[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum accommodation contracts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
This issue might not grab the headlines of the mainstream media, it might not be a scandal that starts to trend on Twitter and it is unlikely to be an issue that party leaders are doorstepped on, but it is an issue of extreme importance. It reflects what kind of country we are and want to be, and what kind of people we are and want to be.
A huge number of areas could be addressed to improve the quality of life of asylum seekers, particularly when they are living on asylum support, from the amount of financial support they get to their general health and wellbeing. We can and should do better, and it need not cost the taxpayer any more money. Today’s debate is specifically about asylum accommodation contracts. The Government are just weeks away from signing new contracts that will determine the quality of asylum accommodation support for the next 10 years. This is a tremendous opportunity for mostly small but significant improvements to be made to provision. Perhaps even more importantly, it is an opportunity to ensure that service providers are delivering what they are supposed to and treating asylum seekers with the dignity and respect that we would expect for our own families.
Sadly, under the current contracts that is not generally the case. The total lack of adequate monitoring lets contractors get away with providing the most basic of services, which often fail to meet the old contract criteria. Brief after brief and organisation after organisation has called on the Government to step up the monitoring and to work in partnership with local authorities and third sector organisations to ensure that asylum seekers get the services they are entitled to and that the British taxpayer pays for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There is a pattern with these private companies in relation to public services. We have seen it in social security, where companies have actually had their contracts cancelled. More importantly, we should also touch on the Shaw report, which lays out what the Home Secretary thinks and the changes he is going to make. We must do what my hon. Friend suggests and go along with the Shaw report.
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows by now that interventions are supposed to be short.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) makes a fair point. That is why we have to take opportunities with the new contracts to improve on what we had in the past.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is just one of dozens of organisations that has reached out to me since I secured this debate. In common with many others, it has recommended that the new contracts must have robust monitoring, with compliance and complaints mechanisms built into the agreements. I wonder whether the Minister agrees with that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to funding support I receive for research capabilities in my office on immigration and asylum. In its report, the Select Committee on Home Affairs suggested a much tighter monitoring and inspection regime—something we would have hoped that the Government would have picked up in issuing the new contracts.
Yes, indeed; that is the case. It is something that I will allude to later on in my remarks.
My staff team and I know first-hand how hard it is to break through the barriers of service providers and their subcontractors to try and get them to fulfil their contracts to vulnerable people. One example in Stockton is a family with a seriously disabled member. They were dumped in a second floor flat, making the person a prisoner in their home. It took us weeks and umpteen phone calls to providers, contractors, subcontractors and the Home Office to sort it out. Had the contract been properly monitored, this would never have happened.
The Home Affairs Committee—I said I would mention it—recommended that the Government recognise local authorities and the third sector as key stakeholders, empower devolved Governments to monitor the delivery of the contracts and give local authorities greater flexibility to determine where accommodation is procured.
I appreciate my hon. Friend giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. As my neighbour in Teesside, will he join me in congratulating the local authority there? They have proved themselves to be excellent partners in delivering the Syrian resettlement programme. Does he agree that flexibility should be extended on the asylum dispersal system, so that local authorities can again prove themselves to be excellent partners in providing these services when the private sector fails?
Yes, I most certainly do. We have some great local authorities throughout the Tees valley. The local authorities really want to work with the Government on this. They have the expertise, they know the people, they know the places and they know the facilities.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with his time. Specifically on that point about local authorities, my local authority, Newcastle City Council, recently received a court judgment that prevents it from imposing decent home standards on asylum accommodation. Does he agree that that is absolutely unacceptable?
It is absolutely unacceptable. All the more reason why the Government can now take an opportunity with the new contracts to lay down higher standards for the vulnerable people who we should be looking after.
A briefing from the Local Government Association confirms that the current model of provision for asylum seekers does not provide the necessary funding for councils and is likely to place further pressures on specific areas of the UK. I share the view that partnership structures need to be established as a matter of urgency that allow local authorities and regions to work with the Home Office and contractors to better manage the provision.
My hon. Friend is very generous with his time. He is making a passionate speech. I want to add to the point about local authorities and community members. I have been supporting an Iraqi family who have had a real issue. The community came to me and said that the way that the family were being treated was absolutely unacceptable. In the scrutiny we need to make sure that communities are on board as well.
That is most certainly the case. If it were not for the community organisations in my constituency and throughout the Tees valley and the country, the people who are refugees in our country would be suffering a hell of a lot more than they currently are. The current contract fails in so many ways, and the new one will also fail if it is not designed and monitored properly. We need to listen to these organisations, be they local authorities or third sector groups. Daily, they meet and work with asylum seekers; they know where the failings are and how services could be improved.
A briefing from Asylum Matters says that the Government’s asylum accommodation contracts are worth more than £4 billion. That is £4 billion of public money, but Parliament seems powerless to influence the procurement process in order to ensure that some of the most vulnerable in our society get the support that they deserve as human beings. I hope that that will change today.
I want now to take a few moments to talk about simple matters: duvets, pillows, plates and mattresses. I am appalled at the poor quality of the ones provided to asylum seekers in Stockton. The contract says to provide a duvet and pillows, and the contractors do, but it is possible to get two pillows into one pillowcase, and the duvets are so thin as to provide no warmth at all. The mattresses, too, are poor; they are uncomfortable and often dirty. Then there is the single plastic plate issued to some refugees. The contract says to provide a plate, so the contractors do, but the plates are not fit for purpose and end up stained with knife marks cut into them from the simple task of cutting up food. If it were not for the churches and charities in my area and, I am sure, elsewhere that provide better quality goods, refugees would be freezing in houses where heating is often restricted.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight those cases. All of us are present at the debate, I guess, because we have dealt with very distressing individual cases and too many of them. I had one recently in which for six months and after 30 telephone calls, G4S failed to deal with accommodation where there was damp and cockroach and rat infestation. My hon. Friend mentioned the Home Affairs Committee report. The Government have said that they want to—
Order. I am sorry, but this cannot be a speech, because a lot of hon. Members are down to speak. I therefore ask for short interventions.
I know exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was talking about, and I am sure that I will address some of those issues later.
Surely refugees should not have to rely on charity. I therefore ask the Minister to get into a little bit of detail and ensure that the new contracts define good tog ratings, decent pillows and—who knows?—even a plate that can be left clean for use the next day. That would be an easy and quick win that would make a tremendous difference to the lives and dignity of our refugees.
There is a tendency among some in this country and in the wider world to view someone seeking asylum as an “other”. So often it is ignored that asylum seekers are fleeing some of the most horrendous and dangerous situations, which we in this country could not even imagine. I will continue to use my voice to inform and educate and to communicate the message that asylum seekers are welcome here, that they will be treated with dignity and respect, and that they have a right to expect a quality of life that we would want for our own friends and family. I therefore stand with all those organisations that have contacted me and with asylum seekers in this country in making a plea to the Home Secretary to work in partnership with local authorities and the third sector, which can add so much value.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure that he has spoken with Refugee Action about the enormous need that asylum seekers have to learn English. Perhaps through him, I can appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister to talk in her reply to the debate about what can be done to increase the capacity for teaching asylum seekers English.
That is a very strong point. Local churches including my own, the Portrack Baptist church, are running the English classes for refugees in our community, so the point is well made and I am sure that the Minister will have taken it on board.
