speeches have also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
We in the Labour party are proud of the role we played in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. We believe that we have a duty to protect that legacy and move it forward. We in this House must never forget the pain, hurt and destruction that the troubles brought to many people in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The debate focuses our minds on that.
The Labour Government worked to move the Gaddafi regime away from the production of weapons of mass destruction and towards acceding to the chemical weapons convention in 2004 with the hope of providing greater stability in the region. I accept the disappointment expressed by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire about the treatment of victims by Governments of all stripes.
The Select Committee’s report concerns an important issue. The Committee took evidence from victims and victims advocacy organisations along with their lawyers. The report, “HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons”, makes some recommendations on what the Government can do to support victims.
The potential use of an estimated £9.5 billion of frozen Libyan assets to provide compensation to victims is mentioned on page 23, where paragraph 62 states:
“The FCO told the Committee that the EU Regulation prohibited the release of frozen assets in the UK without a licence from HM Treasury.”
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire is lucky that I am responding to this debate, and not my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, because I am the Opposition Front Bencher responsible for the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that is coming down the tracks. It is currently in the Lords and will come to our House in February. I accept what the Foreign Office says about the legal framework provided by the EU regulations and the United Nations Security Council limiting the room for manoeuvre, but either in the other place or when the Bill comes to us Ministers could consider the scope for making amendments to the regime to make some progress in the way the Select Committee suggests. I am not saying that that will happen, or that is possible, but Ministers should certainly make an undertaking, because there is clearly a potential legislative vehicle for this.
The Committee is calling on the Government to do more to negotiate a settlement with the Libyan Government and broker compensation arrangements similar to those made by the United States Government. We accept the Foreign Office’s assessment that that cannot be handled speedily and ultimately might not be successful. At the same time, Her Majesty’s Opposition hold to the view that in the immediate term the Government should provide a special pension to all those who were seriously injured as a result of troubles-related incidents, as advocated by many groups that represent the interests of victims.
The Government know they have a duty to ensure that those individuals receive the right assistance and support in coping with life-changing injuries. A victim’s pension would provide for those who may not have been able to build up an occupational pension over the years and may have additional and complex care needs due to their injuries. That should cover not only the victims referred to in the report, but all victims. The Government could consider that now. As the years go by, more victims who have been affected pass away. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out, the issue is becoming increasingly urgent as time goes on.
It is only right that the Government stand up for the victims of all atrocities that occurred throughout Northern Ireland’s troubled and painful past, both internationally and here at home. We welcome the Committee’s report and the work it does in standing up for people in Northern Ireland and beyond. It is time for the Government to take more action.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in a debate such as this, Mr Gapes, knowledgeable as you are of foreign affairs. You will know the issue extremely well, so it is good to see you in your place.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for securing the debate and, through him, all the Members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for their continuing commitment to supporting the victims’ cause in Parliament. I thank other colleagues for their pertinent contributions today, which give plenty of food for thought.
As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was gracious enough to acknowledge, when we look back at the past and the opportunities that might have been missed, this is not a great chapter for any Government, but it is important to remember that these events were not brought about by the British Government; the report refers to a period of time when Gaddafi was supplying weaponry to the IRA. I gently say to my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it was not the Libyan people taking action against the people of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom. It was Gaddafi following his own determination and his political beliefs at the time, and that makes it difficult when we are talking about retrospective balance between those who were victims of Gaddafi in Libya and those who were victims of Gaddafi here. I visited Abu Salim jail. I have seen the place where Gaddafi machine-gunned about 1,200 people in an act of revenge for some attack on his regime. Part of the instinct behind the communal fund, which we will come on to, is to recognise that the people in both places suffered under that man. That is why attempting to find a way to recognise that in a manner that benefits all victims has been so important.
All Members who made a contribution mentioned the conversation that the United States Government have had. They made a very clear distinction. Why can we not make the same distinction? I respect the Minister greatly, and he knows that, but I have to speak on behalf of my constituents in Northern Ireland. The US Government have done it. Why do we not do the same?
