[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered homelessness among refugees.
It is an enormous pleasure to lead the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on the financial support I received for research capacity in my office in relation to my work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. I apologise that that notification was not given in advance of the debate—I very much regret that omission.
Many of the debates that we have in this place regarding refugees and asylum seekers concentrate on the process of applying for refugee status. Prolonged delays, poor decision making, the irrational and cruel use of immigration detention, and the meanness of financial support provided through the National Asylum Support Service all rightly attract fierce criticism. However, what receives less attention—and this is the issue I wish to raise in today’s debate—relates to what happens when someone has the good news that they have been granted refugee status.
It is deeply concerning that even once asylum is granted, many refugees continue to experience homelessness and hardship. The homelessness charity Crisis reported that in 2016-17, 478 people—7% of those who approached it for help—had nowhere to live after leaving asylum accommodation. That was more than double the number in 2014-15. In a sample of night shelters over the winter of 2017-18, the No Accommodation Network report, “Mind the Gap”, which was published in May, found that 48 out of 169 people requiring emergency accommodation were refugees. In one shelter, 50% of the refugee guests had left asylum accommodation within the previous six months.
The hon. Lady raises a list of things that surprise people regarding how refugees are treated. Does she share, as I do, the concerns expressed by the recent Jesuit Refugee Service report on the discredited nature of information about refugees’ home countries? Given the breadth of our Foreign Office’s reach, how does she think that has come about?
It is obviously not the same for every single country or every individual asylum case. It is important that we recognise that our obligation to give refuge is shaped by international treaties and conventions that we are long signed up to, and which look on a case-by-case basis at the danger that an individual faces in their country of origin. We need to be clear that we have a robust decision-making process that properly assesses that danger, and be confident in presenting to the country that our process works well. Sadly, at the moment, delays and poor decisions mean that often it does not.
For those who gain refugee status, there is an issue of becoming homeless once they are recognised as refugees. The Refugee Council interviewed 54 refugees for a study in 2017, and found that none had secured accommodation by the time they left asylum accommodation, and that more than half had slept rough, or in a hostel or homeless shelter, after being granted status. The decision to grant status—a moment that should represent relief from fear and the chance finally to rebuild a shattered life—can instead become the start of a new nightmare.
The problem lies fundamentally in the incredibly short move-on period, which allows refugees a mere 28 days to leave Home Office accommodation after they have been granted refugee status, and to move from NASS to mainstream benefits. In that time, they must obtain their national insurance number, open a bank account, receive their biometric residence permit, navigate a complex benefits system, and find somewhere to live and, if they are able to work, a job, while settling into their new life. For many—mentally traumatised, struggling with poor English and disconnected from mainstream services—it is simply too much to cope with.
The hon. Lady is making entirely the right points. In 2015-16, Northern Ireland had more than 100 refugees who we believed were in destitution. Is she aware that Belfast City Council commissioned the Law Centre of Northern Ireland to produce a refugee transitional guide? The Select Committee on Work and Pensions recognised that guide as describing best practice, and asked the Department to distribute it right across the United Kingdom so that when people find themselves navigating that system and process they get the best advice and help possible.
I am aware of the work of the Northern Ireland Law Centre, which was one of a number of organisations that helpfully briefed me for the debate. As the hon. Gentleman says, that guide is an extremely useful resource.
Although voluntary groups are providing such resources, the system is fundamentally making things harder for refugees. Their first universal credit payment will not be made for more than a month. Although advance payments are available, they cannot be paid until someone has a national insurance number and a bank account, and their availability appears not to be well signposted by either the Home Office or Jobcentre Plus. Meanwhile, local housing allocation rules may not give priority to new refugees, particularly those who move into a new area to be with other members of their community. Those factors are placing refugees at grave risk of homelessness and destitution.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing today’s debate. It must have struck all of us in the Chamber that any of the challenges she has outlined that refugees face in beginning to engage with life in the UK—whether it be opening a bank account, getting a national insurance number or accessing appropriate healthcare—would be difficult for a British citizen to do within a 28-day period, let alone somebody who may not have English as a first language and who may well have a number of complex needs and family needs related to the reason they were granted refugee status in the first place. Does she agree that the key, take-home message from the debate is that the 28-day period needs to be reviewed, and the Government need to do more to facilitate extra support for a very vulnerable group?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am glad that she mentioned the 28-day move-on period, which the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness also recommended scrapping. Does she share my hope that the Minister will accept that recommendation for inclusion in the strategy, which is due by the end of the month?
I do, and I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response.
I am grateful to charities and individuals who have shared stories to illustrate what it means for those who become refugees without either the resources or the home they need to rebuild their lives. The Boaz Trust, with which I have had the privilege of working in Manchester, told me about what happened to Mohsen, a 28-year-old man from Iran who arrived in the UK in 2015 and was found asylum accommodation in Manchester. He says:
“I left NASS in January 2018. They let me stay on for two more weeks because they knew I didn’t have anywhere to go. Then I stayed outside for 2 nights. It was very cold. After that I stayed in a shelter. After 3 weeks the NASS support stopped. Then after maybe three weeks my money came in from the Job Centre…When I left my NASS accommodation, I went to the council and registered with housing. I knew to do this because I have been here a long time. They said I am not priority, and I cannot have any hostel place. I applied for housing and I waited two months…At first the Council say there will be something in 4 weeks, then 8 weeks. In that time, I stayed at Boaz night shelter. Now I am in hostel and I am waiting for a house. I am bidding every week. It was hard staying in the night shelter, staying in different areas every night. During the day I have nowhere to go”.
Sadly, that is far from an untypical story.
My hon. Friend is describing a situation that we certainly experience in Sheffield. Voluntary organisations and charities that work with refugees have identified another growing problem that is contributing to homelessness, which is an increasing number of people getting discretionary leave to remain. They are falling through the middle—they lose out on the support they were getting as refugees but do not have recourse to public funds. Does my hon. Friend recognise that that is another serious problem that the Government need to address?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. It cannot be right that we allow anyone to be destitute in this country, whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
Mohsen’s story is far from untypical and the situation is even more dire for families with children, sometimes creating serious safeguarding issues. Asylum Matters told me about Bao, who was originally trafficked from Vietnam and received refugee status in November 2017 after going through the national referral mechanism. Less than one month later, his daughter was born. The family survived on £35 per week in asylum support, but that stopped and he did not know how to apply for benefits. When he tried to find a home, the council told him he would need to find private rented accommodation. The private landlords all wanted a deposit or guarantor, which he could not provide because he had no savings. An integration loan could have helped him, but he was refused a loan by the Home Office, which claimed he was already integrated because he had been here for such a long time. That meant he could not secure a private tenancy because he had no money to pay for the deposit. He and his baby daughter were destitute for nearly four months, forced to survive on the charity of friends for food and milk and somewhere to sleep—on their floor.
