During the pandemic, the number of accommodated asylum seekers has increased, because we have not been able to move people on from accommodation and continuing claims. That means we have needed to secure contingency accommodation options, including two Ministry of Defence sites. We await the inspector’s full report on contingency accommodation, which will lay in Parliament alongside the Department’s response after his inspection is concluded.
Many constituents have been in touch about the unhygienic conditions at Napier barracks, which risk spreading covid. I understand that the Home Secretary told the Select Committee that she had been following guidance, yet that seems to be the opposite of what Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group said. It stated that there were
“too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection”.
Will the Minister once and for all decide that barracks are simply super-spreader venues that should not be used for anyone, let alone vulnerable asylum seekers?
We expect the highest standards from our providers and have instructed them to make improvements following the interim report from the independent chief inspector. In future, a core part of avoiding the pressures that result in the need for contingency accommodation will be fixing our broken asylum system, so that decisions are fair, prompt and firmer, and those whose claims are not genuine can be removed more easily.
The Home Secretary said to the Select Committee that
“advice around dormitories and the use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice”.
However, the inspection report reveals that Public Health England had advised that opening
“dormitory-style accommodation at Napier was not supported by current guidance”.
Ministers have claimed that the barracks are
“good enough for the armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people…seeking asylum.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 10.]
However, the report says that they are “impoverished, run-down and unsuitable”. When will those statements be corrected, and, more importantly, why did the Home Office not grasp that the use of dormitory accommodation in the middle of a pandemic was utterly reckless?
I note the hon. Member’s points, but I have already outlined that we expect the highest standards from providers and have instructed them to make improvements. A core part of being able to end the use of contingency accommodation in hotels and barracks is having more options and locations for dispersed accommodation. Sadly, Glasgow is the only location currently providing it in Scotland. Part of the solution might be for his council in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to agree to be next on the list—something I hope he will reflect positively on.
It is well and good for the Minister to ask providers to make improvements, but it is a blindingly obvious fact that whatever is done with dormitory accommodation will not protect against coronavirus. I agree that to fix asylum accommodation, local authorities must have the powers and the funding they need for the job. The Home Affairs Committee has said that several times. If the Home Office agrees to do that, instead of launching the horrendous large-scale warehousing of vulnerable people, more local authorities will get on board and I will, indeed, encourage it. Will the Home Office make sure local authorities get the powers and the funding they need?
We can see from the contribution Glasgow makes that a range of support is already available. As I say, we want to end the use of contingency accommodation. It is just that—contingency. As the pressures have reduced, we have moved away from using the Penally site, for example. However, as has been touched on, the solution is for more areas to come forward, because we need local councils to back up some of what they call for with action.
The independent inspector’s report states very clearly that
“once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable.”
In addition, the Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group inspection report on Napier confirmed that some communal areas were cleaned just once a week; that staff were expected to sleep three to a room; and that there were people with pre-existing vulnerabilities, including diabetes, leukaemia and tuberculosis, accommodated there. The public health advice never supported the use of dormitories, so why is Napier barracks still open?
As I have already outlined, we have instructed our providers to make improvements, and we want to reduce the use of contingency accommodation through fixing our broken asylum system. I am sure many will be interested to note the Labour party’s sudden interest in, and enthusiasm for, securing improvements at Napier barracks now that they are no longer being used by our armed forces.