Asylum Matters commissioned an analysis of the statement of requirements for the new asylum accommodation and support contracts in order to identify how they differ from the current COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts. It found that, on the whole, the new contracts resemble the current one, with most of the alterations being made unlikely to improve significantly the service that is provided. Has the Minister seen that analysis and, if so, what does she think of it?
There is also serious concern that the contract is for 10 years without any review period built in. That is reckless and wrong. The whole approach lets the Government wash their hands of the whole issue for a whole decade. With inadequate monitoring, many profit takers will just maximise their returns by short-changing refugees.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Does he agree that it is wrong to award 10-year contracts without adequate contract compliance being in place to ensure that people meet the obligations and that basic standards are met, so that the human rights of asylum seekers are not violated?
Exactly. I really look forward to hearing from the Minister how the compliance and monitoring will be improved for the new contracts.
Things may have changed in the last few days, but we believe that the Home Office has not yet received compliant bids in north-east England, Yorkshire and the Humber and Northern Ireland. With no information provided to local authorities about why that situation has happened, the people who could be left to pick up the pieces are being left in the dark. Perhaps the Minister can update the House on the current status of compliant bids and, if we do not have them, tell us about plan B.
In a report put together by Asylum Matters on asylum housing in Tyneside, it was found that there are real concerns about mother-and-child accommodation. Women with two children of different ages are still all put together in one room—a situation that would never normally be accepted in the UK. Babies are particularly vulnerable to sickness in such situations, and the cramped conditions are causing disease to spread at an alarming rate, leading to everyone suffering from a sickness bug but still having to join a queue to use the bathroom down the hall. That is intolerable and even inhumane.
One of the other more emotive issues with the proposed contract has been highlighted by the Home Affairs Committee and so many other people. I am referring to asylum seekers being forced to share a bedroom, perhaps with a person of a different culture, different nationality and different religion. Often, it can be a victim of torture who is forced to share a room. Freedom from Torture has many examples that demonstrate that the Government and their contractors are failing to consider properly the vulnerability of many of these people.
One asylum seeker was placed in a shared room, and even though his therapist wrote to UK Visas and Immigration on three occasions, outlining his depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and chronic pain, no response was received for weeks on end and the suffering continued.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. One reason why this situation happens is that the Home Office fails to effectively share the information with the accommodation provider. Does he agree that the contracts should require the Home Office to share the information and that the accommodation providers should act on it accordingly?
Yes, there are always going to be all sorts of issues in relation to confidentiality, but people who are providing direct services need information if they are to provide the correct facilities for people, so that definitely has to be addressed. I see this as the Government overseeing not just bad practice, but dangerous and cruel practice.
Another example involves a young Kurdish man who was moved from Teesside, where he had settled and joined a local church, to Tyneside because an older man sharing his accommodation thought that he could tell him how to live his life simply because he was his elder. The young man was intimidated, but rather than the older man being dealt with, the young man was moved, leaving the troublemaker to start on the next young person to be accommodated there.
One of the organisations in my own patch is Justice First, and I am pleased to see Kath Sainsbury from Justice First sitting in the Public Gallery. It has stressed to me that currently the Government’s position is that a person will not have to share a room if they are determined to be “vulnerable”, yet the Government have refused to define what vulnerable means to them.
In the reply to my parliamentary question about shared accommodation, the Minister said that room sharing will continue to be permitted
“providing it complies with the strict criteria set out in the contracts and with relevant national and local housing regulations, including advice from social services and primary and secondary care bodies on whether room sharing is inappropriate…
In addition all accommodation providers will be required to continue to ensure that they take into account a service user’s individual characteristics and provide them with appropriate accommodation reflective of any changing needs, including adherence to religious practice.”
I ask the Minister today how that will work. Will she spell out what those “strict criteria” are? How does she define vulnerability? How will providers be monitored—the word “monitoring” comes up again—and managed to ensure that they do not just ignore the advice and disregard individual needs? That is quite a list of questions for the Minister and, if she is not prepared sufficiently to reply to them today, I ask that she write to me and publish the reply, because we all need that level of understanding.
We must also work to reduce the use of large-scale houses in multiple occupation. In particular, vulnerable service users such as pregnant women, new mothers, victims of violence or torture, and those with physical and mental health needs should not be in large-scale HMOs. Proper and effective vulnerability screening needs to take place regularly in asylum accommodation to identify individuals with specific support needs, such as those with mental health issues, the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, survivors of trafficking, pregnant women, young mothers and LGBT individuals. Sadly, the existing contract often fails here, too. The experts on those issues tell me that the new contract is no better. I ask the Minister, what will change in the contract to sort this out? These people need to feel safe and secure in order to be able to rebuild their lives away from the horror they have escaped.
I received a briefing note from Doctors of the World, which recommended that the contracts be amended to ensure that those seeking asylum are provided with the right to register with a GP while housed in initial accommodation. It recommended that the contracts be amended to require accommodation providers to register vulnerable people with a GP within five working days of arrival at initial or dispersed accommodation. Does the Minister agree with those recommendations? Will she at least listen to the doctors and act on that?
The Government’s current position is that accommodation should be safe and habitable, but those are largely relative assessment factors. What is safe for someone who has experienced physical and mental torture? What is habitable to someone who has severe and advanced physical needs? Temporary accommodation should mean exactly that—not six months of never-ending uncertainty and despair. There have been cases in this country under the contracts where there has been a lack of access to suitable nutritious food, a lack of access to drinking water—right here in 21st century Britain—and a lack of a clean and hygienic environment.
There are also examples of bullying from staff at large accommodation facilities. One person, when complaining about the food at the hotel where they had been placed, was told by a manger from the hotel that they would simply, “Tell the Home Office to take you away”—a direct violation of the specific stipulation that asylum seekers should be treated with sensitivity. There must be a complaints management system to provide ways and means for asylum seekers to raise complaints. Instead, they are threatened with removal by the Home Office. That is not a proper complaints management process.
The Home Office has a choice: it can choose to work with local authorities, third-sector organisations and other hon. Members of this House, or Ministers can bury their heads in the sand and try to wipe away their responsibility for another 10 years. But we will not let them forget it and we will keep using our voices to stand up for those who are resident in our country and just want to get by and live their lives.
I have more questions for the Minister to address. Would she be content knowing that her own child was sleeping in a cold, damp house with just a duvet with a 6.5 tog rating? Could she sleep at night if she had an 18-year-old daughter who was sharing a room with a stranger, whose background she did not know? Would she be okay watching cockroaches and rodents crawl across the floor and perhaps on to the bed, while her children were trying to sleep? That is the reality that some people in asylum accommodation are going through.
I have talked extensively—I do not apologise for it at all—about monitoring provision. I wonder whether the Minister has ever visited the supposedly temporary accommodation of asylum seekers. I would be pleased if she has. Maybe next time she could come to Stockton unannounced and see what people have to put up with, rather than going to a place where a provider can set things up for a nice, pleasant ministerial experience.
We have a duty of care over people who are in this country, the conditions they live in and how they are treated. The Minister still has the opportunity to take on board the suggestions from dozens of organisations that really want to help the Government and our refugees. I hope she will take a step back, think and do just that. I look forward to her response.
Order. Given the number of hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye, I will impose, with immediate effect, a time limit of four minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate.
There are so many horror stories about asylum accommodation in the UK and so many reasons why we need independent oversight that it would be impossible to cover everything in the time I have, but I hope that what I do share gives an understanding of how outsourcing companies acting like vultures are failing our most vulnerable. I hope these contracts can be delivered better locally by those who have the interests of the residents at heart.