Such cases are cause for enormous concern. I am glad that the Government have accepted that there is a problem and have attempted a number of measures to deal with that, but although it is a pleasure to see the Minister in his place this afternoon, I am a little disappointed that the debate is not being answered by a Home Office Minister as I requested. Fundamentally, we need cross-governmental action to address a mismatch of policies across different Government Departments and the failure of any one Department to own the problem. I believe the Home Office should be taking the lead in joining up policy and procedures. I hope the Minister will share the breadth of my concerns with all of his ministerial colleagues.
The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. Does she accept—I am sure she does—that a contributory factor to refugees being in severe hardship once they have been awarded status is that they are not permitted to work during the time that they are here? Would it not be better, not just for them and their families, but for the country, if they were able to potentially build up savings and contribute and pay taxes during the time they are waiting for their asylum case to be heard, so that they are ready to be fully fledged members of our society at the point at which they are given status?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I strongly support the right of asylum seekers to work when the Home Office has singularly failed to meet its own obligations to process cases and make a decision within the given timescale. As the hon. Gentleman says, allowing them to do so would enable them to maintain their skills, build up some savings and remain connected with the wider community. Although that may not be a matter for today’s Minister to address, it is certainly one that I strongly support.
Let us consider what action has been taken to date by the Government, because some initiatives have been welcome. The Home Office is rolling out the post-grant appointment service to smooth the referral to Jobcentre Plus for making an initial benefits claim. That follows a pilot in two regions last year, but there were some reports of problems. During a two-week period in February, the refugee support team at the British Red Cross asked 20 individuals in South Yorkshire about their experience of the warm handover pilot. Only one individual stated explicitly that they had received a phone call from Migrant Help, which provided the service. Eight individuals said they had not received any contact, while 11 were unsure whether they had. It may be that those are isolated cases, or that problems have since been resolved, but in a parliamentary answer to Baroness Lister on 29 June, Baroness Buscombe refused to publish the results of the Government’s evaluation of the pilot.
Although the commitment to provide advice and support to new refugees in the move-on period is a welcome addition to the new advice, issue resolution and eligibility contract, charities have seen communication from the Home Office that suggests that the support will be limited to operating the post-grant appointment service only. Advice and guidance in the move-on period must be more comprehensive if it is to address the issue of refugee destitution. In particular, closer working between the Government and third-sector providers is needed. I urge the Minister to encourage ministerial colleagues to publish the evaluation report on the post-grant appointment service pilot and to ensure that the lessons about the wider advice needs of refugees are acted on.
Of course, I am pleased that 35 asylum support liaison officers are now being appointed in a number of local authorities, funded by the controlling migration fund, but it is not clear how their work will be monitored and evaluated. I hope the Minister will say more about that this afternoon. The Government’s integrated communities fund is also intended to provide support for refugees, but again there is little detail as yet on how it will do that. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us.
It is welcome that national insurance numbers will now be included on the biometric residence permits that refugees receive. Usually, though not invariably, they arrive within a matter of days. That is helpful, because a national insurance number is required for payment of universal credit, although it is not necessary for making an application. The payment is essential for new refugees to pay for, among other things, their accommodation.
Significant problems continue with the issue of national insurance numbers. Some 65% of the new refugees seen by the British Red Cross in South Yorkshire over a two-week period in February during the move-on period had not had an application made to the Home Office for a national insurance number. Those who do not have one must complete the application process over the phone, which often takes 40 minutes. Apparently, 10 questions are asked at the start of the process before the individual is offered the services of an interpreter. Following that phone conversation, the new refugee has to attend a face-to-face appointment before the national insurance number is issued.
Those who lack a national insurance number include people who have joined a partner in the UK under the Dublin rules on refugee family reunion. The result is that sometimes quite large families are struggling to survive on the income from one single parent’s jobseeker’s allowance claim for six weeks or more, while their partner awaits their national insurance number. I have raised this issue previously with Home Office Ministers, but the problem remains unresolved.
Ultimately, this all places unnecessary barriers in the way of enabling new refugees to settle, receive benefits or wages and access suitable accommodation. Can the Minister say anything about what conversations are taking place across the relevant Government Departments to streamline and support refugees and to ensure that national insurance numbers are always issued swiftly and smoothly?
The Minister will be glad to know that I am now firmly in his ministerial territory. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 should be helpful, but its operation needs to be clarified and extended for refugees who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Under the Act, from this October public authorities will be required to refer those at risk of homelessness to the local authority. That provision should be extended to cover providers of asylum accommodation.
I am glad my hon. Friend has mentioned the Homelessness Reduction Act. I led for the Opposition on that. There was a healthy degree of consensus then, as there seems to be in this debate. Is she, like me, looking for an assurance from the Minister that that consistency will now apply to extending the 28-day period to 56 days?
In a moment, I will ask the Minister exactly that.
Newly homeless people can get easement from job search requirements, being asked to focus instead on basic actions such as finding accommodation. That is at the discretion of their Jobcentre Plus work coach. It is not clear whether new refugees will be able to access a similar concession. In addition, refugees are treated as tier-two priority for alternative payment arrangements under universal credit. Alternative payment arrangements would mean, for example, that rent could be paid directly to their landlord, potentially making it easier for them to secure a tenancy. Will the Minister confirm whether any discussion is taking place between his Department and the Department for Work and Pensions on reprioritising refugees as tier one for alternative payment arrangements and on granting them easement from work search obligations so that they can concentrate on looking for accommodation?
Although the changes made to date are welcome, more is clearly needed to make them fully effective. The most important policy change to make, however, as has been alluded to around the Chamber this afternoon and which would ensure that newly recognised refugees do not end up destitute and at risk of homelessness, is to maintain Home Office support until mainstream benefits are ready to start, by extending the 28-day move-on period.
I am aware that on 3 July Baroness Williams claimed in a written answer to Baroness Lister that NACCOM’s “Mind the Gap” report
“does not show that these problems will be resolved by extending the 28 days period”,
but Ministers must be aware that there is widespread agreement among campaigners and, it would appear, in this House that it would do so.
At the very least, the move-on period should not start until someone receives all documentation, including a national insurance number, but I invite the Minister to be bolder. The Homelessness Reduction Act extends to 56 days the period during which someone can be deemed threatened with homelessness, and the universal credit waiting period is five weeks. The move-on period should be extended in line with those timescales—to have it otherwise is perverse and illogical.
In conclusion, the Government have more to do to ensure coherent, whole-system support across national and local government for those newly granted refugee status. We can be proud to give refuge to those who flee persecution and seek safety here and proud that refugees are welcome in our country, but too many begin their lives here in penury, and the system is to blame for that. Today, I hope that the Minister will take the chance to tell us the steps the Government will take to improve things.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry.
I commend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing the debate. I also pay tribute to my intern, Gillian Hughes, who is working with me for a few weeks and helped to prepare for this debate.
