Tuesday 27 April 2021
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Support for Asylum Seekers
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme in providing support for asylum seekers.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support that I have received, for research capacity in my office in relation to my work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, from RAMP, the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project, which I thank also for supporting the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) and me in seeking this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Davies.
Let me start with some more thanks to all colleagues, across almost every party, who have backed the debate, and to all those organisations that not only have briefed for this debate, but work on this issue day in, day out, supporting some of the most vulnerable people across our country. I thank all my constituents who have messaged me to bemoan the awful system imposed by the Home Office, and all those out there who retain faith in the UK’s historic contribution to shaping international law on asylum and our equally historic contribution in not just settling asylum seekers in our country, but benefiting from the contribution that they have made to enrich our country’s economy and culture over very many decades.
Some people seek to cloak themselves in our flag, but wish to sidestep or even ignore our traditions and our historic sense of duty in always being there to support people in need—and people are in need in growing numbers across the globe, which is why an effective and efficient policy is so important. The world remains a dangerous place—from armed conflict, from growing resource and climate conflict and from growing aggression and human rights abuses in China, Russia and other countries, putting even more people at risk. Despite those growing risks, I am unsure whether there is another area where Tory rhetoric on global Britain clashes more harshly with the reality of this Government’s policies, given the planned cuts to our armed forces and the massive reduction to our international aid budget, despite manifesto commitments.
Many of the people in need will reach our shores, and when they arrive, we have responsibilities—legal duties. It is essential that we live up to our responsibilities—responsibilities to asylum seekers and responsibilities to the British public, who want to see an effective system that not only weeds out the tiny, minute, fraction of bogus claims fast but, equally quickly, resettles the overwhelming majority of genuine asylum seekers at the best price for the UK taxpayer. Sadly, that is in no way what we have currently. Instead, we have a fragmented system, badly mismanaged by the Home Office and, at the very start of the process, getting even the basics wrong. The British Red Cross has reported that 81% of asylum seekers do not even receive information in their own language. They are not told what is happening and will happen to them; and two thirds did not get health screening, even during the pandemic.
Then the Home Office shunts people into short-term asylum accommodation while their eligibility for support is assessed. Usually, people should then be moved to dispersal accommodation across the UK, where they will live until a decision is reached on their full application —often after a lengthy delay. During that period, people are prevented from working. They have no choice over where or how they are housed, and they are provided with just £39.63 a week to support themselves. That is a far cry from the £150,000 a year that the Prime Minister gets, and he is apparently still reliant on someone else to cover redecorating bills.
This is a crumbling, pernicious system, which has directly contributed to covid infections, crime and chaos, but it is overseen—ironically—by the Department with overall responsibility for tackling crime and disorder in the UK: a Department that has been warned so many times about this inhumane, inefficient and expensive system, which the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have laid bare. The National Audit Office reported last July that the system that the Government have adopted caused costs to escalate by 28% to £568 for each accommodated asylum seeker, and saw a 96% increase in short-term, more expensive accommodation. In November last year, the Public Accounts Committee warned of a system in crisis and recommended:
“The Home Office should, within three months, set out a clear plan for how it will quickly and safely reduce the use of hotels and ensure that asylum seekers’ accommodation meets their individual needs.”
I look forward to hearing from the Minister today, six months later, how that is being delivered.
Understandably, the Minister will say that covid is responsible for some of the rising costs and inefficiencies of his Department’s policies. I hope he will outline when those costs will fall and the strategy adopted in response to repeat NAO and PAC concerns. I also hope he will acknowledge how Home Office policies go back to before covid. There were more than 1,000 people in hotels in October 2019, before covid was identified in China, let alone before it began to be responded to by a Government headed by a Prime Minister whose own delayed decisions contributed to covid deaths in the UK. I will not repeat his sickening comments about piling up the bodies, as they are so raw for the 127,000 families who have lost loved ones.
I think the level of interest in this debate is due in part to the dramatic rise in hotel and other inappropriate accommodation use. At the end of February, almost 8,700 people were living in hotels across the UK, according to the Refugee Council. It is important to remember that the increased number of people living in contingency accommodation is due not to a rise in applications, but to a Home Office backlog. Also, these are hotels where people might stay for a short stop en route, not for a holiday or extended break, as they are often on the edge of towns, far from amenities and certainly far from the healthcare services needed by people who have been through trauma elsewhere, and who in some cases have acute mental health needs.
In London, more than 6,000 asylum seekers are in hotels, and roughly 1,200 are children, some unaccompanied. Again, this is not a holiday; it is isolating, lonely, and also exposed. “Line of Duty” has made more people familiar with the term OCGs. As a direct result of Home Office policy, organised crime groups have targeted asylum seekers in Home Office-funded premises to engage them in illegal work and other crime, including drug trafficking. Vulnerable people are made worse off by the Home Office, with criminals benefiting from Home Office policy. The fact that the Department oversees law and order policy in the UK is a joke when it cannot even ensure that the premises it funds are off limits to OCGs.
The people in hotels were originally scheduled to be moved out by March 2021. In February, the Home Office announced its intention to move people out of hotels again, through Operation Oak, but the process has yet to be completed, and the Home Office has said that it simply intends to complete it by the summer. I hope the Minister will today confirm the new date, full plans and staging post for delivery. The fear is that this is still “Operation Acorn”.
Of course, some costs in the system are avoidable if the decisions are made quicker. The Home Office website still claims, ludicrously, that someone seeking asylum will “usually” have a decision within six months. That is simply untrue and has been for some time. More than 64,000 people are awaiting decisions, according to the Refugee Council, and the British Red Cross says that 72% have waited more than six months. Perhaps the Minister will update us on the average time today. I will be amazed if colleagues can stay in their seats both here in the room and at home, given the previous claims and the average delays that we see for our constituents.
I will give two examples from Bermondsey and Old Southwark. I have raised the cases of an Eritrean woman and a Mongolian man seeking asylum since 2017. Not only do they not have a decision four years later, but the Home Office cannot even give a timeframe for when their cases will be concluded. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today when and how the Home Office will cut the horrific backlog that his Government have created.
The vast majority of asylum seekers have their claims upheld—more than 90% for many countries—so the delay is a needless burden that affects the asylum seeker and also imposes massive cost penalties on the taxpayer: first, in expensive, avoidable temporary accommodation; secondly, because the Home Office prevents people from working; and thirdly, because of the avoidable and lengthy delays to decisions and eventual settlement and work.
At the end of September 2020, there were 3,621 Sudanese, Syrian and Eritrean nationals who had been waiting longer than six months for a decision on their application. The grant rate across those three countries at initial decision was 94% in the year ending March 2020. It could be faster, but it requires a focus from the Home Office that simply has not been there, and that I suspect we will not see from the Minister today.
The system was bad enough before covid, but covid has brutally exposed the inadequacies of the asylum process, with routine delays, inflated costs, needless waits, and prevention from work, even for the one in seven asylum claimants who have a professional background in health and social care. People that this country could have desperately done with working in our services to support people through the crisis were prevented from doing so by Government policy.
But no one could have been prepared for the horrors of the Napier barracks—a cross-party issue on which, I think, 45 questions have been asked since January from all parts of the House. The interest was because Napier exposed the worst excesses of this system, which fails people fleeing torture, genocide, war and persecution, but also fails the taxpayer, our historic contribution and the British tradition of not passing by on the other side of the street. The Napier barracks issue is likely to result in further costs to the taxpayer, with legal cases resulting from this inhumane system imposed on people fleeing to the UK for help, but forced to live in accommodation that public health bodies had said was unfit for use and likely to increase the risks of infection.
The Government claimed a few years ago that the Home Office was reviewing the hostile environment, but it was proved to be only too alive and kicking during the pandemic, perhaps inevitably under a Home Secretary who proved to be the most hostile of bosses. Will the Minister update us today on where that review is, or if it even still exists? Napier shows that, at the same time as wider Government was telling the public to stay home, isolate where possible and protect the NHS, this bit of the Government, the bit that solely determines where asylum seekers live, chose to accommodate people in dormitories of 28: communal, unhygienic spaces that contravened Government guidance and public health recommendations—a shameful episode.
The shadow Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), wrote to the Government in December calling for a review of covid safety in all establishments being used for accommodation. In a response at the end of the year, the Home Office claimed it was committed to upholding statutory duties, including providing safe covid-compliant accommodation to those who need it, but failed to undertake that review. Does the Minister have an answer or explanation for that failure today, or better still an apology to the people put in those horrific circumstances?
Sadly, instead of learning from this hideous mistake, which rightly caused public outrage, Ministers planned to extend the use of communal rooms, with proposals for cabin-style accommodation on former MOD land in Barton Stacey. The indications are that Ministers have learned nothing, but I hope we will hear today that Napier will be no longer used and other proposals will be dropped.
I asked for this debate not just to highlight the issue of short-term, costly and dangerous asylum accommodation, but to look at the wider problem that the Government have created surrounding long-term housing through the dispersal scheme, introduced under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which was designed to try to ensure an even spread of support across the country. However, under that scheme, local authorities reach voluntary agreements with the Home Office to accept asylum seekers, and the Home Office has not negotiated well.
Many local authorities have no agreement with the Home Office at all. In Scotland, only Glasgow City Council accommodates asylum seekers. At the end of last year, 223 local authorities throughout the UK were taking no asylum seekers. The system is simply not working. I hope the Minister will explain how the Home Office is delivering the Home Affairs Committee recommendation that it should pursue the commitment he made to a more equitable and sustainable system by expanding the areas participating in dispersal.
Resources are, of course, part of the issue. Councils stress that after a decade of cuts to their budgets, there is no incentive to participate. The costs to local authorities supporting asylum seekers come from social care, homelessness services and other additional support needs. There appears to be no strategy or plan from the Home Office to address this issue to work with local authorities or better support asylum seekers moving out of contingency accommodation and into communities.
The ICIBI report in March stated that there was little focus on helping residents to prepare for next steps and next to zero focus on driving up the quality of the accommodation provided. Despite promises that improvements to accommodation be made, there is increased use of inappropriate emergency sites without wraparound support.
The 10-year contracts the Home Office is using are valued at £4 billion, but information about how these services are performing remains closely guarded. Perhaps Government secrecy is unsurprising when it comes to admitting failings or trying to improve services.
I hope the Minister will tell us his plans to address these issues today and when that plan might start. There is currently no sustainable plan. The only prospect is more of the terrible same, or worse, as numbers continue to rise and costs continue to escalate for emergency temporary accommodation for asylum seekers and costs to the taxpayers.
There are, of course, options on the table. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government might be better placed to provide some supported accommodation. Local authorities are often overlooked by this authoritarian, centralised Government. The need for a place-based, more equitable approach to dispersal has been consistently raised by the Local Government Association, which resulted in the Home Office and Local Government Chief Executive Group, co-chaired by the LGA, with representation of each region and devolved Administration, established in 2019 to develop a 10-year plan for a more equitable distribution of support. I hope the Minister will give us an update on that equitable distribution today.
Others suggest a local authority public health-driven approach. Incidents in hotels and barracks in recent months have highlighted the importance of advance notice, engagement and the sharing of data, so that local services are aware of who is in their locality and what their health needs are.
Sadly, as things stand, the Local Government Association states that the dispersal structure has been abandoned during covid. It is unclear how it will return or what is in place for when the pandemic ends. Partnership is needed on this issue. Will the Minister tell us how relations will be rebuilt? How will the Government address local authority concerns and deliver a more affordable system to the taxpayer, in partnership with the communities that will provide the ultimate long-term address for asylum seekers? At a minimum, I hope the Minister will today explain plans, if any exist, for how the Home Office will move away from its over-reliance on emergency accommodation and improve information sharing with councils and health bodies.
I end by quoting one of the amazing organisations that I thanked at the outset, the British Red Cross, whose report “Far from a home: why asylum accommodation needs reform” is out today. It is based on the real experiences of people living in asylum accommodation, including barracks and finds that
“too many asylum-seeking women, men and children in the UK are living in unsafe, unsanitary and isolated accommodation. This falls far short of expected standards, for months and even years at a time. These issues have been compounded by mounting backlogs in asylum application decisions in recent years, the failure to secure enough community dispersal accommodation and more recently, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Worryingly, the report also suggests that:
“Far from addressing these issues, the UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration…includes plans to house people seeking asylum in reception centres.”
It goes on:
“As we have witnessed in the use of military barracks, institutional-style accommodation can have significant negative impacts on people’s mental and physical health, as well as isolating people seeking asylum from wider communities, ultimately reducing social integration and cohesion…We believe this would be a mistake.”
I wholeheartedly agree with the report’s findings. I hope the Minister will give an initial response to the report in his comments, reassure us that the Home Office will no longer run a dangerous policy that puts people at risk of ill health and exposed to organised crime, and explain how he will seek to restore our proud tradition of being there at times of need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I commence, like the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a principal of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
It is vital to put today’s debate into its context. The hostile environment and a move away from treating asylum seekers as simply part of the wider welfare system began in the early 2000s, as the Blair Government recognised the political toxicity of the public perception that people newly arrived in the UK would be able to potentially jump social housing waiting lists. True or not, that was a serious political concern that they faced at the time.
In the mid-2000s, Andy Burnham, then the Immigration Minister and now the Mayor of Greater Manchester, signed off on the implementation of dispersal, creating a new route for asylum seekers, whereby they were placed in parts of the country where local authorities, recognising that there was a surplus of housing locally, offered to accommodate them and to provide them with support in those local communities. Subsequently, the Home Office looked to economise on the cost of delivering those services, by delivering through a set of national contracts with private companies.
Hard as it is to believe for those of us in London constituencies and city constituencies with lengthy housing waiting lists, there are parts of the country, such as Stoke-on-Trent, that were proactive in seeking to be dispersal areas because they recognised the benefits to their communities of bringing in new people who could revitalise the schools and other public services on which their communities depended.
The other significant factor remains the distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is not a matter for the Home Office but sits with the Department for Education, under the Children Act 1989. It means that local authorities that have ports of entry—airports or sea ports where people arrive into the UK—bear significant responsibilities. The Home Office’s national transfer scheme has been a step towards addressing that distribution.
The other big part of that picture is that refugees, once they are granted that status in the UK and have the right to asylum, often do not stay in the communities where they are placed through dispersal. That is why we see very large numbers of refugees living in London and the south-east of England, for example. They have not been placed there by the Home Office, but have moved there under their own volition.
It is very clear from my engagement with contractors who have administered the scheme that the new set of Home Office contracts has represented a significant improvement on what was there before. The funding that is available, the flexibility and the volunteering of new local authorities that are keen to be dispersal areas have all helped to ease some of the pressure.