G4S holds a contract in the giant north-east England, Yorkshire and Humber region. It has a home for 14 mothers and 14 babies in my constituency. I was first contacted about the property by the manager of a local children’s centre, who described a multitude of issues and the unwillingness of G4S to act. On visiting the house, the first thing that struck me was the stickiness underfoot and the smell of urine. That was the result of an earlier rat infestation, which was reported to G4S and ignored.
Although the local church stepped in and blocked the rats’ entrance to the bedroom, the carpet remained coated in rat urine. A toddler crawling over the carpet had a skin infection. Her mother told me, “There is nowhere else for her to go.” That was not strictly true. Her baby could have crawled in the hallway, where a missing baby gate left a steep set of stairs exposed—something of which G4S had been informed months before. Or perhaps the child could crawl around the kitchen, where rat poison was left on the floor and mould covered every wall.
There are other issues in the property, including a lack of cleaning and cooking equipment, which G4S should have provided. After writing to G4S in exasperation, I met the landlord of the property, who stepped in and provided what G4S did not. That was in addition to the maintenance requests that G4S had failed to pass on, increasing its profit margin at someone else’s expense.
Vermin is a common theme in these properties. Another woman living with a young child reported a mice infestation, caused by holes in the walls of the property. G4S refused to be held accountable. Instead of dealing with it, it sent the woman on a training course in kitchen hygiene. After six months of complaining, and with multiple open wounds caused by mice biting her face, she went to Leeds City Council, which acted swiftly to solve the problem. That cost should have been covered by the asylum accommodation contract. However, the public sector had to step in, subsidising the private sector. It is not only G4S that is failing. I heard about one young woman who moved into Serco-run accommodation only to find human faeces smeared on her bedroom wall. She cleaned it up, but the cockroaches and rodents were more persistent.
These stories represent the dark side of Conservative ideology—a disturbing faith in privatisation and outsourcing, no matter the human cost, and the growing of private profits at the expense of the public and the vulnerable. These contracts underline the unwillingness and inability of the private sector to provide safe, habitable accommodation to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
My experience of working with those 14 mothers in my constituency shows the neglectful regime of G4S, compared with the generous and loving nature of the city of Leeds and our Labour council. I thank our children’s centre, which worked unpaid to support those mothers, as well as the church, which did the jobs the private sector could not, the landlord, who stepped in, and my staff and local party members, who helped to provide basic items that G4S would not.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in cases such as this, local authorities ought to be empowered to take over these contracts and oversee them, because this situation clearly is not acceptable?
It is absolutely not acceptable. I was just coming on to those points, which I thank my hon. Friend for raising. As she said, it is not up to individual and local groups to step in. These contracts cost millions of pounds in public funds, but struggling local authorities step in to prevent homelessness when the private firms cannot fulfil their contracts. Our councils are expected to bail out these companies, but they are not granted any oversight of the delivery of their contracts. That is both insulting and impractical. It has created a system lacking in democracy and dignity.
Everyone deserves a safe and secure home in this country. These contracts must be revisited. Councils and charities must have a central role in ensuring that the safety of asylum seekers is the priority in delivery. There must also be independent oversight of these contracts to ensure that people come before profit.
I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on bringing this debate to the House and on his excellent presentation. I thank him for giving us all an opportunity to make a contribution.
I want to address a couple of points to the Minister, which are specific to Northern Ireland, in relation to how the Home Office looks at some of these issues. I want that to be on the record and, if possible, for the Minister to get back to me and to let me know how we can improve the system to help people in Northern Ireland.
My friend the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) told me that he has similar issues to the ones that I see in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast. As we are all aware, and contrary to what we have heard touted, asylum seekers are not permitted to work or to receive mainstream social security benefits. I am concerned that the financial support is £37.50 per person per week, and that accommodation is provided on a no-choice basis, so if an asylum seeker refuses an offer of accommodation, she will be denied access to ongoing support. I am concerned about that, and I want to put it on record. The stories that we have heard about the accommodation, and others that we will hear later, clearly illustrate the issue. Asylum seekers may also be required to move accommodation at short notice, which creates problems by its very nature.
The view of the Law Centre NI is that asylum seekers living in Northern Ireland may face particular difficulties that are simply not reflected in Home Office decision making and guidance. An asylum seeker seeking an accommodation transfer due to racial harassment is generally required to provide documentary evidence in the form of police reports. Unfortunately, we are aware of cases where asylum seekers do not feel able to approach the police to seek their help. That can be because of a lack of trust, which can arise due to negative experiences of policing in the countries they came from—it is not necessarily to do with our police force; it is to do with their experience and what has happened to them.
Lack of trust is also prevalent in particular neighbourhoods in Belfast as a legacy of the conflict. That is a fact, so we have to address that issue as well. It means that, despite encouragement from support organisations, asylum seekers do not seek assistance from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
In such instances, there may be other forms of evidence. I suggest to the Minister that we look at medical reports to enable the consideration of alternative accommodation. Mental health issues may arise from a fear of a particular neighbour, but the Home Office is not likely to accept such forms of evidence. Gently and honestly, I request that the Minister looks at alternative ways to address the issue—whether it is mental or physical health. Let us do that, and give these things an equal status with the police.
As the Minister will understand, and as I am sure everyone else does too, we must be ever mindful that we have had 30 years of conflict, so things are different in Northern Ireland. Another example of a situation that is particularly acute in Northern Ireland is when children are moved to a new area away from their school. Parents must make a difficult decision, either to transfer their children to a new school, assuming school places are available, which is disruptive to the children’s education, or to make arrangements for their children to continue at their old school. That is not an option, because £37.50 per person means that people cannot put their child on the bus to school. Difficulties also arise when a child walks through a neighbourhood wearing a school uniform associated with the “other” community. These are real things that are happening, which is why I want to bring them to the Minister’s attention in the short time I have.
I ask the Home Office to review and revise its allocation of accommodation policy to better reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. In particular, Home Office guidance should provide for greater discretion. I also refer to my earlier request regarding an asylum matter involving the extension of the refugee transition period from 28 days to 56 days. I hope the Minister can take all that in.
I have no doubt that, when I sit down after making my remarks, I will receive a threatening letter from the chief executive of Serco, as has happened on the last two occasions that we have debated the issue. I have had to go to Mr Speaker twice for a ruling on that correspondence.
This summer in Glasgow, Serco threatened 330 asylum seekers with immediate eviction. It was during the parliamentary recess and Glasgow City Council’s recess. Was that a coincidence? We all know the answer to that. If it had not happened during recess, an urgent question would have been tabled the very next day after Serco had announced that it was threatening those 300 asylum seekers with immediate eviction.
Why did Serco threaten them with immediate eviction? It claimed they were failed asylum seekers, but refugee and asylum charities established within days that they were not. Many had lodged an appeal, and many had submitted a fresh claim. Why did that multinational profit-making company think it was appropriate to threaten 300 asylum seekers with lock changes and eviction—to put them on to the streets? Obviously, there had been no meaningful discussions between the local authority and the Home Office about sharing information. Why is that?