Given the complexity of Home Office procedures and the conscious decision of this Government to create a hostile environment, it is not surprising that so many asylum-seeking constituents come to me for support with their cases. However, it is even less palatable to know the new range of problems that refugees often face after going through the harrowing process of achieving leave to remain, not least the loss of their financial support and accommodation within only 28 days of a successful decision from the Home Office.
I am in the process of moving house and I can testify that it is a stressful event, even when done voluntarily and with the chance to prepare financially, so imagine trying to do it within 28 days, after having been restricted to not working, while surviving on an income of £37.70 per week and despite language barriers, unfamiliarity with the area and often no support network. In such circumstances, homelessness is a real threat.
It stands to reason that support from the National Asylum Support Service ends when someone is no longer in the process of claiming asylum. However, that should be a managed transition over a reasonable period of time. To end support abruptly makes it extremely difficult for new refugees to move forward, and places a burden on other Departments, local authorities and charities that are already at breaking point.
Last month, I held a special asylum and refugee surgery in Cranhill in my constituency in conjunction with a fantastic Glasgow charity called Refuweegee. It provides practical support in the form of donated clothing, food, toys and other necessities, and it collects welcome letters written by people from all over the city to our newest Glaswegians. One such letter that struck me recently was from a wee girl called Kiera. Kiera had written a beautiful note: “Please don’t worry, you are safe now.” How do we explain to Kiera that of 54 refugees interviewed by the Refugee Council in September last year, not one had found secure accommodation by the time their asylum accommodation was withdrawn, and half of them had been forced to sleep rough or in a night shelter?
Local authorities normally consider homelessness to be imminent if someone is within 56 days of it becoming a reality. Refugees, however, are expected to be able to move on within only half that time. It is not a practical timeframe to impose on some of the most vulnerable within our communities, especially if the Government are serious about their pledge to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to eliminate it by 2027.
A secure home, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber agrees, is the cornerstone of building a new life and establishing roots. Housing insecurity is a major barrier to education, employment and integration. For example, at the weekend I met a Baillieston constituent, Agatha Mazengera. Recently Agatha was granted refugee status. She has already passed her 28-day mark, but she has not yet been able to secure a permanent home.
Agatha and her daughter have been moved, temporarily, to a bedsit in the opposite end of the city to where their asylum accommodation was. Agatha was very active in her former neighbourhood, as part of the parent council and parent teacher association at her daughter’s school, and as a member of the local church. She tried to keep some sense of familiarity for her daughter by continuing to travel across the city for school each day, but sadly, after a while, that became unworkable. Agatha’s daughter Mychaella therefore had to leave behind her friends at a crucial time in her education, and had to start again at a new school. The ongoing uncertainty about their living conditions means that Mychaella may have to move school yet again. A managed transition, with some professional support would have enabled that family to continue to contribute to the community of which they had become such valuable members.
A leave to remain decision might enable someone to stay in the country, but as the system stands, a clock starts to tick, giving a mere 28 days for people to find work and leave what has been in essence their home. That is a tall order when they have been living hand to mouth, have no savings and often do not even have a bank account, and are learning a new language. I have no doubt that the majority of new refugees are as keen to move to a stable home and into work as the Home Office is for them to do so. We must therefore move away from the culture of hostile practice and provide a bit of support to do that.
We must take some simple, common-sense steps to reduce unnecessary incidences of homelessness or transient housing caused by that unrealistic timescale. Allowing 56 days to move on and providing access to mainstream homelessness prevention services could dramatically increase people’s chances.
Even when refugees play by the rules and do the right thing, Home Office error often leads to complications that end up with people being made homeless. That happened to Mr Musari and his family in my constituency. It took two years to overturn a mistake by the Home Office. Would it not be simpler to reverse the retraction of legal aid under the coalition Government, so that civil legal aid was available to refugees and others subject to Home Office decisions or affected by Home Office policy?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention chimed with some of what I see in my constituency, such as issues with legal aid, in particular in devolved areas. It can only be even more difficult for the Home Office if it is not following its own procedures. That is a very valid point to make.
Allowing 56 days to move on and providing access to mainstream homelessness prevention services could dramatically increase the chances of people finding a suitable longer-term property. Being awarded refugee status should, at the very least, mean a fair chance of having a place of refuge. As Refuweegee in Glasgow states, “We’re all fae somewhere”, but right now our asylum accommodation system is failing people and leaving them with nowhere in the world to call home. I think everyone in this place would agree that we must do better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and thank you for calling me to speak. It is pleasure to speak in this debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for her powerful speech.
A local Member could pick up many issues to champion in this place. As well as fighting for workers’ rights, for a better deal for the people of my constituency and for a Labour Government, I have chosen to focus in part on refugees and the crisis that they face throughout the world. Earlier this year, I led a Westminster Hall debate about refugee family reunion. It was a good debate, with colleagues from across the House making sensible and at times moving contributions about the situation that refugees, often women and children, are facing here and in other parts of the world.
Let us be clear that those seeking refuge are fleeing violence, famine, disaster and oppression, and they deserve the right to something that we all have and that we fight for for our constituents—a safe, secure and long-term home. The crisis facing refugees has many elements, and the homelessness element is key. The Refugee Council noted that for many years the refugee sector has highlighted the high rate of homelessness among new refugees who have recently been granted status in the United Kingdom.
Almost 160,000 households experience homelessness across the United Kingdom, and around 9,000 people sleep rough on our UK streets on any given night. We see that in London and in Westminster, and I have seen it across Scotland. The high rate is caused by the short period in which new refugees are expected to move into mainstream accommodation. That is made far more difficult by the pressures on local government and housing associations, which have seen an increase in homelessness across the board. There are delays in accessing the social security system that is there to support those without.
We have all seen the Tory Government’s sustained and at times inhumane welfare policy, which has simply made things worse. Let us look at personal independence payments, universal credit, the cuts to housing benefit and the sanctions dished out for not turning up to work or an interview. Brexit chaos—a disaster made in Downing Street and in the office of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—will make it even more difficult for refugees to secure the support and training needed to enter the workforce. Getting a job at all will be difficult if we crash out of the European Union as many on the Government Benches would like us to.
We have to act; we have to deliver; we have to do more. Members from all parties will agree that we need improvements to the way we support refugees and honour our responsibilities to the most vulnerable. I would like the Government to give this House and millions of people in our United Kingdom and across the world the assurance that Britain will focus on our responsibility to vulnerable women, men and children who come to Britain seeking peace and safety.
I wrote to the Minister for Immigration following the debate I led in February 2018, but I still have not had any reply, despite sending several follow-ups. No response. That is disappointing, and I hope my requests for information and answers will not be ignored today. In the context of the Government’s recent integrated communities Green Paper, what specific measures will they take to address refugee homelessness in this country? What discussions have taken place with the devolved Administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to this crisis across our United Kingdom? What discussions have taken place with housing associations to see how they can assist with the provision of safe and affordable homes for those who need one? What discussions have taken place with the Local Government Association to identify what support local government needs to be able to play its part? Finally, what thought has been given to introducing rent controls so that rogue landlords cannot lead us in a race to the bottom?