However, we recognise that there are remaining issues with the system. In particular, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark alluded to, there is a very clear desire, first, to ensure that asylum seekers are not competing with local people to access social housing where that is in short supply; by definition, that means that people are being placed in parts of the country that do not already have a significant housing waiting list. Secondly, we need to ensure, given that around two thirds to three quarters of people who apply for asylum in the UK are granted it, that asylum is the start of a path to integration.
So, my ask today of the Minister is fairly simple—it is a shopping list of things that we need to do better and that we can consider as part of this wider consultation. First, we need to think about how dispersal is part of a path to integration, given those figures about people being granted asylum. Secondly, we must ensure, regarding things such as move-on period and the recognition that most people who come for asylum in the UK will remain, that we are realistic about how we support them to integrate. Thirdly and finally, and this is the most important point, there must be real consideration of how Departments work together. The challenge for local authorities and communities often arises because the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Education are not aligned with the Home Office. So, I ask the Minister: can we please ensure that the approach to this issue is joined up across Government so much better than it is today?
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I commend the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this debate at this important time. There can be no doubt that, since the beginning of the pandemic, no group of people has been more adversely affected than those seeking asylum or refuge. People arrive here in a society where the biggest concerns seem to be the safety and welfare of citizens, but only of those born here, or beaches that are only overwhelmed by those looking to top up their tans, or that the right calibre of boats are the ones to be seen from the white cliffs of Dover. This is the disunited kingdom in which we live.
The Home Office has placed vulnerable asylum seekers in squalid accommodation at short notice, often for months at a time, with no money, no certainty and no prospects. A so-called temporary solution has become normalised practice. In a very real sense, the asylum support system contorts what should be a source of pride for any country—to help those in their time of greatest need. Instead, it is a de facto and grim pilot scheme for the UK Government’s shameful and unapologetic attitude towards those who have already been traumatised by arduous and terrifying journeys. Too often, people are met with a system that is mired in suspicion, control and surveillance, with real pressure points around homelessness, especially for those who are refused asylum and who are then routinely rendered destitute here in the UK.
Welcome measures were instituted at the start of lockdown, but most have now been withdrawn by a Home Office that is sadly determined to get back to its business-as-usual routines. It announced on 15 September, apparently without consulting or gaining the consent of local authorities or their public health directors, that it would restart evictions of refused asylum seekers. Most of the evictions started in covid-19 hotspots, such as Halifax and Manchester. As Glasgow City Council recently commented, that is an “unconscionable” action and cannot continue.
Our overarching sense is that this pandemic has been particularly adverse for refugees’ communities, in terms of extensive social isolation, escalating mental health problems and further severe poverty. In Scotland and indeed across the UK, the pandemic has reconfirmed the inadequacies of the Home Office’s so-called support system.
Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus after an outbreak at a Kent barracks earlier this year. A High Court hearing heard that asylum seekers were left powerless to protect themselves, but the Home Office offered no apology at all. Perhaps that was right—no apology can be made for institutionalised aggression towards those who want nothing more than to be free of violence and persecution, but who instead are hindered and hidden behind the iron curtain of this right-wing Tory Government. I stand here today for my country, desperate to offer support to our newest Scots.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for calling this pertinent debate.
The issue is extremely current, given the situation we have seen in the English channel and the increasing pressures on dispersal areas. I am pleased that the Home Secretary and the Home Office are taking robust action to address those issues, with a new plan for immigration, which I entirely support, by taking action to remove those who have no right to be here and better deterring illegal migration, while supporting those who are in genuine need.
As a dispersal area, Stoke-on-Trent has contributed far more than most areas to the dispersal scheme since its inception, but we can take only so much. It is about fairness. It is now time for other towns and cities to learn from our example and do their bit. Far too frequently, hon. Members advocate doing more, but when it comes to taking action on places becoming dispersal areas, they do nothing. Numerous local authority areas have not resettled a single refugee. Sadly, because of the pressures on Stoke-on-Trent we have now reached the point where additional demands on already stretched local services, whether those are schools, health services or social services, are entirely unsustainable. We have resettled more than anywhere else in the west midlands and now, as part of Operation Oak, we are expected to take more.
I thank the Minister for hearing the concerns of Stoke-on-Trent MPs and the leader of the city council recently. Right now, on average, one person in every 250 in Stoke-on-Trent’s population is an asylum seeker. In one area of my constituency, the figure is closer to one in 80 and, in some parts of the city, it is as high as one in 30. In addition to those asylum seekers, there are thousands of confirmed refugees whom the city has embraced previously. Our city’s cluster limit ratio of 79% is greatly in excess of even Birmingham’s 29%, and our city council has recently had to challenge proposals repeatedly made over the course of the past year to increase numbers further. Sorry, but we can do no more.
Dispersal area local authorities of all complexions across the region have been united in their concerns about ever more pressure being placed on those few dispersal areas, when so many authorities have done nothing. There has been a tendency to place people in areas with lower value housing, just because it is cheaper. Yet the consequences of doing so and the impacts on local services are stark. The council has found itself challenging totally inappropriate accommodation, including unsustainable hotel accommodation. There are also much more serious concerns about radicalisation. Some accommodation is in extremely inappropriate locations, where vulnerable individuals may be targeted by extreme and criminal groups. I repeat that we are proud to have done much more than almost any other area to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, but it is time for other areas to stop grandstanding and actually do something.
The Home Office is knowingly presiding over an asylum accommodation and dispersal system that sees some of the most vulnerable people in the UK forced into squalid and overcrowded accommodation in dilapidated barracks or rodent-infested hotels. Covid-19 rips through dormitories and medical attention is slow to arrive or missing entirely. There is no access to support services or advice. Large groups of people have lived in small, unventilated rooms through lockdown. Food packages provided to children, which were supposed to be nutritious, fell far below any such standard and included pasta floating in milk and even raw chicken. There are reports of malnourishment, in one case resulting in hospitalisation and in another preventing a mother from breastfeeding her child.
The people in question have fled war and violence and are in desperate need of peace, security and stability. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among those housed in the accommodation. Yet they are subject to banging on the door and an instruction that they will be moved, sometimes the next morning and sometimes within the next 20 minutes, to a new, unknown location.
West London Welcome, an inspirational charity in my constituency, has been supporting asylum seekers housed in contingency accommodation hotels in west London since last summer with food, clothes, advice, access to legal aid, and GP and school registrations. It currently supports 300 people and has had 1,300 visits from asylum seekers to its free clothing shop in the last four months. I shall describe some of the people it has helped.
M, an asylum-seeking teenager, was dispersed in mid-February from Fulham to Liverpool and then Stoke-on-Trent. In temporary accommodation in Liverpool, M had no money and no food so West London Welcome sent him hardship money and organised food to be sent to him from the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and Scouse Kitchen. R and her husband and children were left waiting until the very last minute at a hotel in Fulham and then moved to Croydon. It turned out that their 14-year-old son had covid-19—they were not tested before being moved—and he ended up in the intensive care unit. From there they have been moved to Hounslow, which has meant three schools in two months.
F, her husband and children were at the same hotel and she contracted covid-19 while pregnant. Immediately after giving birth, she was sent to the ICU where she remained for three months. Her family were moved to east London, despite promises to find them housing near the hospital where she remained in intensive care. When she came out of the hospital in March and joined her family, they still had not been given the £8 per week support money. The children have not been to school for two months. S, her husband and children were given notice at 8 pm to move at 7.30 am the next day, but were not told where they were going.
Those stories are the bitter reality of the system over which the Government presides. The care of asylum seekers has been contracted out to a hierarchy of poor providers and profit-taking middlemen, but the buck stops with the Government. They should be ashamed and embarrassed, but those are not words we associate with this Home Secretary; rather, there is a feeling that this is all as she intends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and thank you to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for having secured this important debate.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Minister that I have a great deal of sympathy with him in understanding the complexities of finding suitable accommodation and working to make sure that those seeking asylum in this country are properly integrated. Indeed, in my 18 months in the role, some of the most inspiring visits were ones that I had in Bradford, Southampton and south-east London, talking to the volunteers who are helping in the process of finding routes for asylum seekers to integrate into communities—finding the specialist support services they need; finding the medical attention they require on their arrival to the UK; and helping with their children and integration into schools, which is a crucial part of their journey in the UK.
I would like to extend my thanks to the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group and point out that these volunteers and support services are almost invariably found in significant centres of population. It is no surprise that we find organisations working in cities such as Southampton, which has a proud track record of helping refugees and asylum seekers. Indeed, the Swaythling ward in my constituency has one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers in supported accommodation in the city. Therefore, it will also come as no surprise that I regard as deeply suspect any proposals to site asylum seekers away from services they need.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark has mentioned the site at Barton Stacey, which is not only remote from services such as running water, but adjacent to a dual carriageway with a poor safety record. It is also next to a Ministry of Defence firing range and a shooting school, so those who have come to this country seeking refuge from war must listen to the sound of gunshots resonating over the skies.
I know it is really challenging to find suitable accommodation, but this can best be achieved by working with local authorities. I would respectfully point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Local Government Association can be his friend. It is really important to find integrated solutions that involve funding following those who are seeking asylum. We know that a significant proportion of their claims will be granted, but I would like to see more work across Government, perhaps with the MHCLG and the Department for Education, because so many of these asylum seekers are children—children who need school places and who need help to learn English so that they can go on to play a fulfilling role in our society.
Moving forward, it is important for us to remember that these are people, who need our help and who have come here fleeing persecution and war. There are those on all sides of the House who wish to find a way to make sure that the tone of this debate is constructive and helpful; not just pointing out the problems, but seeking to find solutions so that we can do better.
Thank you, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this debate.
The Government are now presiding over the worst asylum accommodation shortage in history, and the result is that almost a fifth of all supported people seeking asylum are currently living in hostels and other large, full-board facilities. We can thank the Home Office and their extreme mismanagement of contract providers for that. In Leeds, like many other parts of country, asylum seekers have been living in hotels round the city. Contrary to what the Daily Mail would have you believe, the conditions make them completely unfit for short-term emergency accommodation, let alone the months many have endured.
Around 40 people recently took part in protest in one such hotel, drawing attention to the poor living conditions, lack of nutritional food and mistreatment by hotel staff. One man was on hunger strike for nine days. With the help of my office, I have pursued complaints about the standard of the accommodation and care provided in Leeds, and we discovered a worrying picture. Residents are subject to strict rationing for the most basic supplies such as soap and toilet paper, both of which are often unavailable. Many people to whom I have spoken have also been denied access to hygiene facilities. Some asylum seekers only have one set of clothes, and are unable to wash them. One resident reported that he had not been given clean bedsheets for a month. Complaints have been made about insufficient and unhealthy food. Residents did have fresh juice and milk for months, but after complaining about other elements of their living conditions that was removed by the hotel manager: a punitive measure that sent a clear message to asylum seekers telling them not to complain.
Worryingly, there have been severe difficulties in accessing dental and medical care, and legal help. Many residents have no phone credit or do not speak much English and so cannot call for help themselves, and yet staff fail to assist them. In one case, a resident was in severe pain because of a broken foot yet his prescription was not collected for a week. It appears that the regional contract handling of the coronavirus crisis added to the misery of those living there. On more than five occasions, residents were forced to isolate with no explanation.
In many areas, racist far-right activists—no doubt emboldened by the hateful rhetoric spewed by the media and, I am saddened to say, certain Members of the House—visited the hotel to intimidate those living there. Unfortunately, it is not just far-right thugs from outside who have racially abused asylum seekers in hotels. One hotel manager told a man, “If you don’t like it, go back to your own country.” Another resident claimed that the same man said, “I am a citizen of this country and I have a right to do whatever I can. You don’t have the right to complain.” A further two people said that they heard the manager say that if they are not happy they can be deported. That is the tip of the iceberg. The stories I hear in my surgeries are a tiny fraction of what is happening in Leeds and across the country.
In 2018, I spoke physically in Westminster Hall about the poor condition of housing for asylum seekers in Leeds. That continues to persist without any improvement. My colleagues describe similar shocking conditions in constituencies around the country. G4S lost its contract and another private sector company made promises, but the same problems persist. It is time that these contracts were run by public, not-for-profit providers that are not driven by profit—
Whatever the Government are told, the fact remains that the UK is a global leader in overseas aid and refugee resettlement. Between 2016 and 2019, we resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member. In 2015, the Government committed to resettling 20,000 of the most vulnerable who had fled the conflict in Syria. The UK has now resettled over 25,000 refugees in total in the past six years. Over half of them have been children. Any asylum seeker who would otherwise be destitute is provided with free accommodation with utility bills and council tax paid, as well as a weekly allowance with extra money for mothers and little children.
As a nation at the vanguard of human rights around the world, it is right that the UK offers legal and safe routes to help the most vulnerable people in the world. But, Mr Chairman, we have got ourselves into an awful pickle, and it is now out of control. My contention today is twofold: first, the current policy does nothing to disincentivise those who seek to take advantage of our generosity, and our over-populated island is already at capacity. Secondly, we need more robust policies, so I welcome current initiatives from the Home Office such as the points-based immigration system. But we also have to send a clear message to disincentivise economic migration on the pretext of asylum.
As part of the New Plan for Immigration and to help speed up the processing of claims, the Government plan to introduce new asylum reception centres. I welcome that, but would urge that it does not include the dis- aggregated model proposed for provincial towns such as Bracknell, and on which Bracknell Forest Council is currently being consulted. The reasons are persuasive. That small unitary council does not have the space or resources to deal with over 200 families. It is about fire safety, it is about community cohesion, community tension, overcrowding, building regulations, environmental health. The list goes on.
Bracknell is not a very multicultural area. The impact on housing pressure at local level could cause further tensions if there is resentment about refugees receiving housing assistance at a time of acute affordable housing shortage. The scale of the proposed procurement would have a significant negative impact on the resources of a small unitary authority with no council-owned stock. Contextually, Bracknell Forest Council’s housing team has managed in the last twelve months to procure 21 private rented sector households: compare that to 200.
In sum, we need a faster, more robust asylum system. I regret, however, that the model pursued by the Government and by companies such as Clearsprings in Bracknell is just not the answer. We will take our share, but we also need a sense of perspective.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for securing this much-needed debate, and I pay tribute to the incredible work of Asylum Link Merseyside in my constituency. My constituents regularly contact me expressing dismay and often anger at the way this country operates its asylum system to the detriment of the most vulnerable and the communities in which they hope to integrate. As a humanitarian, I too, like my constituents, believe that we can and should do more to provide much-needed dignity in the way we treat asylum seekers.