The average time it takes for someone to make a section 4 application and receive a decision about getting support is 37 days. Frankly, I do not think that that is good enough. The only reason that not one asylum seeker in Glasgow has been evicted is the Govan Law Centre, which raised a case in the Court of Session on behalf of two of my constituents. I thank my fellow Glaswegians and my fellow Glasgow Members of Parliament who attended all the protests. It was quite clear that the anger in Glasgow was such that hundreds would have been outside the accommodation if Serco had gone there and tried to issue a lock change to lock asylum seekers out of their accommodation. It is clear that the people of Glasgow were going to use their human rights to protect the human rights of others.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), and I stand shoulder to shoulder with him and many of the comments he made about the lack of engagement and meaningful consultation that is taking place with local authorities. That is clearly the position that has been adopted by Glasgow City Council, which has made public its concerns, as have the local authorities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Local Government Association is supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in that.
I have dealt with constituents—asylum seekers—who were the victims of sexual violence. The accommodation providers thought that it was appropriate to put those women in a tenemental property where the other five occupants were single men. If the providers had had meaningful consultation and dialogue with the local authorities and the Home Office, we could have avoided that situation. That is one of the many errors that we are seeing. My real concern is that, with the new 10-year contracts, those mistakes will be made again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate. I thank him for the work he has done with my friend, Suzanne Fletcher, from Citizens UK and Tees Valley of Sanctuary. She brought him one of the duvets that were provided, which were so thin that the health of the people who used them was hit—their limbs were affected and their general health deteriorated. That is one of the shocking examples of how poor service, and the failure to comply with basic human standards, are undermining the health of these people. We have already heard some graphic stories.
As I do not have much time, I will focus on asking the Minister about the contracts. We do not know an awful lot about them, although some local authorities have seen the statements of requirement, but they will be signed in the next few weeks—by the end of the year—and they are worth £4 billion over the next 10 years. This debate is timely because it gives the House a chance to scrutinise them and to ask what the Government are doing before they sign the contracts.
First, have local authorities been offered the contracts? It seems that they might be able to do a lot better with £4 billion over the next 10 years. I would not be surprised if they could do it for less, and it would be of higher quality. They could lock it in to their overall local housing strategy. Has there been any discussion with the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities or other local authority organisations about whether they could provide the services? If not, why not?
Secondly, we have heard a bit about sharing bedrooms from the hon. Member for Stockton North. There is no doubt that some of the most vulnerable people living in our country not only are being given some of the most shocking accommodation, but are being asked to share rooms, which is causing their mental health to deteriorate, as we heard in the graphic example from the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). We hear about people who left a country because they were afraid of another group of people in that country or a neighbouring country, and who, in this country, are being asked to share a room with people whom they tried to escape from or who are from a group they tried to escape from. The lack of sensitivity and understanding of the mental health needs of such people is extraordinary, so my second question is, can we go beyond just protecting an undefined group of vulnerable people? Can we not get to a point where people simply do not have to share bedrooms? It does not seem too unreasonable a question to ask or too unreasonable a criterion to have in the new contracts.
On monitoring quality, if local authorities had the contracts, there would be a group of people in the local authorities who could help monitor them. What reassurance can the Minister give us today that the contracts will be properly monitored, whether that is to do with duvets, quality of housing, advice or other aspects of the contracts that will be let?
I have not had a chance to read the statement of requirements. Why has that not been shared with Members of Parliament? Can aspects of the contract not be shared with Members of Parliament—perhaps the Home Affairs Committee—beforehand on whatever terms are needed? If Members can see the contracts, can the Minister tell us today whether there really will be minimum standards? A statement of requirements seems too wishy-washy. We need to know that legally enforceable minimum standards will be provided in the contracts so that people who are not getting them might have recourse to the law. That is the only way we can ensure that people will be treated properly. It is absolutely right that the contracts should have legal safeguards.
I will refer specifically to the case of Solihull, which, during my 23 years as an MP, has been a destination for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I want to raise with the Minister the legacy issues associated with accommodating the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: the children who arrive here on their own.
The difficulty that faces my local authority is the shortfall in costs of accommodating this vulnerable group, which are estimated to be in the order of £1 million a year. That might not sound like a lot to Members with larger local authorities, but mine is relatively small with a disproportionately high number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. After a visit by the regional director of the UK Border Agency, whose staff spent a month embedded with the local authority, it was confirmed as a result of the audit that the costs could not be contained within the standard rates. So I want to raise with the Minister the problem that legacy or old standard grant rates have not been increased since they were introduced in 2011-12, eight years ago, during which time there has been considerable inflation.
To illustrate the shortfall in accommodation costs, the invoice costs of supported accommodation are £22 a day compared with the national grant rate of £28.57 a day, or a legacy grant rate of just £21.43 a day. The invoice costs of external foster accommodation for 16 and 17-year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are £113 a day compared with the national grant rate of £91 a day, so there is a baked-in shortfall year on year. I know that the leader of the council has written to the Minister, but I want to place on the record the unique position of Solihull in doing its very best by the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour and colleague in the midlands, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). I associate myself with what she said. I also want to talk about the financial element of the contracts and how the money works. I do not know whether I am in an exclusive group in this room or perhaps this House, but I am somebody who has applied for a commissioning contract through a national Home Office contract, so I know what it takes to win a contract with the Home Office. I did it for accommodation for victims of human trafficking. When the Home Office, another Government Department or a local authority commissions things through the voluntary sector, I can tell Members that the monitoring, the length of contracts and the amount of money in the contracts is certainly not what has been suggested today when we have talked about the private sector. The idea of a 10-year contract—even a 10-minute contract—in the voluntary sector would be manna from heaven.
However, I have applied and was successful in the commissioning round of national contracts for accommodation and support services for victims of human trafficking. I remember the very detailed stuff I had to learn about special secure thumb turns for security, specialist issues around single-sex accommodation, specialist support that had to be provided, and the training that my staff had to have. It was very detailed, and rightly so. Nobody would criticise that.
The women we supported in the community—we provided support both in the community and within accommodation support services—were largely women who had been trafficked into sexual slavery and forced to have sex with 15 or 20 men a day. “Raped” is what I should say. Because of differences in where they came from and different immigration statuses, even though they were trafficked, some of those women stayed in National Asylum Support Service accommodation. So we would go out and support them in the community, and that took me to Stone Road in the centre of Birmingham.
I had to go and give financial support to a woman who had been through the national referral mechanism and been identified as being trafficked. I remember the level of security that I had to go through: the police checks and the training I had to do to get the contract as a voluntary sector provider. I went to Stone Road and asked to see the woman. She was on the run from a trafficking gang who had trafficked her for sex, and as I walked through the Stone Road accommodation I saw her name written on the wall with a message that said she had to pick up her post. It was just written there. Anyone could have walked in. Now that was not in the contract that I had to sign up to. The standard seemed to be different for G4S at Stone Road from what it was for me, the provider of secure accommodation for victims of human trafficking. The Home Office loves to trumpet how brilliantly it behaves, but it is the same people living in that accommodation.
When I meet the woman, she is pregnant and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She looks a size 10, but she is nine months pregnant. We have managed to find her decent trafficking victim accommodation, but it is in Sheffield and I have to tell her she cannot go because the standards that my contract stipulate say that we cannot move a woman at that stage in her pregnancy because she needs continuity of care, and she cries and begs me to let her go because she cannot bear to live there any more. I simply want to ask the Minister why, for the same people and the same commissioning body, the standards are so different for me and for G4S.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who spoke so powerfully about her direct experience. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this important debate. I rise to speak because my constituency is home to Barry House, a hostel for people seeking asylum or refugee status in the UK, provided by Clearsprings under the existing contract.