The housing crisis in our country needs addressing immediately. Hon. Members from all parties in this House know that this Government can act. I see a lot of young people sitting in the Public Gallery; they know what the housing crisis is like. Let us give them all a chance.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for opening the debate. Many people have been shocked by the recent report from the No Accommodation Network, which found that 28% of guests of its night shelters were refugees. But that statistic is not surprising when we consider what this Government have done to restrict and dispossess refugees in this country.
I am not surprised by the statistics, since asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support of just £36.95 a week. I would be unable to live on that and I suspect that many people present would be unable to live a decent life on that, either. When claiming asylum, refugees are given no choice of accommodation or location; they are nearly always placed in hard-to-let properties where other people do not want to live and conditions are poor—damp and mould are rife. They are not the kind of conditions in which I, hon. Members or members of our community would expect to live, so why on earth do we put some of the most vulnerable in those kinds of properties?
The Home Office gives those newly granted asylum fewer than 28 days to start a new life, to leave accommodation and find housing, benefits, employment and a national insurance number. I am not surprised by that, because this Government have a hostile environment policy. The report found a direct link between this Government’s failed move-on policy and the high amount of homeless refugees in the UK. There is a direct link between this Government’s inaction and the more than 17,000 people who approached the charity Crisis last year with nowhere to live after leaving asylum accommodation. That figure has more than doubled in the three short years since 2015.
I am not surprised by the report, because the end game of this Government is an immovable commitment to the politics of restriction. Restrictive policies are designed to prevent and deter individuals from seeking asylum, and to be less welcoming and deny safety to those who need it most. It is precisely because of those policies that we need to have this debate. Why do refugees account for 28% of those in night shelters for the homeless, when refugees account for just 0.25% of the population? Why do refugees deserve less?
Some people claim that refugees do not deserve the same rights as British-born people. Some people say that refugees present a threat to our sovereignty and our security, because anyone who reaches the border is clearly a threat. The reality, however, is that it is the dangerous fanatics who are a threat, so why are this Government pursuing policies that those fanatics would applaud? Rights are not claimed by virtue of being British born or even of having citizenship, but by being a human being. The UK has signed up to commitments that we must fulfil. As a human right, the right to a decent place to live is no exception.
The Government must take steps to ensure that the Homelessness Reduction Act can be extended to refugees and that it is properly enforced, particularly in respect of support for an extra number of days. The Government’s inaction is drastically out of sync with the efforts of certain Departments to prevent homelessness and reduce rough sleeping in other parts of the population. How can we claim we have made progress if we have not supported the most vulnerable in our society? Refugees escape war, torture and see the most horrific things imaginable. They deserve to be welcomed and to be given decent accommodation.
Under the last Labour Government, the refugee integration and employment service offered 12 months of support for refugees’ access to housing, education, social security and the job market.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the last Labour Government’s refugee integration strategy and the comprehensive plan for employment and support. Is he aware that that strategy was cancelled by the Liberal Democrat-Tory coalition Government in 2010?
Exactly—it was cancelled by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, to treat some of the most vulnerable in our society worse. The refugee integration and employment service was not perfect, but rather than building on it and improving it, the Conservative-Liberal Government scrapped it entirely, in a disgraceful move. I add my voice to those asking the Minister: will he ensure that people who are granted asylum are given the 56 days outlined in the Homelessness Reduction Act to find accommodation? If he commits to that today we will have started to take decent steps forward.
Over many years, Conservative Governments have given in to the demands of their populist right and the UK Independence party. They peddle the same myths and scare stories about migrants, refugees and people who claim asylum. Let us have an end to that. Why do the Government not stand up to that today? Last year we gave 10,000 people refugee status. Every minute that they wait in poor accommodation is a minute too long. We need change and we need compassion. We need to enable refugees to contribute to our society, and the way to do that is to contribute to their wellbeing and provide decent housing. It is not too much to ask. I beg the Minister to take action.
It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and others who have all made such great contributions. I will not repeat what others have said. I will move on to a specific aspect, which, I am afraid to say, is possibly outside the Minister’s area of responsibility. None the less, it is entirely relevant to the topic under discussion: the right to work.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is chair of the all-party group on migration, for securing this important debate and for working so closely with me as chair of the all-party group on refugees. We work closely together and I am very pleased about that.
I launched the “Refugees Welcome?” report just before the general election last year. The APPG on refugees produced it after an inquiry of many months. We took evidence from refugees, refugee organisations, local authorities and health organisations. There are copies available: my office has paper copies, but it is also online. We looked at various things, some of which the Government have now taken up. I am pleased about that and I thank them for doing so. For instance, the issue of national insurance numbers—my hon. Friend mentioned their inclusion in documents—was holding up many refugees needlessly and pointlessly, but that is supposed to have been sorted out now. I am still getting evidence that it is not completely fixed, but at least the intention is clear.
On the 28-day move-on period, we kept finding more and more egregious examples of how it ended up turning into destitution and homelessness. The impact of detention and the two-tier system between the resettlement scheme and refugees who come via the asylum route have also been mentioned. That is not directly relevant today, but some of the things we picked up had a specific impact on homelessness. As my hon. Friend has said, the 28 days turns from delirium to despair. The news that someone is being given refugee status should be a day of joy and celebration, but for many refugees it very quickly turns to despair when they realise that they will become either homeless or destitute—or both—within 28 days, for reasons that others have mentioned.
Our report recommended a move to 56 days, which would be coterminous with the universal credit timetable, so it makes sense. I urge the Minister to urge his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider the matter, because that would be most useful. I must thank Jon Featonby, previously of the Refugee Council but now of the Red Cross, for his help with the report, particularly the careful drafting.
On the right to work, I thank Forced Migration Review for its June 2018 edition on refugees and economies. Such a focus would really help to prevent refugee homeless. Even though the issue is a DWP competence, it is relevant to the Minister’s work at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I also refer him to the fact that the integration strategy—it is not a refugee integration strategy, which I would like—is part of MHCLG’s competence, and I want him to re-examine that strategy’s specific impact on refugees.
The 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees affords refugees the right to work. I want to be clear: our legal obligations require us to give refugees the right to work. When we give refugee status, they are able to work. However, there are problems with waiting until that point. Nearly half of the 145 states that are party to the convention declare reservations in applying the right to work. Even those that do apply the right to work usually impose conditions and limitations. There is very little consistency in implementing the right to work and there are significant variations among those countries.