Most recently, I have been contacted by constituents horrified at the treatment of fellow human beings in military barracks. Asylum accommodation has always been inadequate to the needs of people awaiting a decision on their claim, but throughout 2020 the conditions and standards of this accommodation have worsened drastically. Forced room-sharing with strangers, accommodation that lacks basic hygiene measures and inadequate provision of food, non-prescription medicines and other essentials are now the norm. Indeed, drastic failings had been uncovered in a report submitted to the Home Office by prison inspectors, as well as in correspondence sent by the outgoing independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt. This underlines the need for an urgent change of course on the use of this type of accommodation.
With the idea of refugees being kept on a rock in the south Atlantic being floated by the make-it-up-as-you-go-along Home Secretary, no wonder the Government seemingly intend to continue such a barbaric and inhumane practice as currently exists in Kent. I am often reminded of the infamous quote from the late, great Tony Benn:
“The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
In short, and in reference to the debate’s motion, the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme is woefully inadequate. There exists only one adequate system: one that puts the human front and centre of the system and affords dignity and respect. As a whole, we must achieve a fair and equitable system that sees Whitehall pulling its weight alongside local authorities, with no local authorities in the Tory shires ducking their responsibilities under the dispersal scheme. Ultimately, big changes are needed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for securing the debate, in which I speak as a representative of the UK’s first city of sanctuary.
Many of us know from our constituents that asylum seeker accommodation is too often substandard, with large providers contracted by the Home Office at rates that drive them towards substandard provision. But since 2019 we have seen problems with the new Home Office contracts, which have been mentioned. As the Red Cross explains in its report published today, from the start of the new contracts there was a sharp rise in the use of emergency forms of asylum support accommodation across the UK, including hostels, bed and breakfasts and hotels. By December 2020, around one in every five people accommodated by the Home Office was living in such temporary accommodation—an almost fourfold increase in just one year.
But let us be clear that the solution is not the apparent move from the Home Office towards the use of detention centres on arrival. We have already seen, as has been mentioned, shocking reports of those who have experienced the provision in ex-military barracks, which are unsuitable for helping to heal the traumas those people have experienced and are in extremely poor conditions and away from the services those people need.
The Government’s new plan for immigration includes proposals for new “reception centres” that would “provide basic accommodation”, but as the Red Cross points out, it is likely, given the huge delays in the system, that those seeking asylum could live in such centres for several months, potentially in remote locations, reducing contact between communities, increasing social isolation and harming their health and wellbeing. We know that that is the experience of immigration removal centres, which were set up to fulfil a short-term function but have ended up detaining people sometimes for months, even for years—indefinite detention, described by those detained as worse than prison and rejected by the House in its support for our 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention.
The Government were right to set up pilots to develop community-based alternatives, and I commend the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for her work on them. It now appears, however, that the Government are abandoning those pilots. The consultation paper on the new plan for immigration states that one of its aims is to change the system
“so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.”
If that really is the case, the Minister needs to be clear in his response about how the Government plan to improve housing for asylum seekers and to be clear that increased use of detention will play no part whatsoever.
I have two detention centres in my constituency, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. I will come back in another debate to explain the brutality of the regime in those detention centres, which is abhorrent.
One of the opportunities given to us by Westminster Hall debates is to explain to Ministers what is happening on the ground, as against some of the advice they might be getting from officials. Since last June, two hotels in my constituency have been used to house 600 asylum seekers, as a response to the covid pandemic.
I welcome those people into my constituency. I have met them and they are largely seeking refuge from Syria, Iran and other oppressive regimes or war-torn or impoverished areas of the world. Many arrived here with little more than the clothes they stand up in. To respond, I set up a working group, with representatives from the Home Office, the contractor Clearsprings, the local NHS, council and community groups. I commend the Bell Farm Christian Centre, and Diane Faichney and Stuart Mathers in particular.
Despite all the hard work of those involved, major problems have arisen due to the basic administration of the scheme. For instance, outsourcing food provision to a hotel resulted in people going hungry, and the Bell Farm Christian Centre’s foodbank being overwhelmed, as refugees simply sought food to feed their families. The small financial support allowance is often not paid and backlogs build up. At one point a curfew was imposed, causing real anxiety because detainees felt they were almost in a prison. We also struggled to get agreement with the local council on school places.
Since then, there have been sudden removals of families from those hotels. Although we had been assured that there would be adequate notice, people have sometimes been given just two hours to move, and not told where they are going or where they will eventually be put. Local teachers have contacted me extremely distressed about the impact on already vulnerable children, who had just begun to settle in their schools. We were assured that everything would be done to provide settled accommodation, but we now discover people have simply been dispatched around the country into more hotels and often into appalling standards of accommodation.
We all accept that the overriding concern during the pandemic was to keep people safe, but immediate action is needed to provide support and assistance to these often extremely traumatised people, many of whom have already been diagnosed with PTSD. That means decent, settled accommodation and advice and support, ensuring that those families are fully engaged in determining their own futures. This has been a shameful, disgraceful performance by this Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this hugely important debate. The asylum system overhaul recently announced by the Home Secretary lacks basic humanity and represents the latest step in this Government’s pernicious demonisation of asylum seekers. It has rightly been criticised by human rights organisations, including the UN Refugee Agency and the British Red Cross.
The UK Government have persistently been warned by experts, migrant charities and parliamentary Committees that if they do not open safe and legal routes for people to practise their legal right to claim asylum, deaths at sea are unavoidable. Yet they have proceeded to close the few legal avenues that exist, such as the right to family reunion.
Contrary to popular mistruths, asylum seekers do not arrive in the UK to leech off the state. Asylum support allowance is a mere £37.75 per week. Contrary to the myths propagated by the Home Secretary in Parliament, it is also far from the case that the UK is overwhelmed with asylum seekers, with Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece and France registering far more asylum applications. Indeed, in 2020, the UK received just under a third of the number of asylum applications received by Germany and about two fifths the number in France. In the sixth richest country in the world, there is no reason we cannot provide a humane pathway towards stability and dignity for everyone. Instead, asylum seekers are forced to reside in appalling conditions.
In a report published today, the British Red Cross found that too many asylum-seeking women, men and children in the UK are living in unfit, unsanitary and isolated accommodation, which falls far short of expected standards, for months and even years at a time. The report is harrowing: people living in the same clothes for weeks, survivors of trafficking forced into widely inappropriate housing and scared to leave their rooms, and requests for medical support ignored. Indeed, in a recent 13-month period, the British Red Cross supported more than 400 individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Far from addressing those issues, the Government’s new plan for immigration includes plans to house people seeking asylum in reception centres. Yet, this institutional-style accommodation, including the appalling conditions currently being endured by asylum seekers at Napier military barracks, can have significant negative impact on people’s mental and physical health, as well as isolating people seeking asylum from wider communities. The Government must also end the hugely damaging practice of outsourcing accommodation to private companies, which have overseen this disastrous, prison-like infrastructure. In 2019, Serco was awarded a new Government contract despite being fined nearly £7 million for sustained failings over a seven-year period.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate.
The poet Warsan Shire wrote:
“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”.
When the Government and much of the media cover channel crossings or the supposed migrant crisis, there is rarely an attempt to understand that. The stories of the people themselves are ignored. It is not said, for example, that many people seeking asylum in the UK had homes destroyed by British bombs and British wars. It is not said that when fleeing poverty and persecution in their homelands, people are desperate to be reunited with loved ones already here in Britain. No, in the eyes of the Government and much of the right-wing press, they are not people; they are a problem. That is how the asylum system treats them.
As hon. Members have said, those people have been crammed into camps in Penally and Napier and forced to share dormitories with dozens, predictably causing mass outbreaks of coronavirus. When I challenged the Home Secretary about that at the end of January, she promised me that the camps were of a very strong standard. We now know that that is not true. Instead, they were against public health guidance and recommendations from the local health boards.
It is not just the camps. During the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people seeking asylum have been left in unsuitable and often unsafe accommodation. In Coventry, I have seen at first hand the appalling conditions and disgraceful treatment people are subjected to. Mothers with young babies moved into rooms with insect infestations and mould covering the walls. Parents separated from each other with no reason and no warning. All the while, the outsourcing companies that run the services, such as Serco, make huge profits from Government contracts.
The people seeking asylum are denied the right to work, and local authorities, even if they are eager to help, are starved of necessary funding. In Coventry, we are lucky to have organisations such as Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group and Carriers of Hope, which provide meals and essential items for people seeking asylum. I want to pay particular tribute to Loraine Mponela and Sue Sampson for the incredible work they do in Coventry.
No one’s basic needs should depend on charity. People seeking asylum are not a problem to be managed or a useful scapegoat to distract and divide. They are people deserving of dignity and respect. Napier barracks must close immediately, there must be funding for local authorities and the dispersal scheme, with the housing stock invested in and upgraded, and those seeking sanctuary should be offered the opportunity to rebuild their lives with an end to the ban on the right to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate. We in this country are proud of our long record of providing a safe haven to people in fear of their lives, yet the approach this Government take to asylum accommodation is a stain on their conscience. It has been condemned by the Refugee Council, the Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, and many other organisations. It has been criticised by the National Audit Office, and the appalling conditions at Penally and Napier barracks have been documented in a damning report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons.
I have an initial accommodation site in my constituency, and each year I make representations on behalf of many of the residents there. The situation they face is appalling. The accommodation is poor quality and overcrowded. Room sharing between strangers is the norm, and bathrooms are also shared. Food is meagre, monotonous, and lacking in nutrition.
The needs of many children, babies, pregnant women and disabled people there are not met. I recently made representations on behalf of a resident who is reliant on a motorised wheelchair, which needed a new battery, so he had to leave it on charge all day in order to have just one hour of outside activity. It was broken so that it was exacerbating the pain in his back, yet he had found it impossible to access basic support.
The residents cannot afford to travel, so while they wait for the next decision from the Home Office, life is unbearably monotonous. By definition, many of these residents have fled the worst circumstances any of us could possibly imagine. They are traumatised and in need of support, yet the Home Office leaves them in poor accommodation, alone with their thoughts. It is simply inhumane; it lacks basic dignity.
The Home Office’s approach sits in stark contrast to the response of our communities. I pay tribute to the faith communities and community organisations in my constituency that, aware of asylum seekers living in accommodation, constantly rally to provide support—winter coats, shoes for children, pushchairs for babies, and Christmas gifts. I mention in particular the incredible work of our local NHS, which have a dedicated outreach service, and Happy Baby Community, who pick up mums and babies from the initial accommodation once a week and spend the day with them, providing nutritious food, company, health visitor services, and friendship—support that I have no doubt is life-saving to many new mothers living in such appalling circumstances.
However, this support should not be left to our communities and the voluntary sector. The Government must get a grip on these contracts. We are rightly proud of our record of welcoming people seeking sanctuary in our country. This Government have a duty to secure the continuation of that tradition, providing the policy framework, support, and partnership work to guarantee that people seeking asylum in this country are treated with the dignity and compassion they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), and indeed the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), for having secured this important debate. In addition, I would like to thank a number of local groups within Reading and Woodley, particularly Reading Refugee Support Group, Reading Red Kitchen, and various local churches and faith groups, which have all contributed to supporting refugees and asylum seekers in our area.
It is fundamental that we treat asylum seekers and refugees with dignity, according to international law, and with respect. I wanted to focus my remarks on some issues that have happened in Reading, which I have already raised with Ministers, and I am grateful for their support in this matter. I would also like to say that the town I represent has a proud history of supporting people in difficulty, going back to at least the time of supporting Belgian refugees in world war one, and in many other conflicts since then.
The issues I will raise today are those at the George Hotel, which the Home Secretary kindly helped me with and offered some support on last year. This is a hotel in the centre of Reading where a number of refugees and asylum seekers were placed at short notice at the beginning of the pandemic. Obviously, at that time, resources were under great pressure. However, issues continued over some months, and I want to highlight some of those problems to illustrate the scale of the issues we face as a country, and also to flag this up to the Government and ask for a fundamental rethink.
We have had reports—which I have investigated with my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), the shadow Immigration Minister—of problems with food being inappropriate or insufficient; a lack of connection with local medical services, such as asylum seekers not being registered with GPs; and a lack of financial support, which meant that those in the George Hotel were, at times, unable to make small local journeys or other journeys to meet people who they needed to see. For example, a disabled man at one point had to walk all the way to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, which is about three quarters of a mile away from the George Hotel.
Many of the issues seem to relate to the contractor, Clearsprings, and the Home Secretary was very gracious in helping to address some of them last year. From my experience, this contractor seems to have a relatively poor track record in our area. I cannot comment on the further, wider issues, but that does raise questions about the nature of the provision and whether there ought to be a much more fundamental rethink, as a number of colleagues have pointed out.
I realise that there is a lack of time this morning, and I am grateful for the Minister’s support in this matter. I hope there will be a much broader and wider rethink of the policy on how asylum seekers and refugees are supported in the UK. We need to maintain high standards of support and keep up our excellent tradition of supporting and welcoming people.
I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) very much, because this is such a pressing and desperate issue. We know from the new immigration plan that this Government are determined to institutionalise asylum seekers. The pandemic provided a convenient time to move people into hostels, hotels and Army barracks, for goodness’ sake, and as we have heard too many are still there. Four hundred in Glasgow remain in hotels. It is clear that there is an ideological shift away from housing people in communities. The use of this type of accommodation long term is extremely dangerous and has led to a marked deterioration in people’s mental health, as confirmed in the report from the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration. The Home Office is getting it wrong on so many counts, but when has the UK, regardless of who was in power, ever got it right?
I shudder when I hear the names of previous accommodation providers in Glasgow such as the Angel Group and Ypeople, and now we have the Mears Group, which I will come to. I want to say something about the workers in some of the groups that I am rightly attacking. I accept that many decent, caring people work for these organisations and go above and beyond the call of duty, really taking care of the people they are working with. This is not about individuals, although I will share some horror stories; it is about the system and those companies making money from that system.
The reason why we get it wrong is that our attitude is all wrong, or at least this Government’s is. What we should be doing is putting metaphorical arms around people and saying, “You got here. You’re safe and protected. You’re respected. You’re now home.” But this Government will not say that, because they do not agree with it. Their priority is sending a message not to come here—“You are not wanted.” Those seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable human beings on the planet, and I want to share the story of some women in Glasgow who are particularly vulnerable right now.
There are few times in a woman’s life when she is more vulnerable than when she is giving birth. Earlier this year, 20 women in Glasgow who were either pregnant or new mums were moved wholesale into a mother-and-baby unit in Glasgow. It was wholly unsuitable, for so many reasons, but I will limit myself to three. One was that the rooms are tiny, and the babies and toddlers, who are expected to be there for two years, have no space at all in which to explore, to learn to walk and to play. That is cruel and is having a detrimental impact on them. Secondly, the cot in some rooms is next to the tiny cooking area. The mums do not feel it is safe to leave the baby in the cot, but they cannot take them into bed, because the beds are narrow single beds, so where do the babies sleep? Thirdly, 20 mums and 20-plus babies share laundry facilities that consist of three washing machines, making it absolutely impossible to practise social distancing.
