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Asylum System: Reform

Volume 689: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

The asylum system is in need of fundamental reform, and the Home Secretary and I will be introducing legislation in the relatively near future to do exactly that. Too many people come into the UK having first passed through a safe country—for example, France—without having claimed asylum there. We are determined that we are going to have an asylum system that will protect those people in genuine need of protection while preventing the abuse that we sadly too often see.

I completely agree with the Minister: our asylum system needs to change ASAP. My constituents are vocal about how long it is taking to process their applications, often leaving them in limbo for months on end. For example, Shahid suffers from severe depression and has been waiting 16 months while he cares for his disabled wife. He cannot get carer’s allowance while his application is pending. Likewise, Aswad was told that their application would take a maximum of six months to process, but it has now been 13 months. May I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss how we can bring some closure to my constituents?

I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the particular case that he raises, and I will follow up to arrange that. I agree that we need to do more to speed up the system. Coronavirus has had a significant impact on asylum decision making, as it has on so many other areas of our public life. In the short term, we are hiring considerably more decision makers, we are introducing better IT and we are spending £20 million next year on system transformation, but beyond that, we need to legislate to make the system work more fairly and more efficiently, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has laid out.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that Napier barracks in Folkestone is only a temporary facility to accommodate people in the asylum system, that it is unsuitable for individuals to be placed there for prolonged periods, and that, post-covid and with a reformed asylum system that is swifter in processing applications, we should avoid using facilities such as this in the future?

I can confirm that Napier was set up in response to the enormous pressures placed on our asylum system by the coronavirus pandemic. We have set it up in such a way as to be safe, and it is of course accommodation that was previously used by the brave men and women of our armed services. We ensure that it is clean and secure and that there is health provision on site. It is not intended for use in perpetuity. I know that my hon. Friend spoke to the Home Secretary over the weekend, and we would be very willing to maintain a close and active dialogue with him and the local council to ensure that it is managed as well as it possibly can be.

The repurposing of disused Army barracks to house asylum seekers is proving a disaster and a disgrace. What is worse, the leaked impact assessment shows that this dreadful policy was justified by wild notions that proper support and accommodation could undermine public confidence in the asylum system. In short, the Home Office was pandering to gutter politics. Will the Home Office apologise for suggesting that people in the UK oppose decent support and care for asylum seekers, and close these barracks urgently?

No apology is due. As I just said, the barrack accommodation units in question were previously used by the brave men and women of our armed services. They were good enough for the armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum. We fully comply with all the relevant guidelines.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about this country’s stance on asylum seekers, we now spend getting on for £1 billion a year on accommodating them. That record bears comparison with any country in Europe and, indeed, around the world. No apology is due and certainly none will be made.

The sad fact is that the policy undermines the UK’s reputation as a welcoming place. Almost as bad as the impact assessment are the Home Office claims that people who criticise the use of barracks are insulting our armed forces: it is the Home Office that insults our soldiers by using them as cover for such disgraceful policies.

The former senior military legal adviser Lieutenant Colonel Mercer has agreed that it is “wholly inappropriate” to house asylum seekers in disused Army barracks, saying that

“this treatment is nothing more than naked hostility to very vulnerable people.”

If the Minister will not listen to me, will he listen to Lieutenant Colonel Mercer and a host of respected medical organisations and close the barracks quickly?

The closure of the barracks would be made a lot easier if more councils in Scotland—other than only Glasgow—would accept dispersed accommodation. That is the sort of thing that puts pressure on our accommodation estate. Thanks to the generosity of our approach, the number of people we are accommodating has gone up from 48,000 to 61,000 during the pandemic, because we have taken a thoughtful and protective approach. That is the right thing to do and we stand by it.

On Napier barracks, the equality impact assessment makes it clear that the use of disused barracks as asylum accommodation is absolutely a political choice. The Government have consistently refused to confirm the numbers of those who contracted the coronavirus while staying at Napier barracks, but I understand that, out of around 400 people, 105 who did not have the virus were moved out, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about just how massive an outbreak took place there. Does the Minister not agree with me and others that the use of barracks as asylum accommodation has been both a moral and public health disaster and that people must be moved into dispersed accommodation as a matter of urgency?

I do not agree with that. As I have said already, we have closely consulted Public Health England throughout this episode. The use of accommodation of this kind is appropriate and suitable. We need to have regard to a range of factors, including value for money. We have had to use a large number of hotels to accommodate people during the coronavirus pandemic and they do not represent particularly good value for money. Barrack-type accommodation is not only suitable but a great deal cheaper than hotels. We all owe the general taxpayer a duty to ensure value for money and the Government make no apology for that.