Perhaps I can come on to the United States situation a bit later. Distinctions between types of victims are difficult, and I will come on to that a little later on. First, let me put something on the record in relation to our current policy. I recognise the force of today’s debate, of the conversations that the Foreign Secretary has had in my presence, and of the discussions that I have had as well. This is a difficult area of policy, and it may not be finally settled.
I would like to take the opportunity once again to express on behalf of the Government sincere condolences to all those who have suffered as a result of the horrific attacks carried out by the IRA, and to all victims of the troubles. The Government want a just solution for all victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism, and we will continue to do all we can to make progress on that important but difficult agenda. The Government have raised the plight of victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism with the Libyan authorities at the highest level. The Foreign Secretary raised their cases with Prime Minister Sarraj during both of his visits to Tripoli, most recently in August this year. I intend to follow up on those conversations when I next travel to Libya.
Between 2010 and 2013, when I travelled to Libya I always raised the issue of compensation because it was a live issue back then. I raised it with either the then Attorney General or the then Solicitor General in Scotland—I cannot remember which—whom I got to know in relation to this matter. It was always on the agenda in the period of time after the fall of Gaddafi. The Libyan Government were obviously in a state of flux at that time, which of course has continued, hampering all our efforts, but it was important to put the claims on the record right the way through, and I sought to do so.
The Foreign Secretary and I welcomed our constructive recent discussions with parliamentarians, and I have recently met with victims groups to discuss their thoughts and concerns face to face. I very much hope that we can continue to engage openly and frankly, and I am sure that we will. That will give us the best possible chance of securing justice for the victims of these terrible attacks.
Clearly, the Libyan Government have a responsibility to deal with the legacy at the heart of the Gaddafi regime, as part of a broader process of national and international reconciliation and justice. The UK Government continue to impress upon the Libyan authorities the impact of Gaddafi’s support for the IRA, and we emphasise the importance we attach to responding to victims’ campaigns. We continue to judge, however, that engaging constructively with the Libyan Government remains the best way to make progress. As our response to the Select Committee report demonstrated, we maintain the long-standing policy of previous UK Governments not to espouse victims’ claims.
Hon. Members who took part in the recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary will be aware that that issue was discussed in some depth. They will also be aware that the Foreign Secretary committed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to being more visible in efforts to support the victims’ campaigns and to ensuring that the issue remains a priority in our discussions with the Libyan Government. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) spoke about how that more visible attitude might be demonstrated. I am going back to Libya, for the first time in some years, early in the new year. We are actively seeking to explore the possibility of a meeting between the Libyan Minister of Justice and victims groups; we have recently written to the Minister about that. The meeting might take place in Libya, but that could be difficult, so it could be held in Tunisia or some other place. We are actively pursuing that idea as a way of doing something new and adding something new to the situation.
Questions were raised about whether we have abandoned the idea of a fund to compensate individual victims. We have carefully considered that option, but continue to believe that individual claims are best negotiated directly between victims and the Libyan authorities. We will continue to support victims to help to facilitate that, and we will raise their cases with the Libyan authorities at every opportunity. Even if the Libyans were at some point in the future to put aside money for the purposes of compensating UK victims, we believe that administering such a fund would be extremely difficult. There is currently no clear definition of a victim of IRA terrorism sponsored by Gaddafi as opposed to a victim of terrorism more generally.
Hon. Members who were present at the recent meeting with the Foreign Secretary will be aware that that issue was discussed at length. My impression is that at the end of the meeting we believed that, given the difficulties of drawing distinctions between different types of victims, the best kind of support would be a communal fund, focusing on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, that was available to all victims. It would not be confined to Northern Ireland, to respond to the concerns of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. It has not been drawn up in any way yet, but it would attempt to recognise the difficulty of separating one victim of the troubles from another, and to bring people together. Giving specific help to specific people who have been damaged, as the hon. Member for Strangford clearly described, would be an important part of it, so he would be providing something for his constituents, but in a communal fund that would be accessible to more people, rather than just through individual compensation.