Barry House is categorised as initial accommodation, and it provides a temporary home for more than 100 people. I see many residents of Barry House in my surgeries, and I have visited it with an NHS team who provide outreach services there. When I visited I was told that there were 19 pregnant women and 40 children living there at that time. The information I have gathered from residents of Barry House speaks to a much wider set of problems with the current asylum contract.
Barry House is for short-term use, but the reality is that many people are there for long periods. Barry House is not fit for purpose. Conditions are cramped, there is no variation in or quality to the food, and there are no meaningful activities for residents. The corridors are obstructed by many buggies and there are a high number of wheelchair users, leading to concerns about fire safety and basic standards of accessibility. It is very poorly managed. There are infestations of vermin, and it is dirty. Everything about the quality of accommodation is poor, yet there is no accountability. When complaints are raised there is no response, and it is left to the council’s environmental health team to undertake inspections when things get really bad.
Barry House is not suitable for children, despite there being so many children and pregnant women staying there. It is difficult to place children in local schools as there is no guarantee on how long they will be there. There is no support with language tuition and no support for the many people living at Barry House who are deeply traumatised by the experiences and situations from which they have fled. There is no structured access to health facilities. A dedicated team from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust provides what support it can, but support for access to maternity services and any other type of specialist service is difficult to secure and very patchy.
Many residents of Barry House have been through levels of trauma and hardship that is hard to comprehend. There are high levels of physical disability and mental ill health. The instability, hardship and sheer monotony of having to spend long periods at Barry House or in accommodation like it is no way to treat people who are fleeing conflict or persecution. The new contract must address the current problems. There must be a service standard for the timescale on which people are forced to stay in initial accommodation such as Barry House—a time after which they must be moved to suitable accommodation. There must be proper accountability for the quality of accommodation. When overcrowding, infestations, damp, dirt or poor quality food are raised, the providers must be held to account, with financial penalties if necessary. Councils must be empowered and funded to step in if the issues are not addressed. There must be funding for emergency short-term psychological support for people suffering trauma. It is simply not acceptable for people with high levels of mental health need as a consequence of their experiences to be left to cope on their own. There must be provision in situ for language teaching, early years activity for children and education, where school places cannot be provided.
There is a relationship between the situation at Barry House and the wider dysfunctionality of the Home Office. People are at Barry House for long periods partly because their applications are not being determined, or because applications are refused and they must appeal. The constituent I saw a few weeks ago who, as a Red Cross employee, was shot four times by Hezbollah in Lebanon, should not be appealing a refusal by the Home Office. The way that the Government treat those who seek asylum in the UK is part of the wider hostile environment. There is no support, comfort or dignity, and the UK can and must do better than this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing the debate. I shall try hard not to repeat what has already been said, so there are lots of crossings out in my notes, but I want to try to pin the Minister down, and I hope she will respond on some specifics.
Someone who was forced to make the heart-rending decision to leave their home, family, friends and community, and who made a long, perilous journey to reach a place of sanctuary and safety, would hope to be welcomed by a country that wanted to pride itself on the welcome it gave to victims of torture and conflict. However, as other Members have said, for too many the welcome is to unhygienic, unsafe and unpleasant accommodation—for which the taxpayer is paying. That serves no one, and I hope that the case has already been made powerfully enough to mean that the Minister will want to take up the cause.
The Government should have known the situation long ago, because the contracts in question are Government contracts, but even if that was not the case, last December’s report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on asylum accommodation should have made the matter clear. I have personally seen cases, through visiting asylum accommodation in my constituency. I have also talked to survivors of torture and trafficking, and to other people who have been in the asylum system. The report made it clear that the incidents in question are not exceptions proving any sort of rule of an otherwise well functioning asylum system. They are symptomatic of wider problems, but they also show specific deficiencies in the design and delivery of the asylum accommodation contracts.
I agree wholeheartedly with the organisations that have provided helpful briefings, some of which are represented in the Public Gallery today. They include Asylum Matters, Freedom from Torture, Doctors of the World, the Refugee Council and many other third sector organisations, as well as others from my constituency, such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Borderlands, Bristol Hospitality Network and Aid Box Community. Also, Councillor Ruth Pickersgill goes above and beyond any example I have known, as a councillor supporting refugees and asylum seekers. All of them have told me that the situation must change. The new asylum accommodation and support services contracts should be an opportunity to right the wrongs and ensure that taxpayers’ money funds decent accommodation, reflecting us as the compassionate and welcoming country that we want to be. I therefore ask the Minister whether she will commit to publishing at least the statement of requirements and performance management regime for the new contracts.
Those of us who have visited asylum accommodation or discussed it with refugees and asylum seekers, as well as with the Government, know that if the implementation of the contracts is delayed, or if providers fail to live up to the terms, local authorities, third sector organisations and compassionate individuals will pick up the pieces, but that is not a good way of running the system. We need nothing short of a completely new approach to the way we take responsibility for refugees. The Minister has been very welcoming to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others in discussing necessary changes, but I want to remind her of how those changes connect to housing. On a global level, the UN global compact on refugees provides a helpful model on resettlement. The Minister knows that I want an end to indefinite detention, particularly for survivors of torture but also for other vulnerable people such as victims of trafficking; increased places on resettlement schemes; the comprehensive introduction of classes in English for speakers of other languages; the abolition of healthcare charges; and the right for asylum seekers to work after six months. Those things could all help to ease the pressure on accommodation, but they would also all require the accommodation to be good.
I invite the Home Office and the Minister to let politicians, local authorities and others, and the public, see what is behind the curtain, and to open the tendering process to proper scrutiny. The quality of the welcome that we extend speaks volumes about who we are and want to be. We are at a pivotal moment. Britain’s place in the world has rarely been subject to so much scrutiny. Sanctuary with dignity and respect for people fleeing unimaginable horror will send out an important and powerful message about who we are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing the debate, and my fellow Glasgow Member, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), on his speech. No sooner did the summer recess hit than we found we were dealing with a major crisis in the city of Glasgow, because Serco announced its intention to undertake mass evictions of asylum seekers. Indeed, in my constituency, which has the highest population of asylum seekers in Scotland and, indeed, the UK, I have had to deal with 106 asylum cases in the past five months alone, largely because of Home Office service level failures. I do not think it is the job of Members of Parliament to do the Home Office’s job for it and to have to deal with that level of failure. Clearly the asylum contract is not working. I do not know whether the new proposal will deal with the issue, because there is no clarity about it.
I want to pay tribute to those working in the area of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ housing, who stepped up when there was failure and crisis in Glasgow, including the Living Rent campaign and the Scottish Refugee Council, as well as numerous registered social landlords across Glasgow who undertook collectively to say that there would be no forced evictions from their properties under the Serco contract. That is to their credit. They stood up for what was morally right in the face of Home Office and Serco intransigence. It is clear that the message needs to be taken on board at the Home Office. Glasgow will not accept that level of indignity and callousness in dealing with the “move on” policy.
As well as being undignified, is not that approach also counterproductive? It forces people into further destitution and the black economy and the rest of it, with people effectively going missing.
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. The self-contained parallel bureaucratic process does not interface in any meaningful way with other services provided in the dispersal areas, such as integrated assistance provided by the city council and associated NGOs. As for the fundamental definition, what does it mean to have exhausted the asylum application process? There is no clear definition of what that means, which is why in most cases the service providers will act to maximise profit, dealing with things in an overly bureaucratic, distant and dubious manner.