We should consider some examples of good practice in order to help prevent refugee destitution and homelessness. Jordan, a non-signatory country, provides a quota of work permits. Turkey is not a particularly wealthy country, but it has 3.3 million refugees and they can apply for work permits after six months. In Chad and Uganda, refugees are allowed to settle in host communities and some are granted arable land for agricultural purposes. In Ethiopia, the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Government of Ethiopia collaborate on an out-of-camp policy, which relaxes conditions of residence and movement so that refugees can work. They can set up their own businesses both inside and outside camps.
In Kenya, community organisations help refugees with language classes and links to employment and support. In the UK, various businesses are active, including Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s, IKEA and, I am sure, others. I declare an interest, because I hosted a dinner recently for Starbucks to discuss its refugee employment programmes. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to consider the role played by private industry. When private industry wants to take a responsible role, we should welcome that, and I do.
In Bristol, as in countries across the United Kingdom, volunteers and campaigning groups such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Borderlands, Bristol Hospitality Network and others do fantastic work to prevent refugee homelessness and to help refugees into work in order to prevent homelessness and destitution. Yet refugees and asylum seekers tell me of their frustrations at not being able to work sooner and of the gaps that that imposes on their CVs. They tell me of the limitations on volunteering.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because he has saved me from making that point later. I absolutely agree with him. I urge the Minister to take that key recommendation to his colleagues. There is a 12-month limitation and then they can work but only in a job on the reserved list. That includes being a professional ballet dancer, by the way, which is not exactly a route to employment for most refugees. Without wishing to stereotype, it has not yet come to my attention that there are out-of-work ballet dancers among the refugees that I have met.
The policy is very unhelpful. It is contrary to refugee integration and, as I have said, integration is the Minister’s departmental responsibility. Good integration is in all our interests. Homelessness prevents integration. Lack of money, gaps in employment, and language difficulties all increase the risk of homelessness. The 28-day move-on period increases the risk of homelessness. Cuts to English classes make everything harder. Lack of documents increases the risk of homelessness. All of those are fixable problems; most of them fixable without a large amount of money. In fact, it would save us money. If we got refugees into volunteering, employment and training, it would be good for everyone.
Will the hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to the many faith-based groups that help homeless refugees? They work not only among the refugees, but with other groups such as ex-service personnel, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, to try to get them to restart and build a new life.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Like magic, he has anticipated my next paragraph. During the inquiry, when we asked Jonathan from Survivors Speak OUT whether he felt that refugees were welcome in the UK, he said that the asylum system did not make him feel welcome. He was traumatised and angry during the entire five years it took to get status, but he also said that during that time he was made to feel welcome by the people of this country. When he was destitute and homeless while stuck in the process, he was supported by a church. He was given a home by a family and was welcomed into the community. So I ask—not for the first and probably not for the last time—for this country’s systems to live up to the shining example set by this country’s people in truly welcoming refugees.
The all-party group would like the Government to improve on the following, all of which would help to end or prevent refugee homelessness. We would like a national refugee integration strategy, or, if not that, for the integration strategy as a whole to have a dedicated aspect that should be expanded, particularly with regard to refugees. We would like the restoration of full legal aid for all asylum seekers. We would like to introduce the provisions for refugee family reunion that are contained in the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I love saying the name of his constituency. We would like an end to indefinite immigration detention—28 days is quite enough, and ideally it should not ever happen to pregnant women. We would like full restoration of English language classes. Refugee after refugee told us about their sterling efforts to learn English and how hard it was when classes were cut. One told us he could not afford buses to get around London, so he walked from class to class, wherever he could go to learn English. He told us all that in immaculate English, so the method worked, but it should not be that hard.
We should reform the rules on the right to work and volunteer so that, at the very least, asylum seekers can apply to work and start to try to look for work at six months. If the Home Office cannot meet its own service standard, why should refugees have to suffer a gap in their employment, which will affect their future ability to get work? We would also like the principles of the global compact on refugees to be integrated into UK law when the process is completed later this year.
I want to end by quoting another refugee, whom I would like to speak of as a friend—Kolbassia, of Survivors Speak OUT. Giving evidence to the inquiry of the APPG on refugees, he said:
“I’m part of this country. I need to make this country great. And that is the case for most refugees who are here. We are grateful for what is given to us and we want to do everything to repay this country. But we need help and that help will come from policy makers.”
Sir Henry, what a call to action that is. If we heed it we can end refugee homelessness and make refugees feel truly welcome.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on setting the scene for us very clearly. There have been some significant and helpful contributions on an issue that we all feel strongly about. I have been very clear about the need for a manageable number of vetted refugees. It is not enough to tell people that they are free to live in the UK without also giving them the tools to begin their new life, find work and integrate into the community that they have been moved to. For every refugee whom we agree to take, there must be funding and the will in the community to integrate those people. If those things are not there, we are failing them, and we need to do something about that. I am clear that we have a duty to help, which does not mean simply moving them from a refugee camp in Europe to one in the UK. We must move them into communities, and we cannot do that when we oversubscribe.
I recently spoke to the inspector who had the task of settling refugees in my area. He said they integrated into communities best when they were in small family units that the neighbourhood wanted to help. An example of that is happening in my town, Newtownards. Four Syrian families were relocated together. It was important that they were together; they were clustered in one area, and had houses together where they had contact with each other. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the importance of faith groups, and they are important in my constituency. It was faith groups who came together to help the refugees when they arrived in Newtownards. It was the Minister and people of Strean Presbyterian church, and the Link group in Newtownards, which brings together a number of churches. Whenever—I say this gently—Government Departments were not as quick off the mark as they perhaps should have been, Link helped, physically, with getting furniture and giving clothes and food, and with being someone to talk to.
I met the Syrian families. I thought it was important to do so, first to welcome them to the area, and secondly to show them that politically they had support at the highest level. There was no bother about relocation in Newtownards. There never would be; but there is a language barrier and it is important to deal with that early on. Other hon. Members have referred to it and I know how important it is. Being able to speak the language is necessary to get a job and do the shopping, and so that children can go to school. The children are going to school, and we have many good people working together to make those things happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has a Red Cross group in his constituency. It does excellent work. I met someone from the group at Westminster last week, and have met others locally. They do tremendous work on integrating people and helping them to settle across the area.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the role played by the Red Cross across Northern Ireland. It is still a profound regret to me that not one of the Syrian refugees who relocated to Northern Ireland has been housed in East Belfast. There is a barrier to the provision of houses to those individuals, who desperately need them. There is a welcoming community that wants to host them if they come to my constituency. Does he agree that the situation needs to change?
I am almost flabbergasted by that news, Sir Henry. Given that we have been able to relocate four families close together in Newtownards, with the support of the local churches in making it happen, I am really disappointed by that. It is a big issue to be addressed, and that should be happening now. I am sure when my hon. Friend phones those concerned to remind them about it, their ears are burning.