The women were given absolutely no say over this. They were housed in flats in communities where they had support and excellent networks when, suddenly, they were hoisted out of their accommodation and told that they had to move to the unit. One woman was told that if she did not go, she would be deported. Another was told that she could take two carrier bags of stuff and that that was more than enough for her and her newborn baby, but also that she had no right to have all that stuff, because she was supposed to be destitute. The disrespect with which these women have been treated is an absolute disgrace.
Last night, I met some of the women for the second time, and I discovered that one of them has tested positive for covid-19. Some of the women living in the unit were not informed by Mears. I hope that the Minister is shocked—I am sure he will be—to hear that. Volunteer groups working closely with the mothers were not told either—even when they asked. The young woman speaks no English, and she is currently still using the communal facilities, so she is not self-isolating. The Mears Group denies that, but it always does.
The Mears Group promised me some time ago, on more than one occasion, that no more mothers would be moved in and that those in there would be moved out if they so wished—and they do wish. So far, two have moved out, and two have moved in. I therefore ask these questions of the Minister, given that this Government are paying the people doing this to them. Will he urgently look into the issue of the mother-and-baby unit? Will he support the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and Amma Birth Companions—organisations that are working with these women to have them relocated—and will he get those relocation requests expedited before more damage is done? In looking into this issue, will he also trust my word and that of the other Glasgow MPs that, in our opinion, Mears Group will tell him what he wants to hear, but we will tell him the truth?
I have another story, which I hope will give hope to anyone listening. In 2005, Roza was a 15-year-old asylum seeker when she and her friends— later to become known as the Glasgow Girls—took direct action to stop dawn raids, terrified as they were of the implications for their own families. It worked: for many years, there have been no dawn raids in Scotland—that is, until last Friday, when the Home Office shamefully terrified a 68-year-old man with an existing heart condition, who is currently fasting, by sending 10 officers to his door in the early hours of the morning to remove his family from their beds and take them to detention. The poor man collapsed and, as he was taken away in an ambulance, an immigration officer told him, “We’ll be back.”
I have since heard that, unbeknown to most people, dawn raids may have been happening in Glasgow since January, but to families who had nobody to reach out to. Let me make this very clear: I and every one of my colleagues in the SNP, and the good people of Glasgow and Scotland, will fight the Government on this in a way that makes it very much not worth their while doing it. Do not go down this route again. We will not stand by.
I said it was a hopeful story, and it is, because in 10 days’ time, that 15-year-old asylum-seeking schoolgirl, Roza—now 16 years older—may become a Member of the Scottish Parliament if enough people vote for her party on the Glasgow list. Notwithstanding the fact that Roza Salih would be a brilliant asset, what is Scotland saying to asylum seekers if it elects one of their own to the country’s Parliament? What is Scotland saying to refugees who can now vote thanks to recent legislation? The country is saying, “You are welcome here, you are one of us now and everything is possible.”
But in Scotland we can only really tinker, and where that is possible we have done it. On the big issues affecting asylum seekers all we can do is send out messages of support, because we have no control over the system and have to go along with whatever this Tory Government want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) said, we are a country desperate to support asylum seekers properly. That is why we in the SNP want independence, because we are not allowed to stop inhumanity being meted out in our country. I say to everyone in Scotland, “If you want asylum seekers to be treated with love, humanity and respect, you can do that with independence.”
I have this to say to those living in the rest of the UK and to colleagues here today: I and my colleagues will fight tooth and nail for a better system for everyone in these islands while we are still part of the UK. Afterwards, I cannot imagine Scotland’s first Foreign Secretary not putting diplomatic pressure on the rest of the UK to show the same love, compassion and respect that will permeate Scotland’s new immigration system.
I want to thank and pay tribute to some of the organisations that have been in touch with me about this debate and that have supported some of the people I have mentioned: Amma, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Maryhill Integration Network, the Red Cross, Refugee Action, the No Evictions Network, the English Refugee Council and the migrant-led Migrants Organising for Rights & Empowerment.
I want to pre-empt something I think the Minister will say in his response about accommodating asylum seekers in Scotland. He will say that it is a problem that only Glasgow has agreed to take asylum seekers and that meetings have taken place with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and they have, although not with Scottish Government Ministers. As others have said, COSLA’s long-standing position is that it will support further dispersals to other local authorities when there is an appropriate partnership approach with local government and, crucially, when adequate funding is provided by the UK Government to support the key role that councils play. COSLA also makes the very fair point that all 32 Scottish local authorities got involved in the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, when proper support was provided. That is also consistent with the Home Affairs Committee recommendations.
I end by saying that, alongside providing safe and legal routes for people to reach these islands, cutting the time people have to wait for decisions on their claims and providing safe, suitable accommodation for people seeking asylum in the UK, we should be giving compassionate support. Those metaphorical arms should be welcoming people who, as I have said, are among the most vulnerable on this planet. If this Government are not prepared to do that, they are not fit for government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me start, as others have, by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for securing the debate, for their outstanding opening contributions and for their leadership on asylum and migration issues. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the time for the debate. It is often said that debates are timely, but with just a week to go before the end of the incredibly short consultation on the Government’s new plans for an immigration policy statement, ahead of the sovereign borders Bill, it could not be more timely.
There are pre-existing weaknesses in the asylum accommodation and dispersal scheme, combined with the pressures of the pandemic, which we accept have been significant. Added to the direction of travel under this Government, outlined in the policy statement, that creates a pretty toxic outlook.
On contingency accommodation, we recognise the increased need for accommodation, with the early, welcome pause on negative cessations taking the numbers in the asylum system from around 48,000 to around 60,000. Inevitably, that would have brought logistical challenges, and we were sympathetic to that, but over 12 months on, there are no justifications for the shocking conditions that persist in asylum accommodation and the questionable motivations behind Home Office decision making. Contingency accommodation has become far more widely used as the norm than it ever should have been.
The Minister may have read the Refugee Council’s report published last week on the use of hotel accommodation. It outlines just how difficult life has been for people who have been confined to the same room for days and weeks on end and for those who arrived without basics, such as shoes and coats, and who simply were not provided with any. People had insufficient access to drinking water, and there were widespread failures to register them with GPs so that they could access healthcare. In some instances, as we have heard children were not enrolled in schools for months.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who shared with us the contributions of their local charities and communities. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for Reading East for introducing me to a number of his local organisations that support those accommodated in hotels.
The Government have said that the use of hotels will end as part of the new plan for immigration. That is incredibly welcome, but what is the plan? Where will those people be accommodated instead? The Home Office provided a quote to The Guardian on Friday, saying:
“As part of our New Plan for Immigration, the use of hotels to accommodate new arrivals will end and we plan to introduce new asylum reception centres.”
I understand that Operation Oak sought to move people out of hotel accommodation and into more appropriate dispersed accommodation, as should be the process. However, that Home Office spokesperson seems to suggest that those currently housed in hotels will instead be housed in reception centres.
At the end of February, an estimated 8,700 asylum seekers were accommodated in more than 90 hotels across the UK. Some were there for months. What exactly will these new reception centres be for? My hon. Friends the Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) have stressed how unhappy we are about the proposals. I hope the Minister will explain just how many centres he envisages will be required, how long people will be required to stay in them and what the terms of their stay will be. That quote suggests that the centres will be a form of initial accommodation, but everything else we are hearing sounds much more comparable to detention than initial accommodation. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made it clear why that would be a disaster. My fear is that this is a policy choice from this Government—a point already made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and others.
Although I have outlined just some of the problems with hotels, it is clear that there has been a deliberate attempt to conflate initial accommodation with immigration detention, with the use of disused barracks to accommodate asylum seekers. I made a number of these points in last week’s debate. As with the use of hotels, the Government initially claimed that the use of barracks at Penally and Napier was due to the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic. Yet, the equality impact assessment we have seen, which was conducted by the Home Office in September, revealed that use of that particular type of accommodation was born not out of necessity but out of political choice. It suggested that providing nothing but the absolute bare minimum to those seeking asylum is in the interests of community relations. It reads more like a hard-line right-wing manifesto than any equality impact assessment from a Government Department ever should.
The Government’s reluctance to provide anything deemed beyond what is necessary has led to people with conditions such as leukaemia, diabetes or tuberculosis being housed 28 to a dorm and sharing limited toilet facilities, with communal areas cleaned only once a week, during a pandemic.
On 8 March 2021 the then independent chief inspector of borders and immigration published initial findings from site visits in mid-February to Penally camp and Napier barracks with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. They confirmed that, given the
“cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier”
a large-scale outbreak of covid was virtually inevitable, which is exactly what happened. There were 197 positive cases of covid at Napier barracks between 1 January and late February. We secured the Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group’s infection prevention report undertaken at Napier through a freedom of information request, and that also confirmed that the site does not facilitate effective social distancing. The CCG report also made it clear that the Home Office had a disregard for the wellbeing of not only those accommodated at Napier, but the staff working on the site. At the time of the inspection there had been nine positive cases among staff members. The report also found that all staff took breaks at the same time and that, unbelievably, staff were being asked to sleep three to a room at the site.
The ICIBI report raised serious safeguarding concerns about those who were most vulnerable at Napier, stating:
“There was inadequate support for people who had self-harmed. People at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit ‘isolation block’ which we considered unfit for habitation.”
In evidence provided to the Home Affairs Committee last month the Government claimed that they had been
“following guidance in every single way”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) spoke of the simply untrue assurances that she was given about the quality of the accommodation. The CCG and ICIBI reports could not be clearer that at no time were such assurances true. On leadership and management, the latter report concluded:
“The Home Office did not exercise adequate oversight at either site and Home Office staff were rarely present. There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office.”
That was not someone else’s failure. It was the Home Secretary’s failure, and those barracks must close immediately.
The wider failures of the system and the nature of dispersal are now putting local authorities under enormous pressure, and there is a sense that the Government are just not listening, which is pushing the system to breaking point. I have seen a letter that was sent to the Home Secretary at the end of March from the leaders of the asylum dispersal areas for the west midlands. They are keen to stress that they recognise their responsibility as a region to contribute to the UK’s asylum and immigration challenges, and they have supported the dispersal scheme since 1999, but they feel they have no choice other than to suspend their participation.
They clearly state that, despite their attempts to engage Government in finding solutions to the challenges they face,
“the absence of any strategic plan has meant we lack confidence on the next steps around engagement to resolve the range of complex and serious challenges we face. What we do know is that the current position is untenable and that we simply cannot continue to support in the same manner going forward.”
When Government’s biggest partners are walking away from dispersal, they have to come back to the table and work constructively to find solutions. Has the meeting sought in the letter happened—with leaders from not just the west midlands but all dispersal areas—to work through the challenges? The former Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), made a characteristically powerful contribution, inviting the Minister to work with the Local Government Association to find the solutions we all want.
The letter also makes the point that the use of hotels has been a reality of initial accommodation since the new contracts were agreed in 2019, so any sense that they are used because of the pandemic alone is nonsense. It says that their use
“feels more like an unsatisfactory business as usual arrangement rather than short term contingency.”
That point was made clear in the Red Cross’s report, published today and mentioned already by a number of hon. Members.
The Minister knows that in rule changes made in December the Government gave themselves the ability to deem claims inadmissible if someone arrives in the UK outside of a resettlement scheme, regardless of whether asylum should be granted, and without any agreements having been struck with European partners on returning anyone to anywhere else. Over the weekend, May Bulman at The Independent newspaper broke the story that Belgium, France and Germany have all ruled such an agreement out:
“Belgium’s asylum and migration secretary…said the country had no intention of negotiating unilateral readmission agreements with the UK and that he had already explained his position to the immigration minister”.
The German embassy in London told The Independent that
“no negotiations between Germany and the UK on return arrangements had taken place”,
indicating that bilateral returns deals are simply not on the cards. France echoed those remarks, with a spokesperson saying:
“We will naturally continue our operational co-operation to prevent departures and fight against smuggling networks. With regards to readmissions, asylum is a European subject, which calls for a European response.”
Thank you, Mr Davies. I will take that on board.
Let me say in closing that this approach is utterly unworkable. We will only see more people who are likely to be deserving of asylum not even having their claims considered, while they remain trapped in a wholly inadequate and inhumane system for longer, costing the Government significantly more money to deliver nothing but failure. I very much hope that the Minister will reflect on those points.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for securing the debate. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part for their contributions. I will try to respond to the points raised, but as you touched on, Mr Davies, I do not have the opportunity to do that in any great depth with seven to eight minutes left. I will also allow a short period for the hon. Member who secured the debate to offer his closing remarks.
The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of our protection. Throughout the pandemic, we have taken action to ensure that those seeking asylum in the UK have the support they need. Asylum support is provided to destitute asylum seekers until their claims are finally determined and to failed asylum seekers if they are destitute and unable to leave the UK immediately due to circumstances beyond their control, including the current pandemic. That includes access to free accommodation, asylum support allowance and access to our advice, issue reporting and eligibility provider Migrant Help.
The Home Office’s accommodation providers are required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose and correctly equipped accommodation that complies with the decent homes standard in addition to standards outlined in relevant national or local housing legislation. We worked with our providers to improve property standards over the lifetime of the previous asylum accommodation contracts and have made a number of improvements in the asylum accommodation and support contracts now in place. Where a provider is found to be falling short of those standards, we work with them to ensure that issues are addressed. If they are not, we can and do impose service credits. Housing providers are required to inspect each property every month, and the Home Office also inspects properties on a targeted basis each year. I hope that Members will, however, appreciate the impact of the pandemic on some of those inspections.
There was much focus in the debate on contingency accommodation. The Home Office, along with many local authorities across our whole United Kingdom, has had to use hotels as contingency accommodation during the covid-19 pandemic. Accommodation providers engage with police, local authorities and local contacts prior to and during hotel use in all locations. We regularly provide local authorities and partners with information about hotel use in their areas, including occupancy figures. The hotel accommodation provided is of a reasonable quality, and those housed in it receive three meals a day, with staggered meal times to cater for social distancing requirements, and support to meet all the current public health guidance and our standards.
Where issues have been raised, such as with food, we have inspected menus ourselves. Our providers have also conducted surveys, and we have acted on recommendations arising from them. We have also undertaken several measures in the short term to mitigate the use of hotel contingency. Working groups have been established with three providers to monitor the availability of accommodation within their portfolios. The groups meet Home Office officials weekly with the objective to mitigate moving to hotel use wherever possible by increasing the amount of dispersal accommodation in all regions and nations of our United Kingdom. As a result, we have reduced our reliance on contingency accommodation of all sorts by 25% since December. To be clear, hotels are only ever a contingency option; they are not a long-term solution.