One example is the Umeed family in my constituency, who have been living in so-called temporary accommodation for seven years. They are subject to relentless antisocial behaviour, which has had a serious impact on their mental health and that of their young children. Yet they show dignity in their situation. Time and again we confront people who show immense dignity in the face of an appalling situation. That is the clear issue. When the “move on” policy is applied to people who have achieved refugee status, the fact that it is so rapid creates huge trauma for people trying to go through the transition. My young constituent Giorgi, whose mother died earlier in the year—he is a 10-year-old orphan—was granted leave to remain. He was told within seven days that he had to leave his temporary accommodation, leave his school and seek accommodation elsewhere in Glasgow, which would wrench him out of all that he had left in his life of sustaining comfort and established order. That shows how the policy is failing even young children, and how disgusting the contract is.
I want to understand a few things about what the new contract will do. What checks will be carried out to ensure that accommodation is habitable? Who will define and monitor the minimum quality standards for housing, and what assessment has been made of the habitability of accommodation provided since 2012? It is clear that for most people it is below the liveable standard. What assessment and review has the Department made of the current asylum accommodation approach, and particularly the work carried out by contractors such as Serco? It has been dealing with the “move on” policy in particular. I should like the Minister to assess the impact of the change in approach at local level since 2012 when, for example, the YMCA provided the contract in Glasgow, which is now provided by Serco. What change has that meant to the quality of service provision?
What provisions exist in the new draft asylum contract for future Governments to alter or terminate that contract, and what costs would those provisions incur? What learning from the current contract period has been used to inform the design of the new contract? Did it involve engaging with the views of asylum seekers or speaking to charities on the ground to assess and improve the contract? I do not think any of that has happened, and there has been no discussion and no indication whatsoever that such things have taken place.
I note that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) is sitting behind the Minister as her understudy, but there has not been a word from the Scottish Conservative party on this issue throughout the summer. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he should stand up and be counted. The 13 Scottish Conservative MPs hold the balance of power in Government, and they should start exercising that power in the interests of the most vulnerable people in Scotland today.
Before I call the Front-Bench speakers, may I remind them that we wish to leave one minute for the mover of the motion? To give the Minister plenty of opportunity to respond, perhaps the Opposition speakers could confine their remarks so that a lot of the questions can be answered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this debate. We are at a hugely significant moment for our asylum accommodation system, and this debate could not have been more timely. It is great to see such a significant turnout.
Members have, quite rightly, used this opportunity to highlight the many problems that have beset COMPASS asylum accommodation contracts almost from the beginning. Those problems included poor—sometimes absolutely shocking—standards of accommodation and furnishings, and we heard a particular horror story from the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). We heard about inappropriate accommodation allocation and the forced sharing of bedrooms, about totally ineffective complaints and inspection regimes, and about disregard for the needs and vulnerabilities of torture survivors—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) gave an appalling example of that.
We heard about the outrageous conduct of certain providers, including in Glasgow, as several Glasgow MPs have described, and about the linked issues of asylum support levels and transition periods, which were highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) spoke about the design of the contracts, and how that makes it impossible for local authorities to compete. Indeed, Glasgow City Council expressed an interest in taking on one of these contracts, but the design made it impossible for that idea to be taken forward.
The sad fact is that none of this is remotely surprising—we have heard the same criticisms over and over again from asylum seekers, from organisations that do such fantastic work on their behalf, and from the Home Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. The fundamental problem behind all this is that local authorities are not being given an appropriate oversight role and powers to determine provision in their areas, and nor are they, or other partner organisations, given the necessary resources to support all the work and services required in dispersal areas. That has to stop.
This debate is slightly different, however, because the Home Office has now pushed the whole system of asylum accommodation to breaking point. Some key local authorities that have been involved in the scheme for decades are now saying enough is enough, and they are seriously looking at withdrawal from it. Responsibility for that lies squarely with the Home Office, which has repeatedly failed to address those concerns, which have been expressed again today, instead playing them down and tinkering around the edges. Our local authorities have been pushed too far.
As hon. Members have said, the expiry of the COMPASS contracts provides the perfect opportunity to deliver fundamental reform and to safeguard and improve asylum accommodation provision. Instead, the Home Office has decided to press on with a new set of contracts that repeat so many of the flaws in the existing model, including a lack of proper accountability, a lack of oversight for local authorities and a lack of proper resources to allow them to fulfil their duties. As the hon. Member for Stockton North said, having contracts for 10 years is reckless and wrong.
The Home Office must think again urgently and listen to the requests and calls made by participating authorities and organisations that work with asylum seekers. Those bodies are calling for equal partner status for local authorities involved in the new contracts, and for full disclosure of terms and conditions. They call for full transparency and accountability from contractors when sharing information requested by local authorities to support the work they do on dispersal. They are calling for local authorities to have full authority over dispersal levels and cluster limits at a council and ward level, and for the Home Office’s power to overrule councils on procurement decisions to be brought to an end. The Home Office should directly and adequately fund local authorities to undertake all the work they do in supporting asylum seekers effectively. That includes those destitute families that the Home Office prevents from accessing public funds.
Other sensible proposals were presented by the hon. Member for Stockton North, so will the Minister listen to those perfectly reasonable asks and engage with dispersal authorities about them during her imminent four nations meeting? If the Government will not listen to those asks and engage with the authorities, the Minister must explain the consequences of their alternative approach. For example, do they accept that they are required to re-engage with existing dispersal authorities to seek their participation in the new contracts, or is it the Government’s position that having endured COMPASS 1, those authorities have no option but to continue on to COMPASS 2? In the latter case, what is the legal basis for that assertion, and what will happen if councils take a different approach?
Will the Minister clarify her Department’s plan B if key local authorities withdraw from the scheme? Would the Department seriously consider attempting to procure private accommodation and place asylum seekers in cities without engaging dispersal-area councils? Does she believe that the legislation gives her those powers? If she is seriously stating that funding for local authorities is already sufficient, will she provide accountability by setting out the funding formula used for that in an easily comprehensible published document?
In conclusion, the ball is very much in the court of the Home Office. There is a chance to reform the system in a positive way, benefiting communities and asylum seekers alike. Equally, however, there is a genuine risk of an escalating crisis if the Home Office gets this wrong. This time, it must listen and act on all the concerns raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this timely debate. I thank all Members for their contributions and for the important and powerful examples they have given from their own areas.
I, too, will start with an example from my constituency. A few months ago I was approached by a journalist who had visited asylum accommodation for mothers and babies in Longsight, Manchester. The conditions he described and evidenced were truly shocking. There were bedbugs on the family’s bed—he sent me photos of the children’s bites—and the mother could not sleep because of the sound of mice. Traps were full of cockroaches, and the extent of the damp was worsening a child’s asthma. Although supposedly for mothers and babies, this was in fact a mixed hostel, with families in the basement, and the upper floors inhabited by men. One mother was forced to stay in such accommodation for months, even after her doctor and health visitor had asked for her to be moved. As I said at the time, nobody, let alone families with children, should be forced to live with cockroaches, bedbugs, damp, leaks and mice.