I thank the many sterling workers who think long and hard about, and put hours into, making the transition into British life easier for those who come, and the community where they are placed. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned Law Centre NI, and I shall quote a briefing it produced. It is important to set out the changes that it wants, and how they would make integration a wee bit easier. I promised that I would raise the matter on its behalf, and bring it to the attention of the Minister, whose response I look forward to. Refugees are given 28 days to leave Home Office accommodation and find housing, benefits and employment. If it had not been for the people of Newtownards—the churches, committee groups and Link group—coming together for local individuals, we would not have had the smooth integration that was needed, when it was needed. If people are far from home in a community that they are not familiar with—a different culture and tradition—they will all of a sudden feel very much on their own. What has helped those people has been their faith and their integration into church life in Newtownards town.
In the 28-day period, people are expected to apply for social housing, but single adults are rarely found to be in priority need and there is a shortage of social housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East said. If they want to find private rented accommodation, they have in reality less than 28 days to arrange it. There can be delay in relation to their notification of status. We can see how problems multiply. The law centre said:
“The move-on period for people granted status should be extended from 28 days to at least 56 days to reduce risks of homelessness amongst refugees and bring Home Office policy in line with changes recently introduced under the Homelessness Reduction Act and that the impact of procedural adjustments within the move on period introduced in recent months are unclear so a full evaluation of the Post Grant Appointment Service and the pilot that preceded it should be published urgently.”
Law Centre NI is clear about what is needed:
“Learning from this should shape the support that refugees receive around housing and benefits across various government departments.”
Its experience, and the importance of that, are clear.
People who have been financially supported by the Home Office on £37.70 per week during their asylum claim, and who have not been permitted to work, will have been unable to save the funds needed to access private rented housing in advance. Having been placed in no-choice accommodation during the asylum process, they will also often have limited networks to rely on after they move in. There are significant obstacles to getting access to essential support such as benefits and universal credit, such as proof of address and incorrect advice from the jobcentre. Law Centre NI points out that integration loans should be adjusted and monitored to reflect the private rental market more accurately. It refers to the
“public body with a duty to refer”
refugees to local housing authorities under new regulations under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
There are those who say that we can help, and clearly we must. We must help and put our money where our mouth is, like the man with the starfish. We all know that story, about the man picking up stranded starfish and putting them back, who when told “You can’t help them all,” says “I can help this one.” That is what we are doing—“Helping this one.” It must be done in a manner that provides security, hope and a future. If that means that we limit the numbers that we have, to ensure the care that we give people is appropriate and worthy of the British name, that must be the case. Homelessness in the UK is not what we want to offer; we want to offer hope, community, education, healthcare, friendship and freedom to live and work. We must seriously consider the requests of Law Centre NI on behalf of the Refugee Council, the No Accommodation Network, Crisis and Asylum matters.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
Thank you, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate. As we have already heard, those who have been granted refugee status are given 28 days to receive the required identity documentation, to secure a source of income and to find somewhere to live before any current support from the Home Office is terminated. For most, this proves absolutely impossible and, sadly, the majority of people without children become homeless. As we have heard, if someone has claimed asylum and been given refugee status, asylum support will stop 28 days after the decision and in the case of section 4 support it could stop as early as 21 days after.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), and of others, who have stated that the 28-day period is simply not sufficient and that a review of it must be undertaken.
I will also touch on the comments about the support that the Home Office provides. The outsourcing of that support—asylum accommodation—to private companies could have made the process more seamless, on the basis that there would be more opportunity for different types of accommodation to be provided. In reality, the system does not work quite like that. That has meant, for example, that local authorities such as Glasgow City Council, which had expressed an intention to submit a bid, realised that the system was far too unwieldy and the tender process would have made things impossible. Essentially, we are stuck with exactly the same providers and a very similar model, despite the criticisms of the system in a Home Affairs Committee report last year.
Move-on support has been mentioned. Too often, those who are granted refugee status are evicted from their asylum accommodation and simply left to get on with things. To anyone, that would be challenge enough, but to someone who is an asylum seeker or who has been granted asylum in this country, simply having 28 days to start to review their life and to bring everything together is undoubtedly a challenge.
The Government should be providing more extensive support with a new scheme called the warm handover, but in practice this scheme does not appear to be working. Also, it takes a long time before the handover to the benefits system actually happens. We have heard instances of constituents who have waited for three to six months, or for even longer, and that is simply not good enough. For those who are unable to work, because the right to work has not been granted, that delay can leave them in destitution and potentially in dangerous situations, either living on the streets or relying on temporary accommodation.
The Home Affairs Committee recommended that the 28-day move-on period to transition between Home Office support and housing to mainstream benefits should be extended, and that view has been echoed throughout the Chamber today. It is a sensible suggestion, particularly given the delays in benefits such as universal credit being sorted out; it is the only way in which people can move forward in their lives.
At the end of the day, refugees are people and they deserve to be treated with respect. Discretionary leave and humanitarian protections are eligible for allocation from a council to refugees, so they can get the help they need if they become homeless, including helping them to claim housing benefit. Obviously, however, that is constrained and across this country local authorities are doing the very best they can, but ultimately people are reliant on the third sector—the charity sector, faith communities and others—and the good will of people generally to ensure that they are not left homeless or destitute.
That means that many who are seeking asylum or are in a period of move-on support are often heavily reliant either on local government or on charity sector providers such as Refugees at Home and Room For Refugees. Those organisations offer help in finding a spare room, volunteered by a member of the public, to those who have been granted refugee status following a successful asylum application but then have only the 28 days, those whose application for asylum is ongoing, and those who have been refused asylum and are appealing.
The reality, as outlined by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), is that those who have not been granted the right to work or who have been caught in the bureaucracy of the process are stuck in that limbo for longer than anyone would wish them to be. It is a mantra of the Government that everyone should want to get back into work, but there are people who want to work and provide for themselves but are not being granted the ability to do so, and that is a barrier to progress and integration.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), the poor conditions of the accommodation and the limited financial support is seriously damaging life chances and opportunities. Room For Refugees, which has hosted a total of more than 61,000 nights of shelter and has transformed thousands of lives, has seen a 279% increase in the numbers hosted in the last year, which alone should tell the Government that there is a problem they need to do more to address. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) outlined, Northern Ireland has led the way with the transition guide provided by its law centres. That could be rolled out nationally and be one way in which to signpost people through, whether it be the 28 days or a period voluntarily extended by the Government, giving people a step for a hint about where to start.
The asylum process is complex and its causes often extreme. It requires the difficult task of collecting convincing evidence of an ongoing threat to life or freedom in a person’s country of origin. During that period, many who have sought humanitarian protection, due to circumstances such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and human trafficking, live in fear of being returned to their country. They are often traumatised, and some have experienced torture, rape or imprisonment. Many have lost family, homes and livelihoods and some have serious physical and mental health problems. They are granted asylum and are then forced into myriad bureaucracies. It is simply untenable to say that in 28 days they can turn their life around. Facing refusal and subsequent homelessness and destitution greatly exacerbates their difficulties, as they become unable to meet basic needs. I challenge anyone to try to live on £37 a week—it is unrealistic. How torturous must it be for those who have been stuck in the system for a long time, knowing that they want to work, and could work, but are simply not allowed to?