At our contingency accommodation at the Napier site, all the basic needs of asylum seekers are met, including their welfare needs. The site is catered, with three meals a day, and options are provided that cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements. Additional meals are provided as required. There is power, heating and water, and access to phones and support items such as toiletries is provided, along with access to laundry facilities. All asylum seekers housed there have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility service, provided, again, by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services.
On the effectiveness of the dispersal system, I acknowledge the concerns of hon. Members and local authorities who have asked for a more equitable spread of dispersal. The pandemic has presented us with significant challenges when it comes to the provision of asylum accommodation, including sourcing sufficient accommodation to meet demand. Our priority is to ensure that we meet our legal duty to house destitute asylum seekers and ensure their safety and wellbeing, as well as the safety and wellbeing of the communities in which they live. While the numbers of those supported have increased, the majority of asylum seekers do not receive Home Office support, and the majority of those who are not supported live in the south-east of England.
The Home Office is working with a range of local authorities to increase the number of areas that accommodate and support people seeking asylum and protection. Each local authority is encouraged to contribute. I am grateful to the councils that cover the constituencies of the two hon. Members who secured the debate for playing their part, along with the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the city of Glasgow. We have managed to increase the number of voluntary dispersal agreements from 92 to 163, and we continue to try to increase them across our United Kingdom. In the last three years, areas that have agreed to participate include Aylesbury Vale, Gosport, Oxford and Wiltshire, which might all be described as being in the “Tory shires”, to use one hon. Member’s definition.
In addition to those currently participating, we have agreements in place with over 40 more where the provider is finding it difficult to procure suitable properties. I urge all local authorities to assist us and play their part in this work, as simply passing motions and making declarations does not give us options to house or resettle people. I highlight in particular the situation in Scotland, where only one local authority—Glasgow—is taking part. It was interesting to hear that Members from Scotland are desperate to do more. Here is an option: their constituencies can become dispersal areas. Let us not have a Meatloaf-style, “We will do anything to support refugees, but we won’t do that.”
At the root of the issues with accommodation is the fact that our asylum system is broken, with delays, repeat applications and opportunities to game the system. It is expensive and it has lost public trust. It is therefore vital that major reforms are made, and that is exactly what the Government will do through the recently announced new plan for immigration. We will look to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum, while deterring illegal entry into the United Kingdom based mostly on economic migration reasons, not protection. It is particularly vital that we put an end to dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that we must put an end to such criminal activities.
I will wind up to allow the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark some time. The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of protection. We are committed to doing everything necessary to protect the rights of asylum seekers and to provide them with the safe and secure accommodation they deserve. As we take forward our new plan for immigration, our focus will remain on supporting the most vulnerable, ensuring their fair and humane treatment and working with all of our partners on matters related to asylum-seeker support to ensure that those who do need protection receive it here in this country.
I thank everyone for contributing to the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. What we are seeing is a poverty of ambition from this Government, with aid cuts and Army cuts that reduce our ability to intervene abroad to prevent the creation of asylum seekers in the first place. There is no ambition to end the backlog and delays in decision making for those who are already here, no ambition to end hotel use, leaving taxpayers footing the bill for inappropriate accommodation, and no ambition to work better with councils. Southwark and the Salvation Army offered to take more unaccompanied children, but the Home Office failed to take them up on that.
We see a reliance on a new plan that says we cannot do better than barrack accommodation, when Napier should be seen as a hideous aberration and a break with British tradition, for all the reasons exposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). That new plan relies on a bilateral arrangement with the European Union that Germany and France have already said no thanks to. The Minister should be resolutely focused on delivering the humane, efficient system that the public want and that people fleeing war desperately need, and should be fixing the existing problems in the system before creating new ones through a new plan that is a mess before it has even begun.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effectiveness of asylum accommodation and the dispersal scheme in providing support for asylum seekers.
Mental Health: Access to Nature
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) that she is visible at all times to us in the Boothroyd Room. If she has any technical problems, she should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered enabling access to nature to support mental health.
As always, it is a pleasure to see you, albeit virtually, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I felt it was important to have this debate today, as both nature and mental wellbeing are not only issues that I care passionately about, as do many of my constituents, but ones that perhaps hold more significance to people’s everyday lives after the immense challenges of the past year.
By complete coincidence, a new all-party parliamentary group on health and the natural environment is being launched this afternoon, with green social prescribing high on the agenda. That is another perfect reason for this debate. I encourage hon. Members to contact my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) for further information.
When I heard that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “connect with nature”, I wanted to secure the debate so that I could highlight the power of nature in improving people’s wellbeing. I am grateful for the briefings that many organisations have sent. I can assure them all that even if I do not mention them, I have read each and every one. I commend Isabel Hardman’s book “The Natural Health Service,” which is brilliant and provides real life examples of how nature can improve and heal poor mental wellbeing.
I am pleased that both the Government and society as a whole have made great strides in the last few years in improving awareness of mental health and wellbeing. However, there is always more that we can and should be doing. Coming out of the pandemic, as we are now, provides an opportunity for a greater focus on both, with nature at its centre. Without doubt, the lockdowns over the past year have had an adverse impact on people’s mental health. However, access to nature, whether that be a local woodland, a waterway or a park, have been critical in providing a brief moment of normality for so many of us.
Around nine in 10 people surveyed by Natural England in May 2020 agreed that
“natural spaces are good for mental health and wellbeing.”
While it would be fair to make the assumption that we have spent more time outdoors over the last year, it is essential to remember that many people do not have the luxury of access to a private garden and rely on public spaces. Over 11 million people in England live in areas deprived of local green space and one in eight people across Great Britain have no access to a garden, private or shared. With more of us expected to live in towns and cities over the coming years, I believe that now is a crucial moment to ensure that nature is put at the forefront of our local communities, creating a new oasis for nature and protecting existing green spaces for people to relax and enjoy.
I consider myself lucky in that I have a garden and an allotment, and I live close to a river, which the Canal and River Trust delightfully refers to as “blue health.” Over the past year I have found great comfort in being able to access nature as I have navigated my way through personal health challenges. I was sure my consultant thought I had gone mad when I spent 10 minutes enthusing about forest bathing, only to hear in our next call how she had spent the weekend in the woods.
With the ramping up of social prescribing, we are seeing more prescribing of nature for patients. I have seen some incredible examples of eco-therapy locally and I know that the Wildlife Trust has called for nature to be included in the covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan, which would help harness the power of the natural environment to drive health improvement and reduce pressure on the NHS.
From a local perspective, I look forward to working with Kent Wildlife Trust and the newly formed Kent and Medway alliance for green social prescribing, which links the NHS with environmental and mental health organisations, and will act as a catalyst for further projects between health and environmental partners in Kent. Although I recognise that that does not necessarily fall under the Minister’s brief, I know she is engaged with the Department of Health and Social Care on further exploration of the benefits of nature for those with a variety of ailments.
On the Minister’s brief specifically, I support the efforts that the Government have made in promoting access to nature, and I have welcomed measures in both the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Act 2020. I especially welcome the biodiversity net gain requirement for new homes in the Environment Bill. I have seen for myself the impact of inappropriate new housing developments in my own constituency, where developers have not considered local biodiversity at all. Sadly, we continue to see hawkish proposals that would further decimate our already declining wildlife.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the attack on nature. I would welcome further commitments from the Department, as the wider planning reforms are discussed, to ensure that green spaces are preserved and enhanced for existing and new residents alike. I therefore ask that the Minister ensures that her officials work with those in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that a new zonal planning system is aligned with the Government’s ambitious commitments to restore nature.
One way to achieve that, which has been supported by a number of charities and organisations, would be to give legal protection to areas set aside for nature’s recovery in what is called the wild belt—an idea that the Prime Minister referenced in his Conservative party conference speech last year. The wild belt should be run throughout local areas, giving the public access to wild spaces rich in biodiversity to improve health and wellbeing and provide green corridors to enable wildlife to move between biodiversity hotspots.
We need to do more to promote the growth of wild flowers along busy roads, often called roadside nature reserves. Unfortunately, in my constituency we saw the local council accidentally cut back on RNR, but I have since been pleased to see that several councils across the country that paused cutting back wildflowers during the pandemic have continued to do so, allowing wildlife to thrive. We have gone from people complaining about weeds and overgrown grasses to their calling for more wild flowers, because looking at a much better and more colourful roadside reserves makes people feel better.
As with any large pieces of legislation, there are always opportunities for further improvements. I would encourage the Government to take the opportunity while the Environment Bill is paused to put into law the PM’s important commitment in the UN leaders’ pledge for nature to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. That would provide the legal willpower to accelerate efforts to protect British wildlife and endangered species such as the hedgehog, and expand the offering of green spaces rich in biodiversity for public wellbeing.
A commitment in law to reverse biodiversity loss would hopefully go some way to address the postcode lottery for access to nature. Clearly, large-scale investment is required if we are to protect endangered wildlife and ensure that everyone, regardless of where they live or work, can access nature.
The National Trust is calling on the Government to use their levelling-up agenda to establish a new £5.5 billion green infrastructure fund to improve access to green spaces in our towns and cities. I recognise the very serious financial pressures that the country faces as a result of lockdowns, but the charity has estimated that such investment could unlock £200 billion in health benefits alone. Although such proposals would create a lasting legacy for future generations, there are of course small improvements to nature that could easily be achieved, such as the planting of trees or wild flowers along residential roads.
It is often the smallest changes in nature that can make a large impact on a person’s mood, such as how at this time of year many of us admire the beautiful simplicity of blossom. I have been pleased to support the National Trust’s blossom watch campaign for 2021 to encourage people to take a moment in nature, and the National Trust has had more than 5.5 million views of its blossom watch content so far this year. On Saturday morning, despite everything else that was going on, #BlossomWatch was trending at No. 1 on Twitter, a testament to the current public interest and engagement with nature.
I hope that the Government work with Members from across the House to achieve change for our local communities and leave a lasting legacy of improved nature and wildlife. Those of us who already believe in the power of nature and its healing content are completely sold on this, but we need to make sure that others can get out there and access nature in order to ensure that they too can have improved health and wellbeing. We must always be conscious that not everyone has that. I am afraid that, with housing developments and the planning system as they are at the moment, more and more of that is being lost.
Given the events of the past year, I am confident that there is willpower among Back Benchers to make real change in this area. As the recovery begins, people speak of their desire to return to normality, but when it comes to nature, I urge the Minister to use this opportunity to create a better normality and a green recovery from covid that improves both the natural environment and mental wellbeing of the country, for when one thrives, so can the other.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing the debate and on her powerful speech. It is always good to discuss the mental health benefits of access to nature. I share her excitement at the starting of the APPG this afternoon, and I look forward to further developments and indeed further pressure on the Government from that APPG.
We all know that access to nature can be hugely beneficial not only for physical health but for mental health, with studies showing that people who visit nature regularly feel their lives to be more worthwhile. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of nature, as the Department for Health and Social Care recognised in its recent covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan. I am pleased to say that, along with many other Government Departments, my Department was invited to take part in some of the preparations for that plan. This sort of cross-government working, as my hon. Friend alluded to, is essential as we look at this important area going forward.
My hon. Friend rightly said that access to green space is not equal. About 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the areas most deprived of green space, compared with 14% of white people, while we know that in general those from poorer communities have less access to green space. Those who are more likely to experience poor mental health and wellbeing are often the least likely to engage with nature. To tackle this, we are developing a national framework of green infrastructure standards, which should be ready next year and which will map green space and improve green infrastructure, such as footpaths. The Environment Bill will also establish a new England-wide system called local nature recovery strategies, which at a very local level will agree local nature priorities, map existing habitats and map proposals for new or improved habitats, which should enhance nature. The aim is to promote landscapes for everyone and to support access to nature for those who think they need it most. MHCLG’s levelling up fund supports local infrastructure in this way, very much including green spaces. MHCLG and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials are working closely together, as my hon. Friend hopes, to ensure that this is really joined up and working well.
May I say what a joy it is to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) looking so well? We all look forward to seeing her back in the Chamber again; I just cannot wait. I will try to hug her if I am allowed; we will see how that goes. I am aware that I am very fortunate to live on a farm, and am able to go for walks, which really improves my mental health. Other people do not have that opportunity, and the Minister is outlining a very good programme for how to address that.
This morning on TV there was a show educating primary school age children on planting, encouraging engagement with nature. There are many groups, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance, that would be willing, I believe, to partner with the Government to ensure that those people who do not have ready access to nature can engage like that, and can use the green corridors that are there.
It is always a pleasure to speak with the hon. Gentleman, and he is right to highlight the work that various groups are doing to encourage all of us to engage with nature in a more educated way. Indeed, my own community was excited to find a great crested newt in my neighbour’s pond this morning, and we immediately got on to the RSPB who are full of information about great crested newts, and that is just one example of the work that can be done on a very local level to make sure that we all enjoy nature in an educated and appreciative way.
To go back to the Government schemes, we have an £80 million green recovery challenge fund, which has been set up to kickstart nature-based projects across England in order to help with the recovery from the pandemic. One example of what we have done through this fund is to create 12 tiny forests across urban areas in England. This fund is also being used to work specifically on projects in NHS facilities.
I would like to join the hon. Gentleman in saying how absolutely fantastically well my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford is looking today—I know that she spent far too much of the last year in NHS facilities, and she will appreciate how important it is for patients, who may not be very mobile or feeling very well, to be able to go and sit somewhere or just enjoy nature around them during their treatment. I, sadly, had to spend many hours in A&E on Saturday with a family member—all was well, I hasten to add—and when I came out I was privileged to walk along the canal. That blue space was critical in helping me calm down and really put the day’s events in context. It was very useful.
Another example of our work to support equitable access to nature is the cross-Department project led by DEFRA which aims to tackle mental health specifically through green social prescribing. I heard about a brilliant initiative from a GP’s surgery in Newcastle where they prescribe working in the GPs’ allotment to help patients feel better. These services link people directly to nature-based activities such as community allotments, green gyms and conservation volunteering, which specifically target communities which have been badly hit by the pandemic.
We are also committed to ensuring that the public have good access to footpaths. For example, we are developing the England coastal path, which will be the longest way-marked and maintained coastal walking route in the world. We are also planning a new northern coast-to-coast national trail. We intend to table legislation this year that will enable unrecorded historic rights of way to be registered more easily, which should protect them for future users. As the hon. Lady said, our future farming policies are very much targeted towards rewarding farmers who bring about environmental benefits, and access to farmland for the general public is very much a part of this.