The even greater tragedy, however, is that that was not an isolated case—we have heard about such things again and again this afternoon. The conditions in much asylum accommodation have long been appalling, and concerns have been raised consistently and by a wide range of parliamentary and external bodies. The Home Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have all published highly critical reports of the current COMPASS contracts.
Less than a year ago, I was in this Chamber discussing urgent recommendations made by the Home Affairs Committee, many of which have yet to be resolved. The Home Secretary is currently sitting on a report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, which was sent to him on 9 July and should have been published within eight weeks. Third sector organisations and faith and community groups have been ringing alarm bells about the contracts for years. Last month, 14 local authorities took the unprecedented step of writing to the Home Secretary to warn that the asylum accommodation system is on the brink of collapse, and that he must personally step in. It is therefore unacceptable and profoundly undemocratic that the Government are taking an “as is” approach to the new contracts, which are due to be renewed next month.
What Labour is calling for, and what a Labour Government would oversee, is the return of responsibility for asylum accommodation, and the billions that come with it, to local authorities. In the absence of that, the very reasonable key recommendations from local authorities and third sector and community groups should be incorporated.
There are three broad issues that urgently need to be addressed. First, key stakeholders are being kept in the dark on the procurement process. Feedback during the consultation was not taken on board, and problems were treated as one-offs, rather than as symptomatic of wider failings. In a letter to the Home Secretary, the leaders of eight local authorities in Yorkshire said they were disappointed by the decision to seemingly limit public scrutiny until the re-tender process was closed. They described the transition to the current COMPASS contracts in 2012 as a failure, with mass sudden homelessness prevented only by local authorities stepping in.
Local authorities, charities and community groups are an essential part of asylum accommodation delivery. They are already central to integrating asylum seekers, and they are the ones who step in when things go wrong. It is essential that the Government are transparent with both the public and Parliament during this procurement process.
Secondly, local authorities lack oversight over asylum accommodation. Asylum seekers are not evenly distributed across the UK, with 35 local authorities—less than 10% of the total—hosting three quarters of the asylum seekers in dispersal accommodation. Many towns and cities across the north of England have more asylum seekers in a handful of wards than entire regions in the south and east of the UK. This often causes problems in local areas, especially as local authorities have no power to veto where accommodation will be procured.
I outlined earlier the awful condition of some accommodation. Local authorities need the power to inspect properties and safeguard vulnerable people. Despite being the ones who step in when contracts fall short, often to prevent destitution, local authorities do not have the power to regulate the conditions of asylum accommodation. The new contracts must give more powers and resources to local authorities to oversee and inspect accommodation in their areas.
Finally, all these measures must improve the shocking conditions of asylum accommodation. No one should be forced to share a bedroom, and providers should respect local rules on homes in multiple occupation. There must be better provision for vulnerable asylum seekers. To highlight just one example, pregnant women are being moved late in their pregnancy and at very short notice, interrupting their maternity care. That can have a significant impact on the mental health of the women, who have often already faced significant trauma. Maternity Action has called on the Government to require contractors to comply with existing Home Office guidance on the dispersal of pregnant women and new mothers and to collect data to enable the Home Office to monitor compliance with that guidance.
The proposed COMPASS contracts are worth £4 billion and will be binding for the next 10 years, with no review period built in. The previous contracts did not have adequate review provisions, but there was at least a break clause after five years. So far, the Government have not recognised or addressed the wide-ranging criticisms of the current arrangements. Will the Minister commit to taking a more transparent approach to ending the appalling conditions that are, at the moment, common in asylum accommodation?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on having secured the debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. I will do my best in the time allowed to answer all the questions asked of me. Members did incredibly well in their four allocated minutes to convey their key points. It is always a huge frustration when time runs out. I will undoubtedly drive my officials, who are sat behind me, slightly potty, because I am about to divert completely from my script and respond to some of the important points that have been made, for which I apologise.
In no particular order, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) made a point about dispersal engagement. No doubt I will at some point return to my script and find the actual points that I am supposed to make on this issue, which will no doubt detail precisely the engagement that has already taken place. Suffice it to say that I am conscious of the debt we owe those local authorities that are part of the dispersal areas and which work incredibly hard to make available services and facilities to enable those seeking asylum to integrate into local communities.
We have already started a dialogue about how we can increase the number of dispersal areas. We all know that the more that we are able to disperse asylum seekers among different local authorities, the easier it is for those authorities to manage. Indeed, it is better for our communities for there to be a wide range of people living within them and contributing to the better integration of asylum seekers.
I have engaged in discussions over the past few months with some metropolitan mayors, local authorities, the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other groups of local authorities that come together—it would be wrong of me to try to remember all of the local authorities that I have engaged with. Serious conversations are ongoing about how we can increase the number of dispersal areas, whether I have the power to mandate that and whether that is the right way forward. In my view, it is better to engage with local authorities and to encourage them to take part in dispersal schemes. My gut instinct is that that has to be the right way.
I have learned from engagement with local authorities—hon. Members might expect to hear this from someone who spent a happy 12 years on a local authority—that they sometimes come up with the best solutions and ideas. I know that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) will undoubtedly pick me up on this, but it is true that no local authorities have come forward as part of this bidding process. It may well be that the procurement process that we are bound to take part in, as current members of the European Union, is too prohibitive and difficult for local authorities, which would be a matter of profound regret.
City councils have provided asylum accommodation while the United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union, so it is not the European Union that is at fault here but the design of the contract. Glasgow City Council previously provided such accommodation, but it cannot, for example, provide asylum accommodation for the whole of Scotland. It has to be broken down into much smaller units.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Glasgow City Council will of course not seek to provide accommodation for the whole of Scotland, and perhaps there is a very good case for breaking contracts down further, which might increase engagement from local authorities. I have to say that I am never averse to the greater engagement and involvement of local authorities. We all know that, first, local authorities are very good at providing services and, secondly, people in a crisis often turn to the local authority first.
Have the Minister or her officials talked to different local authorities to see what sort of contract they would be able to bid for? It is clearly not an argument that local authorities cannot bid for contracts because of the European process; they do that every day. It is a question of whether the Home Office is willing to design the contracts in a way that would be achievable for local authorities.
Officials have of course engaged with local authorities and will continue to do so, and they have shared with both local authorities and stakeholders the statement of requirements, which has been the subject of much discussion among some Members this afternoon. I am perfectly happy to share that statement of requirements, as some hon. Members requested. I see absolutely no obstacle to doing that, given that we have already shared it with a number of stakeholders and local authorities.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) raised the Serco contract, and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West commented on the timing of Serco’s announcement. From Serco’s perspective it was probably very unfortunate timing, as I was pretty much already on my way to Glasgow. However, that gave me the opportunity to have some very constructive engagement with Glasgow City Council, and later with the Scottish Government.
I am perhaps sometimes too much of an optimist and look for the positives in even very negative situations, and one thing that situation taught us is the benefit of making sure that there are information-sharing mechanisms between the Home Office, local government and the accommodation providers. That is absolutely key. We must all instinctively understand that by sharing information, we will get a better outcome. To be frank, one can face the obstacle of not being allowed to share sensitive data, but we are all working towards the right outcome for individuals so we actually have to find mechanisms—not just for the Glasgow contract, but across all these contracts—to find a better way to share information.
Does the Minister share my concern that Serco was bandying around unfortunate terms such as “failed asylum seekers”? Will the Minister tell us from where Serco received the information that there were 300 so-called failed asylum seekers?