Just to clarify, the Minister referred to the possibility of victims meeting the Libyan Minister of Justice directly, perhaps in Tunisia because Libya could be difficult. Some of us have concerns about putting victims in front of a high-level politician and diplomat, given the imbalance in terms of strength. However, I understand that the emotiveness of it might create a breakthrough. I just raise the concern about exposing the victims in that way.
The second point—sorry, Mr Gapes; I will be very brief—is about identifying the entitlement for individual victims and having community assets. Other countries seem to have done it, and I do not understand why we cannot. I totally support colleagues from Northern Ireland who are asking for a centre or an institution for trauma, mental health, mental welfare and so on, because that would be useful for them. It would not serve a purpose for the people in Tower Hamlets who were direct victims, and that is where there is a distinction between the two.
Let me respond as best I can to those two comments. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the meeting, but my sense is that there would be sufficient victims and victims’ representatives who would be prepared to take part in such a meeting. It would not be an unmoderated meeting and, of course, I would expect us to be there in some form, whether through embassy officials locally or senior officers from here; in those circumstances, there would probably also be a Minister. I do not think it would be appropriate to ask a Minister from another state, unconnected with all this, to deal with the issue without one of our Ministers being prepared to support those who had come from the United Kingdom. I am sure that we could handle that, but I accept his point that for some people such a meeting would be too difficult and not possible.
In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s other point, there is no suggestion that because the fund has not yet been created or put together, it would be confined to one place rather than another. If the point is to find something that will benefit victims wherever they have been, it must of course apply to mainland UK as well as Northern Ireland. I do not think that those in other countries have had to make an individual distinction between a victim of Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism and a victim of a terrorist atrocity from another source. That is something that we find difficult and, as we have discussed, we all understand those difficulties.
To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), it is quite clear to me, and I suspect to everyone in the Chamber, that if someone was blown up by Semtex, or there were an explosion in which Semtex were used, it was Gaddafi-inspired and sponsored terrorism. If they were shot with a bullet from an AK47, that was Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. If they were shot by a self-loading rifle, an SA80 or something different, that certainly was not Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. If we want a factual, historical way of collating what has taken place, I suggest that the weapon or bomb used is an indication of where it came from and its intention. It is therefore easy to diagnose. Forgive me, but I see it very simply. If someone was blown up with Semtex in London or shot by an AK47 rifle in London or anywhere else, that is Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism.
I understand the hon. Gentleman completely. It is not difficult to make a distinction based on cause of death, but is he saying that there would be a different system of compensation, and that someone who lost their life in circumstances identifiably traced to Gaddafi would have access to one fund, but those who died in other circumstances would not? That is what successive Governments have found difficult, because the impact of the loss of life due to a terrorist incident is the same, whatever the cause was. It would be difficult to have a fund that distinguished victims and gave some victims and their families access to something that others are denied.
It is patently unfair that some victims may not get compensation and others would. The distinction we are drawing, in the absence of a UK fund to compensate victims of terrorism per se, is that the Libyans have paid other Governments in other countries money to compensate their victims. Apparently, we have not been making the same efforts to get Libyan compensation for our victims. If we can get that for the victims who can be identified, let us get them compensation. The British Government ought to be looking after the other victims of terrorism, as I hope they do, from whichever source the terrorism outrage comes.
I am happy to take the other intervention if it is on the same topic.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has clearly hit the nail on the head. The United States Government made the distinction. There is a way of making the distinction. They did it and have shown us how to do it, and I suggest that we do the same. They have done it, and so can we.
Of course, in the particular case of the Lockerbie victims, the UK Government intervened directly to secure compensation. However, as we have discussed, individual compensation is being pursued through private claims, and we have sought to facilitate that work through our contacts and everything we have done in relation to that. We still believe that that is the most appropriate thing to do, and that is why we deal directly with the Libyan authorities. We have approached individual compensation differently. The allocation of the compensation fund illustrates the difficulty of individual compensation, but of course if such claims are successful, that deals with that issue. However, as successive Governments have done, we have supported the individual pursuit of claims rather than doing on it on a Government basis. That is different from those who have chosen to do it another way—that is quite right. That is the process we have chosen, and that is the process we are continuing to support.