An example of the type of action that we envisage paying for in the future would be well signposted footpaths in places that are easily accessible from towns as well as more rural communities. I am very keen on creating circular walks and bike rides wherever possible, and I know that my hon. Friend will be particularly keen on the bike access, as well as the allotment progress.
Specifically on the points that my hon. Friend makes about the Environment Bill, the Bill will, if passed, require the Government to set and meet ambitious targets on biodiversity, together with those on air, water and waste. The Government feel that what she is seeking to achieve is inbuilt in the very nature of the Environment Bill, and will in future be protected for the public by the new Office for Environmental Protection. Nevertheless, I am sure that we will continue to have many discussions during the passage of that Bill about the right way to achieve these really important goals. I encourage Members from across the House to continue to engage with DEFRA to help us identify new opportunities for increasing access to, and meaningful engagement with, the natural world.
Thank you, Mr Davies, and I thank my hon. Friend once again for this excellent debate.
Can I also say from the Chair what a delight it is to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) looking so well? If the promise or threat—I am not sure which it was—of a hug from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) at the appropriate time does not give us something to look forward to, I do not know what will.
Question put and agreed to.
Fire and Rehire
[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practices in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
We are expecting votes this afternoon, so if there is any Member who needs to leave to vote, could they please indicate now? Thank you very much.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire and rehire practices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. This debate has been oversubscribed, which I think says something about the strength of feeling and the level of anger at this appalling practice. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for taking part today. One cannot help but notice the lack, or rather the complete absence, of Conservative MPs from today’s call list. I do hope this is not a reflection on how seriously the Government take this issue, but I suspect that is the case. Perhaps the Minister can prove me wrong.
I would like to pay tribute to the workers of our country—the women and men who have battled so hard throughout the past 14 months to keep the country going in the face of covid-19. Many workers have lost friends, colleagues and family members to this terrible virus, and now at least one in 10 of them face a further pandemic of opportunistic employers using covid-19 as a cover to dramatically reduce workers’ pay and terms and conditions. Fire and rehire is a process that involves sacking workers and hiring them back on lower wages and worse terms and conditions—a practice that, according to research published earlier this year by the TUC, has had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and ethnic minority workers, young workers and working-class people.
However, fire and rehire is not new. In 2009, the Confederation of British Industry boasted of using the financial crash to establish a so-called flexiforce, in effect using economic uncertainty as a cover to replace permanent workers with flexible workers. The economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic has provided another opportunity for big business to shift power even further away from workers so that they can boost long-term profits for shareholders. These are some of the same companies that have made use of public money through the Government’s job retention scheme.
Fire and rehire must not be allowed to continue. Workers should not be forced to choose between losing pay or losing their jobs. Parliament must act urgently to outlaw this form of industrial blackmail. That is why I, along with my union Unite, am calling for fire and rehire to be included in next month’s Queen’s Speech, either in the Employment Bill or as stand-alone emergency legislation. It is a national emergency and disgrace that one in 10 workers are currently threatened with a practice that, in the words of the Prime Minister, is “unacceptable” and in the words of the Minister here today is “bully boy tactics.” I am not entirely convinced that the Prime Minister knows what fire and rehire is or what it is doing to thousands of workers across the UK.
Fire and rehire is not a new phenomenon but it has gained prominence because of the conduct of many major employers, such as British Airways, Heathrow airport and British Gas, some in circumstances that they claim to be justified by the covid pandemic. The practice has highlighted how weak the current unfair dismissal laws are in this country and how they need to be strengthened.
I take this opportunity to highlight the example of my constituent Matthew from Hebburn, who is one of many of my constituents who have been affected by fire and rehire. Matthew had worked for British Gas for 16 years. He was an exemplary worker, once proud to drive his blue van, who would have been happy to see out the rest of his working life with the company. He is now newly self-employed, having been one of the 300 to 400 staff who lost their jobs for refusing to sign up to new contracts, terms and conditions imposed by British Gas for nothing more than corporate greed.
Despite making more profit than in the previous year, British Gas has used the pandemic as a cover to impose a “take it or leave it” 15% pay cut and other changes that have affected the time their workforce spend with their families, by making the working week three hours longer. That is a whole month of additional labour added to the year.
Last year British Gas issued Matthew with a fire and rehire ultimatum, giving him and his colleagues a deadline of 23 December. They were told that if they did not agree with the terms offered, worse terms would be forced upon them. This deadline was pushed back until 25 March. Matthew refused to be bullied by British Gas and was therefore given his notice on Monday 29 March. I send solidarity to Matthew and all other workers.
What has happened to loyal workers like Matthew at British Gas is an absolute scandal. It shows utter contempt for the loyalty many have shown for much of their working lives. British Gas, Centrica and their chief executive officer Chris O’Shea should be ashamed of this reckless corporate bullying. It is sad to see what has happened to British Gas, once a nationally respected institution but now a poster boy for the virus of poor employment practice that is spreading like another contagious deadly disease across the UK.
In London, staff at Goodlord were given a choice to take a pay cut or become unemployed. Goodlord asked staff to take a contract with a lower rate of pay, which is below the London living wage.
In Manchester, Go North West drivers have been on an all-out strike for over 50 days against cruel fire and rehire abuses by bosses. The company wants to fire and rehire its drivers and force them to work longer for no additional pay, while also cutting sick pay for drivers with more than five years’ service.
In Loughborough, global field service engineers employed by Brush Electrical Machines, owned by Melrose, are being balloted for strike action in response to fire and rehire pay cuts of up to £15,000. The proposed contracts include reductions to overtime rates, allowances and holidays. The engineers have been threatened with redundancy if they do not sign the new contracts, which will leave them on pay rates well below industry standards.
In Oxfordshire, Jacobs Douwe Egberts will stop workers from taking summer holidays to thwart an overtime ban, starting on 1 May, in an ongoing fire and rehire dispute. My own union Unite is representing its members in all these disputes, but the problem goes much deeper and will only grow if the job retention scheme comes to an end.
Last year, the Government asked the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to produce a report on the full extent of fire and rehire, which was received by Ministers on 17 February. Despite numerous pledges to release the report and respond to it, the Government are still dragging their feet, leading us to wonder what ACAS has written that the Government do not want us to read.
On 23 March, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), during Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions if she could confirm when we would get a chance to see the ACAS report. The Minister told me that the Government find the practice of fire and hire “unacceptable”, but could not give me a date or time when the ACAS report would be released. Here we are, one month later, and the Government are still dragging their feet on this. I hope the Minister will tell us today when the Government intend to make the ACAS report available, because they certainly appear to want to bury it.
We have heard a lot from this Government about levelling up and how Brexit will give us the opportunity to have higher standards across the board. Now is the Government’s chance to prove that they are serious about that. They must understand that well-paid, secure work is good for the economy, and greater security for workers would mean a stronger and quicker recovery. Our friends across Europe understand this. The practice of fire and rehire is already banned in Ireland, Spain and France, and is seen as unacceptable in other competitor economies, where Governments step in to defend their workers. Last week, the Government moved quickly to stop the European super league in its tracks. It showed that they can make things happen when they want to—and feel that they will get a popularity bounce off the back of it.
The Government have made all the right noises about fire and rehire, but so far have done absolutely nothing about it. I hope the Minister will tell us when the Government will back up their words with action and act to outlaw this immoral practice. If this Government are serious about levelling up and raising standards, they must commit to ending fire and rehire once and for all. I hope to see that in next month’s Queen’s Speech, either in the Employment Bill or in stand-alone emergency legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. It is important to recognise the situation facing the ordinary workers in this country who are facing these draconian fire and rehire measures. I congratulate my hon. Friend—my great friend—the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall today. It is the working people who have kept our country on its feet. They are the true heroes in every sense of the word. It is the keyworkers, mainly low-paid workers, not the hedge fund managers, Government cronies or indeed the highly paid, who are being subjected to what the Minister quite rightly framed as “bullyboy tactics”.
Security of employment is so important to hard-working individuals and their families. Is it not right that ordinary people are treated with absolute dignity and fairness, not as inconvenient necessities by fat cat millionaires who frankly would sell their own grandmothers for a pound?
The scourge of fire and rehire practices, which have always haunted workforces, has expanded rapidly since the beginning of the pandemic. The Prime Minister himself stated that it was capitalism and greed that got us through this covid pandemic. My message to the Prime Minister is that it was the workforce of this country that got us to where we are today, and the reward for many of them is fire and rehire. These are human beings. They are real people, with mortgages, rent payments, credit cards and credit, with kids and families, with expectations and with ambitions, who have been treated appallingly by employers who care little and a Government that talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. As my hon. Friend said in her opening speech, whether it be Goodlord, where salaries are being slashed by up to £6,000, whether it be Go North West where salaries are being slashed by up to £2,500, Jacobs Douwe Egberts with £7,000 a year lopped off salaries, or Melrose Brush with potentially £15,000 a year slashed off people’s salaries. These are real people. What about the Heathrow worker with 40 years’ service, expected to take a 39.1% pay reduction? The list goes on and on.
This is legalised robbery; it is legalised theft, with astonishing consequences for those doing the right thing. It is ruthless corporate bullying. It is intimidation. It is harassment of people with families, people with bills to pay. We all agree that this is a time of great uncertainty. Fire and rehire must be outlawed. If it is good enough for Ireland, France and Spain, by goodness it is good enough here in the UK. Where is the much-awaited ACAS report, Minister? Come clean. What are you hiding? Publish it if you can. This is simply unacceptable in modern-day Britain. Coming out of a year-long pandemic, Minister, ensure that the draconian practice of fire and rehire is outlawed in the Queen’s Speech. Fix this now and fix it for good—and for those workers out there, join a union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Murray. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing her first Westminster Hall debate on such an important subject and her excellent speech. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
I first raised fire and rehire with the Prime Minister on 16 December 2020 at Prime Minister’s Question Time, after highly skilled engineers at Centrica British Gas were told they had to sign new contracts before Christmas or else they would be fired and rehired in the new year on worse terms. The Prime Minister’s response was deeply concerning:
“it is also vital that we have a flexible economy that is able to generate jobs, particularly when we are going to go through a very difficult and bumpy time.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 272.]
During this “very difficult and bumpy time”, as the Prime Minister put it, is exactly when people need stability and certainty in their lives. Yet according to Unite the Union, one in 10 workers is already threatened with fire and rehire, and many more are likely to face this manipulative process as furlough comes to an end.
Earlier this month, I was saddened to see approximately 350 British Gas engineers lose their jobs because they refused to sign a contract with worse terms and pay. Equally sad is the thousands upon thousands of other GMB members at British Gas signing new but worse contracts under duress. Yet when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) raised it with the Prime Minister just last week, he was not even aware of the issue. Four months on from my question, hundreds have been sacked and the Prime Minister still does not have an answer.
It is not just British Gas engineers either; fire and rehire is also used by British Airways in Heathrow, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will go into further detail on those disputes. Go North West drivers have been on strike for more than 50 days, while Jacobs Douwe Egberts coffee producers is starting an indefinite overtime ban on International Workers Day, 1 May, and engineers at Brush Electrical Machines are balloting for action against pay cuts of up to £15,000.
Fire and rehire is an exploitative and illegitimate negotiation tactic that causes real hurt and anger. Household names have betrayed decades of trust from the nation. These tactics damage not only their workforces but their customer base, who will feel the same way at the disgraceful way those businesses treat their employees. The Government have an opportunity with the upcoming Queen’s Speech to work with Labour and the relevant trade unions such as Unite and the GMB to introduce vital legislation that will ban fire and rehire practices and give workers the stability and assurances that they need at this—again in the Prime Minister’s own words—“very difficult and bumpy time”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. George the gas man was a good friend of my dad when I was a kid. I learned through him, and saw subsequently, that gas workers were and are skilled, trusted, doing an essential job, keeping our communities safe. Theirs was historically a good, secure job, not least because of the history of strong trade unionism.
In 1889 Will Thorne founded the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers—now the GMB—that fought against the shameful treatment meted out to workers in Victorian times. Generations fought to consign such treatment to history, including my union, Unite, asserting the dignity of labour.
The history of the gas industry is also one of trade unions acting as agents of change, managing sometimes difficult processes of change, seeking negotiated outcomes. Gas workers also fought for their country. The Hollyfields Sports and Conference Centre in my constituency has a barrier on which are written the names of 250 workers who died fighting for their country in the first and second world wars.
In 21st century Britain we see a throwback to Victorian times, to the kind of treatment meted out to workers that we thought was history. Paul Vowles of the GMB from Birmingham has said of the 350 members who have lost their jobs that,
“They were salt of the earth, doing a good job, now ending up out of work.”
British Gas could have negotiated an outcome. It might have been difficult, but they could have done it. They chose instead to use fire and rehire, like too many employers in the current climate. The TUC estimates that one in 10 workers have suffered from such treatment or the threat of it. Even worse, some of the employers benefiting from Government support through the covid crisis are the same employers taking advantage of fire and rehire, which is utterly contemptible.
It is clear that the GMB and Unite stand ready to negotiate a solution but the company is not interested. We have to bring home the human consequences. Chris O’Shea, the chief executive, says,
“You’ve got a duty to make your colleagues’ lives as easy as possible.”
Tell that to the single mum who complains of chest pains and says,
“It makes me feel sick that I am nothing more than something on the bottom of Chris O’Shea’s expensive shoes.”
Tell that to the gas worker who every single day during lockdown worked for the Trussell Trust, delivering to the elderly and vulnerable.
In conclusion, what we thought we had consigned to history now haunts the world of work. I say this to the Minister: warm words have been issued in relation to fire and rehire, but the time has come for the Government to act, including in the Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mrs Murray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this debate. Fire and rehire is the latest in a long line of tools used by the Tories and bullying bosses to drive down pay and conditions of workers. It is a form of legalised robbery. The same work—sometimes more—is expected to be done but for less pay. The aim is simple: to transfer wealth from wages to profits. How do they hope to get away with that? By exploiting workers’ insecurity at a time of crisis. When we should be building a fairer society out of the covid crisis, unscrupulous bosses are being given a green light to intimidate workers into accepting worse pay and conditions.
This is not just about the one in 10 workers threatened so far. Fire and rehire is the new Tory blueprint for the whole economy. It will grow dramatically as furlough ends, unless the law is changed. The aim is to drag down everyone’s terms and conditions, a real race to the bottom. Workers lose out, bosses gain: it is Thatcherism on steroids. Of course, the Prime Minister claims he is against this, but words are cheap; action is what matters. There is not a single Back-Bench Tory MP here for the debate.