Those who receive a positive decision on their application —which is after appeal in about 50% to 60% of cases—are then permitted to work and must move on to find their own accommodation. That sounds laudable in reality, but if they have already had to go through an appeal process how much longer will it take them? Without support, it can be a difficult process, and it can be one of the reasons refugees find themselves homeless.
The purpose of this debate is to consider homelessness among the asylum community, but those who are seeking asylum and are refugees require support and encouragement and the Government could do more. Ultimately, this is producing costs in many other areas. I hope that the Minister will take on board all the comments from across the House and consider what further action can be taken.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate. The question she asked at the outset is absolutely right. Without any disrespect to the acting Minister, why has the debate been bumped to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government rather than the Home Office? With the best will in the world, the acting homelessness Minister will not be able to comment on some of my hon. Friend’s fundamental points relating to the reasons why those granted refugee status find themselves without funding or housing. He cannot take action on national insurance numbers, the minimum level of expected treatment of refugees and respect for their status, the responsibility of the state for those vulnerable people who have fled war or persecution, or the post-grant appointment service. He cannot tell us what has happened to the pilot. He cannot tell us where the review is, or anything about access to interpreters to help asylum seekers and refugees navigate our systems. He cannot respond to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on work permits for refugees.
As he is unable to assist with all those things, I hope that the Minister will undertake to hold a meeting with the relevant Home Office Minister, have discussions and feed back to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston the Government’s thoughts on these important issues, or facilitate a joint meeting. It would be a fine example of the Government working cross-departmentally to tackle the gaping holes in Government policy, which will ensure that the very good Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will not meet its stated aims. The Minister must agree that the Government’s failure of process, exacerbating a problem elsewhere in government, is ludicrous.
However, there are some things on which the Minister can comment. He can say something about prioritisation on housing waiting lists, and whether the systems—particularly local connection requirements for refugees—are fit and fair for purpose, from his experience and understanding of them. I am interested to know whether he recognises that some people in category 3 or 4 on waiting lists will be left there for years in limbo—usually single people and those at highest risk of homelessness.
The Minister can also say whether he believes that the Homelessness Reduction Act properly covers refugees and providers of asylum accommodation. There was very little discussion of that aspect of the Bill during its passage, with most of the consideration focusing on the roles and responsibilities of local government. Perhaps the Government intend to say that asylum seekers are covered because everyone who is homeless is covered, and that it is the local authority’s responsibility to deal with it in the best way for their local area. That would be a wholly inadequate response.
We know that the implementation of the Act will prove very challenging. Local authorities are already stretched to meet the needs of their local areas. Indeed, just before the debate I had a meeting with representatives of Centrepoint, who told me that, in the year 2016-17, 86,000 young people presented as homeless. They have concerns about how addressing that will be funded, let alone meeting the specialist needs of refugees who may be traumatised, face language barriers, and have little or no knowledge of our less-than-straightforward systems. If the Government are truly concerned about the prevention of homelessness, what action do they plan to take to tackle the immobility of people in accessing housing, and not leaving them for excessive periods hoping for a home? Will they review the funding settlement for local authorities before the expected October implementation date?
The Minister can also tell us where the Government’s rough sleeping strategy is. The Opposition heard rumours that it would be published last week. Surely it is not the intention that it will be slipped out on the final day before Members leave Parliament for the recess.
Indeed. Whenever that is.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) rightly said, refugees are people who have gone through the trauma of leaving their home and possibly their family. Yet rather than offering a safe haven for those vulnerable people, our current system creates further difficulties and challenges at a time when many would think that their troubles were over. Given all that, it is little surprise that there are calls from the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, St Mungo’s, the Refugee Council, NACCOM, Crisis and others to extend that 28-day grace period to at least 56 days, and to implement a number of other recommendations.
In response to the Home Affairs Committee report, the Government pledged to introduce a new vulnerable persons service. Yet data from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network revealed that the number of new rough sleepers in London with refugee status increased in the period 2017-18 compared with the previous year, and is up nearly 75% from just two years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said just how disproportionate was the number of refugees in the homeless population and that, when we do house them, they end up in sub-standard, low-quality, poor housing. The Government must recognise that and take account of it. That is consistent with NACCOM’s findings that nearly 30% of people requiring emergency sheltered accommodation last winter were refugees. It bears repeating that those people are fleeing persecution, war and possible famine. All those things often come with health complications that would make a harsh winter extremely difficult for a rough sleeper to withstand. It is not Government policy to track the deaths of rough sleepers, so we do not know how many refugees have lost their lives as a result of rough sleeping. The Government aim to end rough sleeping by 2027, but if they want to get anywhere near that target, they must realise that their current reforms and actions are nowhere near enough.
More than half the people in the Refugee Council study have endured a period in a hostel, night shelter or on the streets, and the reality is that someone who has been granted asylum in the UK is only 28 days from the possibility of homelessness. That is half what the Homelessness Reduction Act prescribes as the period after which councils must step in if someone is threatened with homelessness. Why are refugees who have been granted asylum given less state intervention and support than other citizens threatened with homelessness?
Guidance in the application and roll-out of the 2017 Act has not been openly consulted on, so I am not clear who the acting Minister has spoken to. Has he considered extending the list of public bodies with a duty to refer to include those that provide asylum accommodation? Undertaking to do that would go some way to easing the concerns of those operating in the sector.
The UNHCR definition of a refugee states that a refugee has the “right to safe asylum”. The UK has a proud history of providing that, but we must ensure that it is a genuine safe haven for refugees and does not contribute to stigmatisation through lackadaisical policy-making or an unwillingness to make things right. We need a cross-Government approach to ensure that no new refugee ends up on the streets, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how he will do that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this crucial debate. It was a little interrupted, and I am grateful to hon. Members for coming back to the Chamber to hear a response from the interim Minister—I guess we are all interim Ministers in this job, as it is ultimately down to the will of the electorate.
I have no intentions in that regard.
I thank the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston for her work in this area. Her important work with the all-party group on refugees has raised the profiles of issues that impact on refugees, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today.
We have a proud history of providing protection for those who need it, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all refugees can take positive steps towards integration and realise their potential. This country should work for everyone, especially the most vulnerable in our society, and we remain committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over their heads and receives the support they need to rebuild their lives.
As hon. Members have said, our manifesto pledged to halve rough sleeping during this Parliament and end it altogether by 2027, and that is in addition to an ambitious homelessness reduction programme. We are making good progress on our refugee resettlement commitments. Last year, more than 6,000 vulnerable refugees received protection under one of our resettlement schemes, and we are now more than half way towards meeting our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict by 2020. There is much good practice from the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement programme, and we will build on that as we go forward.