I am following what the Minister has to say closely. He is making a convincing argument, but the central fact remains that our closest allies—the US, France and Germany—have secured substantial reparations from the country responsible for those acts. The legal entity, notwithstanding the Minister’s remarks about Gaddafi, is Libya. We have failed to do that, and it is about time that our victims got a better deal. I am sure the Minister agrees with that. The only debate is about how we are going to achieve it. How we dish the money out is a second-order issue. It is important that we get the money in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are continuing to pursue that process by working with the existing Libyan Government and the future Libyan Government to secure that support. That is why a meeting with the Libyan Minister for Justice has been suggested. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister raised this issue, and why I shall raise it.
Hon. Members and victims have understandably asked us to demonstrate even more effort to secure compensation than we have already put in. The ultimate aim is to ensure the Libyan Government is able to respond to the understandable request for compensation for the victims of Gaddafi. That is the position we want to reach. The UK Government, like all of us, are determined to make sure that happens. That is the process we are pursuing.
There are a couple of other things to say. I want to deal with the issue of frozen assets and sanctions. There is no lawful basis on which the UK could seize or change the ownership of any Libyan assets. The UN Security Council resolution under which those assets were frozen, which the UK supported, is clear that they should eventually be returned for the benefit of the Libyan people. To breach that resolution would be a violation of international law. We set that out in our response to the Committee, and that position has not changed.
A veto is an individual response that the United Kingdom could produce, but it would then be used to stop the return of assets. As the Government rightly said, we get no sense from other states that they would support that. Of course, they do not have to do anything—it is our veto—but they would not necessarily understand our vetoing a policy that is designed to return moneys to those who would then be in a position to compensate the United Kingdom and the victims the United Kingdom is pursuing that for. To apply a veto may not be the most appropriate thing. The point that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and others made is that it is a form of pressure on Libya, which must be correct. We must find other ways of putting pressure on the Libyans so that when they are in a position to respond, they understand that they need to make that response. Our contact with the Libyan Government makes it clear to us that they understand that need, but the money is not there at the moment because it is just not there. We must continue to pursue that.
On the sanctions, when the European sanctions rules are changed, we will have to see whether that provides an extra opportunity. I was interested by what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said, and that will form part of a further discussion in the future. I noted what she said about pensions. As far as I am aware, that is something new, but we may come back to it in due course.
That is what we are doing in the immediate future, and as far as the future is concerned we will pursue a twin-track approach. We will continue to help victims engage directly with the Libyan Government, as appropriate, to help them pursue their campaign. That is the policy we have followed. As I said, I have previously informed victims that we are exploring the possibility of a meeting for them with the Libyan Minister of Justice. Our embassy in Tripoli has raised this with the Minister several times, and he has agreed in principle to the proposal. I recently wrote to him to welcome that, and to stress our desire to press ahead with arrangements. Such a meeting would demonstrate the Libyan Government’s genuine desire to address the legacy of the Gaddafi regime. In addition, we will explore with the Libyan authorities the possibility of establishing a communal fund for victims, although I should be honest with hon. Members that the current political and economic crisis in Libya means that progress on that is likely to be slow, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said.
There are complex questions at stake with regard to compensation, such as which groups of victims would be eligible, and what type of compensation and support would be right. We discussed that during the course of the debate. Discussions about what a fund would look like are still at an early stage, but we anticipate that it would focus on community support, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and as I said earlier would be accessible to all victims throughout the United Kingdom. I welcome the recent engagement of Democratic Unionist party colleagues on this issue, and I look forward to further constructive discussions in the future. We recognise victims’ frustration at the slow rate of progress. I fully appreciate that although that is an easy sentence for a Minister to say, it cannot in any way cover the pain and suffering that people have been through, but the political, economic and security realities in Libya are making progress on the issue extremely difficult.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all made clear the Government’s support for change in Libya and for the UN process being led by Ghassan Salamé. We are actively engaged in that because the sooner the process can be successful and the sooner Libya has stabilisation and a new Government, the easier it will be to press such matters still further.