It would be unfair of me today to comment on numbers without having them immediately to hand, but what is clear through that process, as I think the hon. Member for Glasgow North East pointed out, is that some of those individuals had submitted additional claims for asylum and some were still at an appeals process. That absolutely indicates that the information sharing has to be of the highest quality.
We all know, although Members may find it uncomfortable, that through the asylum process there are many opportunities to submit appeals and to make fresh or additional claims. That sometimes puts accommodation providers, and indeed the Home Office, in the difficult position of having to consider claims and have them properly go through the courts. When people’s claims for asylum are found by the courts not to be appropriate, of course we have to take action. In situations where there are people in accommodation that should actually be used by new asylum claimants or those who are at an earlier stage in the process, we are left in a very difficult situation. As the Home Office—I have been completely candid about this—we have to improve our ability to ensure that those with no valid claim for asylum are assisted to return to their country of origin; unfortunately, we have to do that.
I can see that I am about to be intervened on; I will give way to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who has not yet intervened on me.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will she agree that that assertion would perhaps have more support from across the House if it was not for the very large number of rejected asylum claims that are overturned on appeal? Indeed, from some countries it is the majority that are overturned. Her claim does not really add up if we are being asked to agree that people should be removed when they have further rights to appeal to remain and when those appeals often succeed.
I did not say that people who were not at the end of the process should be returned to their country of origin, and I am very conscious—perhaps more conscious than many—of how long the process takes, how many opportunities there are for appeal and, indeed, how often further information is brought forward. There is much more work to do to speed up the process and ensure that Home Office processes are accurate at the earliest possible stage. However, a lot of that is about finding mechanisms for people who are going through the process to bring forward as much information as possible as soon as possible. When information is not forthcoming at the outset and not all the information is available, it is very difficult to make a determination.
I will continue to give way; I give way to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).
I thank the Minister for giving way. Since she is talking about problems with the process, I will put on the record the very serious concerns raised by Freedom from Torture and others about the lack of medical expertise in the asylum assessment process, which, in large part, is a cause of the inaccurate decisions that her Department is making.
I thank the hon. Lady for putting that on the record. I have a comment on the medical processes somewhere in my notes; I may not find it in the course of the next few minutes, but I will try to. Of course we can—at all times and in all ways—improve on our systems, and I am absolutely determined that we will find better ways to ensure that information can be brought forward earlier.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, because he has been very patient.
I thank the Minister for giving way on that point. When Rupert Soames phoned me in July to describe his concerns about the contract, as he saw them, he said it was actually the charity of Serco’s shareholders that was keeping people in accommodation for far longer than they were being funded by the Home Office. Somewhere in that balance, there is clearly a point where the Home Office is prematurely cutting funding for provision of housing. Surely there should be a longer cooling-off period to enable legal counsel to be consulted, to see if the intent is to appeal and so on and so forth before people are turfed out of their housing by Serco.
I refer the hon. Gentleman back to my comments about information sharing and ensuring that information is accurate, because that is the only way in which we will make the best decisions.
I am sorry; I will not give way again for a little while, because there were a couple of other points in the debate that I found particularly poignant and that I wanted to pick up on.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) painted a very clear picture of how the situation in Northern Ireland could be different. His description of children walking through certain areas in a school uniform that was different from that of other children particularly struck a chord with me. He will know that Northern Ireland is one of the areas where the contract has not received the same level of interest that it has in other areas, so clearly we have more work to do there. I will certainly bear his points in mind.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the opportunity for oversight of complaints and how to monitor complaint resolution—that is a key issue that several other hon. Members referred to. Of course the preference must always be for a service provider—the body delivering on the ground—to deal with complaints from service users promptly and adequately in the first instance. However, I recognise that that does not always happen, and of course escalation routes exist and will continue to exist—ultimately to UK Visas and Immigration—and I am very keen that complaints should be raised and addressed with the utmost efficiency and speed. I have heard some horror stories from hon. Members this afternoon, which we would certainly not wish anyone, let alone one’s own child, to experience. That was particularly true of the comments about vermin and cockroaches. Of course those things are not acceptable and we do not wish them to happen now, let alone under the new contracts.
I will not give way to the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), because he made a point I wish to address about the length of contracts and whether they are set in stone for 10 years. There is a break at seven years, at which point we would be able to address the—[Interruption.] Well, the current contract is seven years as well, and that will give us the opportunity to review matters, should we need to do so.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Stockton North, who secured the debate.
In the light of what the Minister has just said, seven years is still a hell of a long time. Will she take that point back and think again about it, and see whether we could perhaps have breaks at three years or five years?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point; I will certainly think about it.
On break clauses, there are indeed mechanisms within the contracts being proposed to ensure that any changes that the Home Office wishes to make in the future can be enacted appropriately, so these are not contracts that are set in stone for a 10-year period. As I said, there is a break clause at seven years, but we will also have the opportunity to make changes that we may need to make.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have two very simple questions for her. First, can she tell us what significant improvements there will be in the new contracts? Secondly, can she say whether there will be any penalties for any breach of contract or poor performance?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am conscious that I only have a couple of minutes left and I was hoping to move on to the bits of my prepared speech that actually include those points.
Alongside the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we continue to explore how central and local government can work better together to enable us to meet our international commitments and to let service providers, local partners and civil society play their part. We are currently working with a number of local authorities to develop a place-based approach to asylum and resettlement, and considering how closer working and greater collaboration could work in practice.
As I have said, I have met many local authorities and the devolved Governments, but we are determined to improve standards and will stipulate more standardisation in the initial accommodation estate. That will ensure that there are dedicated areas for women and families, and more adapted rooms for those with specific needs, including pregnant women.
The new contracts will improve service-user orientation, to help service users to live in their communities and access local services. There will be better data-sharing with relevant agencies, to better join people to those services. The new contracts will also focus on safeguarding and improvements to support—
Will the Minister give way?
I am sorry; I have got one minute left.
The new contracts will also focus on safeguarding and improvements to support vulnerable service users, which will build on the enhancements to safeguarding that have been put in place across the immigration system over recent years. Standardised health checks will be introduced to identify those with specific physical and mental health needs, and we will provide more uniform training for providers’ staff on safeguarding.
I also want the new contracts to improve advice services. We will introduce a national contract to provide advice to and assist destitute asylum seekers in making support applications.
The new contracts will further improve engagement with other agencies, and the accommodation provider will be required, during the normal course of its operations, to liaise and co-operate with other organisations, including local authorities, the voluntary sector, the NHS and the police, which will ensure that the interests of the service users are best served.
I am clear that I want the new contracts to build on the groundwork for a constructive relationship between central Government, local government, the private sector and civil society, for the benefit of communities and those seeking asylum.
Thank you, Mrs Main, for calling me again.
I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in today’s debate. We have had a list of horror stories, broken systems, broken lives, poor-quality provision, contractors failing in spectacular style and different standards for third sector organisations from those for private-sector organisations, and not one soul mentioned any success stories in this process.
I appreciate the Minister’s response to the debate. There were many things that she did not manage to cover in her remarks and I hope that I can look forward to receiving a letter from her that addresses some of the things that I outlined in my speech. Nevertheless, I make the appeal again to be transparent, to get into the detail and to work with others, especially local authorities. I also go back to that word “monitor”. Please, please, please put a system in place to monitor these contracts properly to ensure that asylum seekers get the facilities that they need, so that they can at least live a peaceful life in that respect.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered asylum accommodation contracts.