A key commitment in the Government’s integrated community strategy was to work with civil society, and others, to increase the integration support available to those granted refugee status after arrival in the UK. That is a significant development in our approach, which recognises the importance we place on integration for all refugees. We agree that for newly recognised refugees, securing accommodation and accessing benefits or employment are crucial first steps without which longer term integration simply cannot happen. That is why we have introduced a number of initiatives to support refugees during the 28-day move-on period, to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston rightly referred.
The post-grant appointment service is a joint initiative with the Home Office and the DWP, which helps refugees access benefits by arranging an appointment with a local DWP office—a jobcentre. The process is now being rolled out across the UK. Hon. Members referred to the pilots and issues that have been found in them. It is crucial that we monitor the progress of this work. I am sure that my colleagues at DWP have heard such comments and will follow up on them. The process has been rolled out. We plan to publish information about the schemes shortly, but the indicators are that, provided refugees attend the appointment, benefit claims can be processed quickly and a payment can be provided, before the 28-day move-on period expires.
MHCLG is currently funding the first year of a two-year pilot of 35 local authority asylum support liaison officers in 19 local authority areas in England with some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers. They will offer tailored support to newly recognised refugees. That will include working closely with the local authorities and a range of third-sector agencies during that 28-day move-on period, to secure accommodation for new refugees to move into, following a successful asylum decision. That should thereby reduce this vulnerable cohort’s risk of homelessness and rough sleeping. We want to work with civil society, local authorities and other partners, to consider what more could be done to support newly recognised refugees in the move-on period and the longer-term journey to integration.
More broadly, homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Government. As I have mentioned, we have allocated more than £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness to 2020. That funding will assist people to get the help they need and prevent homelessness and rough sleeping in the first place. Newly recognised refugees are entitled to homelessness assistance from their local authority and will benefit from the changes we are implementing through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which many hon. Members have referred to. That came into being in April. We believe it is the most ambitious legislative reform in decades. Some of the changes introduced in the Act should mean that more people, whether they have priority need or not, are receiving the right support. For clarity, the new duties in the Act include providing and developing personalised housing plans based on an assessment of that person’s need, help to find accommodation and to access debt advice, and, potentially and crucially, help towards finding work.
For refugees, I recognise that the 28-day move-on period is less than the 56-day prevention duty in the Act. Home Office accommodation providers for asylum seekers already have a contractual duty to notify the local authority of the potential need to provide housing where a person in that accommodation is granted status. Combined with support from LAASLOs, the post-grant appointment service and the strengthened multi-agency approach to preventing homelessness, this referral by those providers should mean that the refugees get a range of support to access mainstream accommodation and services within the 28-day move-on period.
In order to deliver the new duties under the Act, we have provided new burdens funding of £72.7 million to ensure that local authorities can deliver their new duties. Funding, however, is not enough to ensure the Act is implemented correctly. That is why we have created the homelessness support and advice team. They have worked with authorities over the last year on a range of issues, but in particular they have supported them in the implementation of the Act.
We are going further on homelessness by committing to halve rough sleeping, as I have mentioned previously, in this Parliament and ending it entirely by 2027. In answer to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), the Opposition spokesman, we will be publishing the rough sleeping strategy this summer, to set out our plan on how to achieve this. We are taking action now through the rough sleeping initiative. It is providing £30 million this year and the money has been allocated to the local authorities with the highest numbers of people sleeping rough. It is the product of many months of work by our cross-governmental rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce, supported by an advisory panel of experts from across the sector and local government.
We have announced £28 million for Housing First pilots in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Liverpool city region, which will focus on housing around 1,000 people with some of the most vulnerable and complex needs. The pilots will provide individuals with stable, affordable accommodation and, more importantly, intensive wrap-around support, which will help them to recover from complex issues such as substance abuse and mental health difficulties, and to sustain their tenancies. We expect the first people to move into the accommodation in the autumn. I very much look forward to the positive impacts of those pilots being realised.
To help local authorities support non-UK national rough sleepers, the controlling migration fund has funded projects that are working to support rough sleepers into accommodation and employment, and to return home voluntarily where that is appropriate.
I would like to respond to a number of points raised by Members. I apologise if I do not manage to respond to them all, but I will write to everyone who has contributed today with full answers to the points raised.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston asked whether refugees would be given priority in housing services. Newly recognised refugees are eligible for assistance under legislation for homelessness and must be provided with accommodation if they have priority need, for example, if they are pregnant or have children. If they have been supported by the Home Office, they are deemed to have a local connection with the local authority in which they have been accommodated.
The hon. Lady asked about local authority asylum support liaison officers and the assessment of how they are working, and tier one classification and national insurance. Each of the 19 pilot areas will produce a report at the end of the first and second years. My Department is in the process of deciding how the evaluation of the pilots will fit into a broader evaluation of the controlling migration fund. On conversation with the DWP regarding reclassification to tier one, I do not know the answer, but I will ensure that the hon. Lady is written to and that she is updated.
On national insurance cards, refugees do not need to have a national insurance number to claim benefits because DWP centres provide one if an individual does not have one. From January 2018, procedures were put in place that mean that the national insurance number is now printed on all biometric residence permits provided to refugees.
The hon. Lady talked about social housing allocations. Certain people must be given reasonable preference under social housing allocation schemes, including people who are homeless. That is to ensure that the priority goes to those who need it the most.
In the time I have left, I will try to respond to hon. Members who are here in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) mentioned the integrated communities strategy. The Green Paper, published in March, recognised the importance of integration for all refugees, as well as committing to working with civil society. The consultation closed on 5 June and we are currently considering the responses. Last week, we launched the £7 million integrated communities fund.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who does fantastic work on the APPG, asked about access to English classes. English language tuition is fully funded for refugees who are unemployed and looking for work. I know she raised lots of other points and I will certainly write to her on them. I am conscious that I want to give the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston a short period to sum up.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I did not manage to mention this point. I know that she is keen for the Home Office to engage with this matter and I will ensure that the relevant Minister from the Home Office meets her and interested colleagues to take these issues forward.
I am very grateful to the Minister. I am sure that the all-party parliamentary groups that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and I chair will be very happy to facilitate that meeting.
As we heard in the debate, what refugees, in common with all of us, need to be able to settle and build their lives is a chance to be in contact with their families, a chance to have a decent job if they are able to work and, importantly, a chance to have a secure home. As the Minister, I think, has acknowledged, that requires a response right across Government, and I am very grateful to him for his offer to pass on details of this debate to his colleagues in other Departments.
We have obligations—international obligations and human rights obligations—to ensure that we care for refugees here properly, and that will require an approach that extends right across national and local government, as I have said. I hope that the promises that the Minister has made of new policies and strategies delivering an improved service for refugees will come to fruition and will mean that some of the problems identified in today’s debate become a thing of the past. I can assure him and his ministerial colleagues that if that is not the case, we will be back here again to press the case for action in the best interests of refugees.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered homelessness among refugees.