The truth is that the Government could ban this disgraceful practice overnight. If the Prime Minister introduced the legislation today, Labour would back it. With the stroke of a pen, the threat would be gone. Other countries have already banned fire and rehire. If only the Tories were as quick in responding to that issue as they are in responding to WhatsApp messages from their corporate sponsors. As a trade union lawyer, before I became a Member of Parliament, I saw the immense suffering of those subjected to fire and rehire, but now it is being carried out on an industrial scale, so the fightback must be on an industrial scale too. I have joined British Gas workers on the GMB picket in Leeds, fighting back against that company’s appalling behaviour; and I commend and congratulate Unite the Union on defending so many workers who have been affected by fire and rehire and on getting that agenda on to the national agenda.
I will end with a message to every worker who has been forced to take action against the disgraceful practice. They have my absolute, unwavering support in standing up to bully boy tactics and the shameful inaction of the Conservative Government.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I declare an interest as a member of Unite and the GMB, and because a family member was subjected to fire and rehire. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this hugely important debate, and for her powerful speech.
I want to give my support and solidarity to my constituents and many people across the country who have been subjected to the immoral practice of fire and rehire. We should be in no doubt that it destroys livelihoods, families and communities, and my disdain for companies using that weapon to cause such misery in 2021 during a pandemic knows no bounds. I hope that the public will show solidarity and support for the workers who are affected, by using their consumer choice and power wisely, and that they will show their disdain for any company that chooses that path.
Bad employers, including a number that have made huge profits in the past year, such as British Gas owner Centrica, which posted profits in 2020 of £447 million, have exploited the pandemic to cut the pay and conditions of workers, through fire and rehire. The roll-call of shame is a long one. A few of the worst are British Gas, British Airways, and Go North West, but there are many others—the TUC estimates that one in seven workers in the UK will be under threat from the practice. I have personal experience of the cost, because my brother and many of his colleagues lost their jobs because of their refusal to sign inferior new contracts with British Gas under the terms of fire and rehire. Years of loyalty and skills were cast on to the scrapheap because certain companies wanted to make workers pay for the pandemic, and protect shareholder profits. It is beyond contempt.
The Minister condemned those bully-boy tactics last month; so when will he take action? The Government have sat on the ACAS report on fire and rehire for more than two months now. What does the report say? When will they release it? How will they address the concerns raised by those independent experts? The tactics of fire and rehire are a stain on this country’s reputation, and they harm our communities’ chances of rebuilding back from the pandemic. They are economically illiterate and they destroy relationships between workers and employers, often beyond repair. I urge the Minister to outlaw fire and rehire—to commit to doing that in the Queen’s Speech—and to start to take action against employers that use those practices. Too many livelihoods have already been destroyed, and he must ensure that not one more person endures the pain that many have already been subjected to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate at a time when the shameful practice of fire and rehire is increasingly weaponised by companies to exploit workers. Fire and rehire should never be acceptable in any circumstances, and I would like to hear the Minister commit to outlawing that anti-worker practice today. It is nothing short of disgraceful that so many companies have been allowed to engage in it in the middle of a global pandemic.
Fire and rehire is not the final option left to the companies in question. They are not struggling to make ends meet. Many continue to pay their chief executive officers six or seven-figure salaries and to fork out massive dividends to their shareholders, while claiming that they cannot afford to pay their staff a decent day’s wages for a decent day’s work. In the case of British Airways, whose former chief executive officer I had the misfortune to encounter on several occasions during my time on the Transport Committee, it attempted to force fire and rehire down the throats of its staff despite making tens of millions of taxpayers’ money for furloughing its workers, and despite the parent company IAG having made billions in profits the previous financial year. Thanks in large part to the efforts of my union Unite, British Airways was forced to ditch some of its plans to fire and rehire 30,000 of their staff.
British Airways was not, sadly, the only UK major employer whose reputation has now been trashed as a result of the decision to pursue that policy. Last year, British Gas told its shareholders that it would slash 5,000 jobs and committed to forcing the remaining 2,000 to undergo a fire and rehire process before it had engaged with the GMB union. In January, Centrica chief executive Chris O’Shea told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that the company had been forced to issue the fire and rehire threat before talks began, by law. In a leaked email that I have here from 22 February, of which I have been made aware, Mr O’Shea informed British Gas’s human resources team it would no longer use fire and rehire as a strategy. He writes in the email that
“I recognise that the use of fire and rehire has led to a lack of trust, and I understand the impact this has had on morale, which is why we pledge never to revisit the use of fire and rehire again.”
If he would never consider fire and rehire again, why did he previously say that it was the only option when appearing before a Select Committee? I am deeply concerned that Mr O’Shea may have misled Parliament in the way that he defended himself, given the subsequent email in which he explicitly states that he would consider another option.
The reality is that Mr O’Shea’s actions mean that people will no longer think of British Gas as a proud British company, and maybe it is time for him to consider his own position. It would certainly be one way of saving the country £775,000. Local authorities have also been caught up in the unsavoury practice, including the Conservative-run Thurrock Council, with changes to terms and conditions that see workers losing over £3,000 a year. Thankfully, an election is coming up next week, so perhaps that will also be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate to ensure that we can all deliberate upon the abhorrent practice of fire and rehire that has, sadly, acutely affected many of my Slough constituents. Our proximity to Heathrow airport and our employment reliance on the aviation sector has meant that the sector’s crash has impacted the jobs of thousands of my constituents. Those devastating job losses have been exacerbated by companies taking advantage, forcing employees into inferior pay and conditions or risk losing their jobs.
Even prior to the covid-19 pandemic, UK employment law was inadequate. The past year has simply strengthened the case for stronger employee rights and protections. Back in 2019, the Government promised an employment Bill to protect and enhance workers’ rights. Even the Minister answering the debate today said in November 2020 that
“using threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is unacceptable.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 717.]
Yet nothing has changed since then. These immoral tactics have predominantly affected the hard-working individuals in the aviation industry in Slough, but unfortunately they are not alone in being subject to them.
One of the most blatant uses of fire and rehire seen by my constituents has been with British Gas and its parent company Centrica. Before negotiations began, Centrica’s chief executive officer Chris O’Shea had put that threat on the table. In evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he noted that he was forced into that position, but a letter from ACAS later revealed that the company has recognised the impact that fire and rehire has had on the workforce, and has confirmed that, as part of this agreement, they will never use fire and rehire in any shape or form in the future.
British Gas are, devastatingly, not alone in carrying out these unacceptable actions. Dnata, an airline catering company, offered its workers contracts for just 20 hours a week, with reduced terms and pay, in a fire and rehire scenario, forcing many of the employees to accept and plunging them into poverty. A company in the process of taking over airline catering from British Airways, Do & Co, refused to put its workers on the extended coronavirus job retention scheme, leaving hundreds unemployed. These are just a few examples in my constituency. For many, it is already too late. Even after British Airways eventually ended its fire and rehire practices after incredible work from trade unions and employees, many had still fallen victim to them.
While the past year has been undeniably difficult for businesses, fire and rehire tactics are never acceptable, and I commend the excellent work of unions including Unite, Unison and GMB, which have saved and protected thousands of jobs. The Government must do more. Without direct action from the Government, others will continue to follow, thinking it is acceptable to run their businesses in such a dire way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for her hard work in securing this debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This month, hundreds of British Gas engineers, including many living in my constituency of Birkenhead, were sacked by the parent company Centrica. Despite many years of loyal service, they were thrown on the scrapheap because they refused to accept a devastating cut to their pay and working conditions. They were not alone: from Heathrow airport to the Go North West buses in Manchester, one in 10 British workers has been threatened with fire and rehire practices over the past year. With 70% of those companies continuing to turn a profit, this is not about economic necessity, but about large corporations cynically exploiting a public health crisis to further line the pockets of shareholders.
We have heard plenty of warm words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box about this issue. The Prime Minister has called fire and rehire “unacceptable”, and the Leader of the House has called it “bad practice”, but they still refuse to act. Workers in the UK enjoy no more protections at work today than they did when the pandemic began, because this Government care more about cosying up to their friends in the private sector than they do about standing up for British workers and the very communities they have promised to level up. That is why they have sat on a report from ACAS for two long months; it is why, when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) asked the Prime Minister to extend his support to British Gas engineers, he acted as if it was the first he had heard about it. I doubt anyone believes that.
Voters in the so-called red wall seats should ask themselves why there is not one single Conservative Back Bencher present today. The answer is simple: they fundamentally do not care. What the British people need now is decisive action to stamp out this abhorrent practice once and for all, so I call on the Minister to ensure that measures outlawing fire and rehire are included in the Queen’s Speech next month.
It is time that the Government put their money where their mouth is, but we must go further still. We have to roll back decades of anti-trade union legislation that has fostered a culture in which employers feel free to attack the rights and conditions of their workers with total impunity, as so many have during the pandemic. If the Government are really serious about building back better in the wake of this terrible pandemic, they need to not only put an end to the plague of fire and rehire tactics, but stop seeing trade unions as the enemy within and realise the vital role they have to play in building an economy that truly works for everyone.
I thank the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for having secured today’s debate. Research from the Trades Union Congress shows that since the first lockdown, one in 10 workers has been threatened with fire and rehire, and that lower paid workers and black and minority ethnic workers have been more than twice as likely to face this practice. As Members have said, although this has been a challenging year for business, over 70% of the companies involved in this practice have been profitable, and over half have been receiving public money during the pandemic. It has never been so clear that this is a battle between big bosses and the low-paid worker, and the Minister has correctly characterised these as “bully-boy tactics”, but unfortunately, action has not followed those words.
We are now four months post Brexit, and not a single piece of legislation enhancing rights or standards has reached the Floor of the House, although we hear daily through various drips, leaks and texts that the voices of those who are doing quite nicely are being heard loud and clear by the Government. The false promises that we had of a prosperous Brexit are increasingly being exposed as cover for a race to the bottom on regulations, including protections for workers, and time and again the Government have dodged converting rhetoric and reassurances into standards and legislative protections. Earlier this year, they were embarrassed into axing a review of ending the 48-hour maximum working week and a review of attempting to remove overtime pay. The pandemic has exposed how precariously and how close to the edge many people have been living, and shown that many people—indeed, most people—want a fairer future.
The term “gig economy” now refers to almost 5 million workers. We have heard how £6 per hour is not unusual pay for fast-food delivery drivers, and that couriers often have such punitive schedules that they cannot take toilet breaks. Flexibility is absolutely a welcome concept in the economy, but these business models put all the risk on to workers and allow the owners of the ideas behind them to accrue all the capital. Instead of the Government designing protections that reflect the reality of modern working life, workers have to go to court to achieve basic protections.
We are also experiencing a wage squeeze. In November, the Office for National Statistics said that there were hundreds of thousands of jobs in which employees over the age of 16 were being paid below the legal minimum, and the number is only increasing. Also, those in the lowest-paying jobs are over five times more likely to be furloughed, which indicates that those jobs are insecure. All this activity underlines how acutely we need legal protections and a decent social security net.
These workers’ demands are very moderate. They do not want Government contracts, or ready access to the Chancellor; they are only looking for a living wage, decent holiday entitlement and the right not to have to work too many hours in a week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing the debate and I declare an interest as a member of Unite.
Pay and terms and conditions of work are fundamental to the lives that people can afford to lead and the pensions they will be entitled to. Constituents have written to me describing fire and rehire as abusive, appalling and immoral, and they are right. It is an attack on the rights of working people, who generate the wealth that shareholders enjoy and who provide the services we need. Dismissing workers in order to re-employ them on worse terms and conditions is quite simply wrong, and it is shameful that any employer would engage in those cynical tactics. The Government must ban fire and rehire.
As a member of Unite, I was proud to support yesterday’s day of action and I pay tribute to the work of the trade union movement. It is a matter of deep concern that the practice of fire and rehire seems to have become more common since the start of the pandemic. Deploying such a tactic at such a time is particularly shameful, and there have been high-profile disputes involving companies such as British Airways, British Gas, Go North West, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and Brush Electrical Machines.
Earlier this year, the TUC estimated that since March 2020 nearly one worker in 10 has been told to reapply for their job on worse terms and conditions. The research showed that young people have been particularly badly affected, with nearly a fifth of 18 to 24-year-olds who were surveyed saying that their employer has tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic. According to the TUC, 15% of the black and minority ethnic workers it surveyed have faced fire and rehire, compared with 8% of the white workers it surveyed.
Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy engaged ACAS to gather evidence of how fire and rehire is being used. The Government received evidence from ACAS on 17 February, yet still they have not published it or responded to it. That is simply not good enough, so will the Minister commit himself today to publishing the evidence and his Department’s response to it without further delay?
In January, a Labour motion tabled in the House of Commons called on the Government to set out for Parliament a timetable to introduce legislation to end fire and rehire tactics. The motion was carried by 263 votes to zero, with MPs on the Government Benches abstaining. That was profoundly disappointing and showed how little the Conservatives care about workers’ rights, terms and conditions.
Make no mistake—the Government’s lack of action is causing misery and financial difficulties for working people. The Secretary of State has described fire and rehire as unacceptable, and the Minister who is here today has condemned it many times in his own words, yet Government legislation to end those shameful tactics has not been forthcoming. Will the Minister do what the Prime Minister failed to do last week and guarantee that there will be a commitment to end fire and rehire in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this incredibly important debate. Fire and rehire practices have become endemic during covid-19, including at Goodlord, Go North West, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and British Gas, and I fear that they will only become more common as the furlough scheme comes to an end.
I have received much correspondence from constituents here in Cynon Valley detailing the distress and pain caused by these bullying tactics. I commend the trade unions, including my own union Unite, for the tireless work they are doing to expose these exploitative fire and rehire tactics, and I stand in solidarity with all workers who take industrial action to oppose them.
Fire and rehire has little to do with the pandemic. Covid-19 is being used as a smokescreen for unscrupulous businesses to do what they have long done—erode workers’ rights, slash pay, and keep wages and benefits low to increase value for shareholders. The Government’s complacency on the matter has been taken as a green light.
I am sympathetic to the unprecedented position in which UK businesses find themselves, but businesses using fire and rehire tactics are not doing so because of their economic situation. Using the impact of the covid-19 pandemic to attempt to drive down pay and benefits is not going to wash. It is unacceptable that a company such as Centrica plc—parent company of British Gas—which continues to report hundreds of millions in profit each year can even consider forcing unfavourable contracts on its staff. Sadly, that reflects what I believe is an entrenched attitude in boardrooms across the country: employees are not a vital resource to be invested in and supported, but rather an operational cost for those businesses that must be kept to the bare minimum. That is underpinned by a capitalist model that unfailingly puts shareholders ahead of the workers who create that wealth.