I repeat the Government’s sincere commitment to help the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism make progress. I express my gratitude for the positive way in which colleagues from across the House have engaged with the Government on this issue and my sincere desire for that to continue. I recognise that the slow process is deeply frustrating to all those who represent the victims, as well as to those victims themselves, many of whom have campaigned tirelessly for many years to achieve justice. Today’s debate and the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire and other hon. Members in the Chamber make an impression. Clearly, this is an issue on which the Government are committed, but the determination and the desire of the House is plainly that we have to do more, to be seen to do more and to explore further ways in which we can redress the balance.
I am grateful as always for the kindness with which colleagues treat me, and hope that I can play my part in resolving the issue. I take that to heart.
I have one last question for the Minister. As has been mentioned by the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, obviously there have been efforts in the other place to help move things along. Has the Minister had a chance to look at that, and will he comment? I am not asking him to compromise or undermine those efforts in any way, but they were mentioned by several colleagues and it would be useful if the Government had words on that aspect of the situation.
No. I am aware of the private Member’s Bill going through the Lords. I have no particular response. This is something at the moment—in relation to frozen assets—that we do not currently have being considered. But the Department is considering it very carefully, as will Ministers.
Let me conclude and again thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for bringing the matter forward. I am fully aware that it is not one that will be dealt with in an afternoon and then go away. Victims and those who represent them have my commitment, and the Foreign Secretary made it clear at his recent meeting with colleagues how important this is to us. It is difficult to unblock but it is clear that we have an imperative from the House to do just that.
I will be as brief as possible, Mr Gapes.
Libya is potentially an extremely wealthy country. It has governance issues, to put it mildly, with which the United Kingdom is assisting. Governance falls into this piece nicely, since compensation for victims is certainly a governance thing. I hope very much that, as we continue to put considerable resource into Libya, we will remind our interlocutors at every available opportunity that they have duties to us as well. I am pleased to hear from the Minister that he is renewing his commitment to getting for victims the justice that they deserve.
I am also pleased that the Minister acknowledged, I think, that the legal entity in this debate is Libya. I fully appreciate that the Libyan people, broadly defined, are not responsible for the actions that we associate with Gaddafi; nevertheless it is Libya to which we have to look for retribution in this particular case. It seems to me odd, if we are improving the governance of a country, as we are in Libya, that we do not make that very apparent to the Libyans. Clearly we need to do so.
I very much hope that the Minister takes note of the noble Lord Empey’s private Member’s Bill. It seems to me to have merit, and there may be a way of advancing the issue so as not to conflict with European Union law as long as that applies in the United Kingdom, or more particularly, with United Nations rules, which will continue to apply to the United Kingdom.
The Minister will have read paragraph 61 of the report that we are debating and will have noted that on a significant number of occasions, frozen assets have been accessed, notably President Marcos’s Swiss bank account in the interests of rectifying human rights abuses in the Philippines, the assets of Colombian paramilitaries and, most relevantly, frozen assets in the US in respect of Saddam Hussein’s victims and the victims of Iranian and Cuban terrorism. There is precedent; it is clearly not impossible to access those sums, and it is certainly not impossible to threaten to access those sums.
My concern and perhaps that of the members of my Committee is that the Government at the least give the impression that this subject is not a top priority for them. I will accept the reassurances of the Minister and I note that in his comments in response to the report he agreed that there needs to be a better perception of Government’s efforts—but there also need to be better efforts underpinning that perception.
I hope very much that in the months ahead we will redouble our efforts when dealing with our Libyan interlocutors to impress on them how important this matter is to the British people. It is just not acceptable to wait, as happens at the moment, for victims to age and pass on, as too many have, without getting the justice that is their due. British values have to do with justice. They are about getting what is right for victims. Clearly, the victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism have not had justice, and I look to the Minister to ensure that they do. I look forward to him or the Foreign Secretary appearing, in the not-too-distant future, before my Select Committee to report on progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, HM Government support for UK victims of IRA attacks that used Gaddafi-supplied Semtex and weapons, Session 2016-17, HC 49, and the Government response, HC 331.