Fire and rehire places an immediate financial burden on workers, exposes them to more precarious relationships with employers and, in some cases, might even jeopardise retirement plans. For firms to choose such a path knowing the likely outcomes in the midst of a global pandemic is morally indefensible. That scandalous treatment of workers must be stopped. The Government must act now to introduce legislation to outlaw that practice, as other countries have already done. By failing to do so, the Government are once again choosing to support billionaire bosses over the ordinary working people of this country. Diolch yn fawr.
Firing employees and rehiring them on reduced terms and conditions is a shocking way to treat workers, and I am very proud of my SNP colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for his tireless work on the issue. It is important to recognise his efforts in this area, even though there has sadly been a collective oversight of his Bill in the debate so far.
Frankly, many of us are fed up with the members of the UK Government condemning this practice while doing nothing to address it. Finger-wagging and head shaking are not going to stop this appalling practice, but legislation will, yet the Government refuse to adopt my hon. Friend’s Bill. While the Government do nothing, we see Centrica workers fired without redundancy for refusing to submit to this appalling treatment. British Airways staff, too, have been subject to this repressive and regressive practice, with Tesco also guilty and others sure to follow.
It is a matter of deep regret and anger in Scotland that the Labour party, working alongside the Tories, conspired in the Smith commission against Scotland having power over employment law, which would have allowed us to protect workers in Scotland. Clearly, the Union is more important to the Labour party than the rights of workers, many of whom fund the Labour party. That is flawed logic indeed, a logic that workers in Scotland are increasingly rejecting. The sudden change of heart from the current leader of the Scottish Labour party to support the devolution of employment law to Scotland—this Damascene conversion as we approach election day—is unconvincing and extremely cynical, since it was Labour that blocked such devolution in the first place.
Let us stop all the hand-wringing and bring my hon. Friend’s Bill to the House again, and let us support it. As for Scotland, we will make our own decisions on employment law soon enough, when we secure and go on to win an independence referendum. Then workers in England will be able to look to Scotland to see what protecting and supporting workers in a fair and just society really looks like.
I refer Members of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my membership of Unite. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who is a good friend, for securing the debate.
The pandemic has changed the world of work for almost all workers. We have seen some employers go above and beyond in supporting their employees, but, sadly, we have also seen some employers using it to attack wages and terms and conditions for their own workforce. I am proud to be a Labour MP, so it should not come as a surprise that I am a socialist and trade unionist. Trade unions offer workers a voice in the workplace, and data tells us that unionised workplaces are not only safer, but benefit from better terms and conditions. I am grateful to all trade unions for standing up for their members against employers who are taking advantage of the pandemic to increase profit margin at the cost of their own workers.
One such employer is British Gas. The parent company, Centrica, has been in a long-standing dispute with the GMB union. I have had a GMB picket at the British Gas office in my own constituency, in Brinnington ward. A few days ago, the media reported that almost 500 engineers had lost their jobs after refusing to be forced into new contracts—a truly shameful day for a household brand such as British Gas. Rightly, the public will not forget how British Gas Centrica treated its workforce.
Unfortunately, there is another dispute in Greater Manchester at Go North West buses. Unite members at this bus operator had been on the picket line for more than 60 days. They have been blackmailed into a taking a significant pay cut. Drivers at Go North West earn on average £24,000 per year, but changes mean they will have to work much longer hours for the same pay. In real terms, that means a £2,500 pay cut. I have visited the picket line on three occasions to show my solidarity with Go North West employees.
Fire and rehire has been used as an aggressive negotiation tactic by household brands. That is completely unacceptable, and we need urgent action, not warm words from the Government. Several Members have already asked when we can we expect the ACAS report to be made public. As constituency MPs, we need to see the report to hold the Government to account.
Urgent Government action is needed to end fire and rehire bullyboy tactics. It is all well and good to clap on the doorstep for our amazing key workers, but what they need is clear Government legislation against fire and rehire tactics, rather than vague platitudes from Ministers. Will the Minister call out bad employers such as British Gas, Goodlord, Brush Electrical Machines and Go North West? We need real action from the Government, not warm words.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I, too, offer congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing her first debate on what is an important and timely issue—fire and rehire. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), as always, and I declare that I am a member and chair of the Unite parliamentary group. I was heartened to see the collective action and solidarity shown yesterday during Unite the Union’s day of action against fire and rehire.
Over the last year, Unite has opposed fire and rehire tactics used by British Airways, Heathrow airport, and SBS technologies. Let us not forget: without our trade unions, workers at those companies would have suffered dramatic pay cuts and had their terms and conditions worsened. However, the best safeguard against such unacceptable behaviour is to outlaw the practice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, many employers have behaved responsibly, but there are appalling examples of bad employers using this bullyboy tactic, as it has been described by the Minister. It is within the power of the Minister and the Prime Minister to outlaw this practice.
I was disappointed when the Prime Minister backtracked at Prime Minister’s Questions last week and refused to commit to outlawing this disgraceful practice when questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson). In fact, he did not even acknowledge the nature of the problem.
During the covid pandemic, one worker in 10 has been threatened with fire and rehire. Many of those firms are receiving Government-funded support. The likelihood is that this is the tip of the iceberg. With furlough ending, many more workers will face the threat of fire and rehire, unless it is outlawed. As other Members have said, the Government asked ACAS to report on the extent of fire and rehire, and we now know, following responses to questions from me and from other Members, Ministers have had the report since 17 February. We need to know what is in that report. Will the Minister commit himself to releasing it this week before Parliament prorogues? The public, who fund ACAS, are entitled to know, and the many workers who, in effect, have been blackmailed, are entitled to know ACAS’s view of the practice.
Lots of people are watching and want to know whose side the Minister and the Prime Minister are on. I hope the Minister will stand with hon. Members here today, promise more than condemnation of fire and rehire, and take action to outlaw the practice once and for all. That has happened in Ireland, Spain and France.
I want briefly to outline some of the implications of fire and rehire in its latest use for individuals, families and communities. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who has been an asset to her constituency and the House since she was elected.
The latest wave of fire and rehire, which is not a new phenomenon, started in my constituency at Heathrow through the activities of British Airways and Heathrow Airport Ltd. Both companies saw the pandemic as an opportunity to implement their long-held strategy of cutting wages and undermining working conditions and terms of employment. The wages and the terms of employment were fought for over generations by trade unions to ensure that people got a decent wage and were treated properly at work. That is all people wanted.
The reaction to the attempt to cut wages on such a scale and to tear up employment agreements was, first, absolute anger. The frustration among the workers at Heathrow was palpable. The staff were so loyal. They were proud to work for British Airways, the national carrier, and many had worked there for decades. Whole families depend on the airport, working for either BA or Heathrow Ltd. They faced wage cuts, even though house prices and rents in my area are so high, and were under real stress, and they were looking at whether they could maintain their livelihood and keep a decent roof over their head.
That stress has brought about almost a mental health crisis in our community. There is real resentment because those companies have made vast profits and taken furlough money from the Government, and they were simply using a short-term crisis to impose long-term pay cuts. Owing to the resolution of my community, individual workers, Unite the Union and others, we fought back and have settled as best we can to protect people, but the protection can come in the longer term only if the Government act and introduce legislation to ban the practice of fire and rehire once and for all.
Lord Hendy reminded us a couple of days ago that fire and rehire is not a new practice. The general strike was provoked by it when the miners were sacked and brought back to work only if they accepted wage cuts. I warn the Government: if they do not act and change the legislation, there will be more industrial action and more disputes, so they need to act with urgency.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray, and I thank the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this incredibly important debate. The fact that it is oversubscribed, similar to my own Westminster Hall debate in November when virtual participation was not possible, shows how important most Members—certainly Opposition Members—consider the issue.
The Tory Government should be embarrassed that the debate is even necessary. Workers in other EU countries who happen across these proceedings through some disastrous fault on their TV will think that Victoria is still on the throne and that the hard-fought-for workers’ rights that were secured in the 20th century were but a dream. Workers in those countries have employment rights based on modernity, not Dickens novels.
Over the past year, I have proposed legislation that would ban fire and rehire through a simple amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996. I have raised the issue with Ministers in this place umpteen times. I have been told by the Prime Minister that using threats of fire and rehire is unacceptable as a negotiating tactic. The Minister said that it is not acceptable to use it as a bargaining or negotiating tactic. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I do not think it is acceptable to have a ‘fire and rehire’ culture.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 171.]
The Leader of the House told the Commons two weeks ago:
“The name of British Gas has now been traduced in this House on a number of occasions. People who pay attention to our proceedings may feel that they dislike the way British Gas is behaving and want to get their gas supplied by another firm.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 504.]
On that, I agree with the Leader of the House. Despite giving the company every chance, I have now cancelled my own British Gas contract. That is a small act with regard to a company with revenues just shy of £15 billion last year, but it is the power that each of us has as a consumer.
To be clear, the primary blame, in all these situations, lies with the companies for making these threats, but the role of Government should be to ensure that any employer meets basic standards on worker rights and respect for its workforce, and operates on a level playing field that rests on fundamental rights for its staff. Enshrining that level playing field in law will ensure that the spivs and chancers who seem to have a grip on so many blue-chip companies can no longer undercut and undermine responsible employers, who invest in their staff and work in partnership with them rather than antagonising them.
All the sympathetic statements and expressions from the Dispatch Box do not change a thing for the workers, who are still being bullied by companies and forced into wage cuts and changes to terms and conditions. I agree with every word from Ministers that I have quoted. The difference is that they are Ministers and have the power to act.
As I have said previously, and as almost everyone who has spoken today has said, the Government have a Queen’s Speech in a fortnight’s time, and that must—must—contain a pledge on fire and rehire. They have at their disposal a Government machine that could have a Bill drafted rapidly—I would be happy to send them a copy of mine to copy and paste from if that would speed things along. They have a majority of 80 in this House to get the Bill through its stages and on to the statute book with a minimum of fuss.
The time for words is over. The pictures of the British Gas vans in the gas van graveyards across the country should be evidence of that. Millions of workers across the country are judging the Government on their deeds, and so far the outcome has been lacking, to say the least. In summing up the debate, can the Minister please give that assurance? Potentially millions of workers across the UK are depending on it.
The Government cannot say that this issue has not been pointed out to them many, many times over recent months. The last year has seen British Airways, British Gas, Menzies Aviation, Go North West, Heathrow airport and even Tesco, to name just a few, treat their staff like chattels and threaten them with the sack if they did not sign on the dotted line. I and many colleagues across the House have raised these disgraceful incidents with the Government dozens of times over the last year. Just yesterday we saw protests outside IHG—InterContinental Hotels Group—hotels, following the sacking of 250 staff, some of whom were then asked to come back to their previous jobs, but for less money and with poorer working conditions.
The Government know that this is an issue, because they are sitting on a report compiled by ACAS on it. The fact that we had to force them into commissioning that report is damning, but they have been sitting on the report for more than two months now. More than seven weeks ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State, urging him to share the report. It should be laid before the House at the earliest opportunity. The Government have to justify their lack of action and to apologise to the hundreds of thousands of workers who have faced these threats since they were highlighted to the Government and, in particular, to those who have taken redundancy when they have been faced with these threats or, even worse, have been sacked without any redundancy pay when they have refused to be bullied. Will the Minister, in his summing up, do just that and say sorry on behalf of the Government for their inaction?
I was proud to see the SNP manifesto launched two weeks ago, with a promise to ban fire and rehire in Scotland if the powers over employment law are transferred to the Scottish Parliament. We have been waiting too long for the UK Government to act and bring in legislation to ban it. If they do not want to protect the rights of workers, they should give the powers to the Scottish Parliament, which will act to end the days of bully-boy tactics and put those powers to good use.
I am proud of the SNP policy, of course, but I think my cross-party record on this issue is clear. The fact that Members from every party in this House sponsored my Bills is testament to that. Change of this nature happens only with cross-party support—not only with support from a united opposition, but with some support from the Government Benches. I know that the Minister has been lobbied hard on this issue by many of his colleagues. That is what makes me hopeful—perhaps naively so—about commitments on this issue in the employment Bill.
However, although there is support from and campaigning by a great many Labour Members, including Labour colleagues of mine on the Transport Committee—the hon. Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), who was a member of that Committee—and many others, including the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), I have been somewhat disappointed by the lack of speed from the Labour leadership to give this issue the parliamentary attention it deserves.
In saying that, I am only reflecting the views of a great many union members whom I have spoken with or who have contacted me. Working as one, we might have been able to force through quicker change that would have helped the British Gas engineers. Moving forward, let us ensure that we have a laser-like focus on the issue, as too many have suffered these threats over the last year.
No one is saying that companies and occupations should be frozen in time, with no room for change when circumstances change. Of course this pandemic has had a huge impact on the bottom line for every business in these isles and around the world, just as the crash of 2008, the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s and the energy crisis of the 1970s had an impact on trading conditions, and I daresay there will come a point in the future when another economic shock will hit us. The way to address those challenges is not by treating “Oliver Twist” as an employee relations handbook, but by working in partnership with workers and their representatives to find a sustainable way forward that benefits all.
That philosophy is embedded in European industry and commerce, and it is embedded in law. I think it is no coincidence that every single one of those countries outperformed the UK on economic output and on the standard of living their citizens enjoy. Nine out of 10 of the poorest areas of the European Union, as was, are in the UK. The race to the bottom on employment rights has dislocated our economic system to such an extent that the poorest out of 500 million people live within a couple of hours of this place.
Many of the companies that have employed or threatened to employ fire and rehire operate across international borders. International Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways, could not copy the tactics they used in the UK with staff at Iberia and Aer Lingus because those countries enshrined in law the rights of employees not to be treated in such a way. Centrica, British Gas’s parent company, is prevented from throwing the same tricks with Bord Gáis Energy employees because the law in Ireland stops it from doing so. It only chose the UK for these actions because it can. Centrica is still selling gas in Ireland and taking payment for that gas presumably because it makes money from it. The difference is that the workers enjoy protection from fire and rehire.
That undermines any argument that legislation against fire and rehire would put companies at a disadvantage. They seem to be doing fine in countries that have already banned it and that have rejected the insidious race to the bottom on employee rights that has characterised Tory Governments for decades. Fire and rehire is part of that race to the bottom.
This Government have the power to end that race right now and legislate to give responsible businesses the level playing field they deserve and our constituents the protections they need to have a more stable and sustainable livelihood. That benefits them, their families and the communities they live in. The warm words from the Government Benches over the last year do not provide that stability. Will there be a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a Bill banning fire and rehire once and for all? That would give more security and dignity to millions of workers who could face these tactics next.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I declare my interest as a member of Unite, GMB and Unison.
I join other hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate on fire and rehire tactics and for the timely manner in which she has done so, with the outrageous firing of hundreds of British Gas employees earlier this month, just because they refused to be bullied by management into signing contracts that put them on worse pay, and worse terms and conditions. My hon. Friend spoke passionately about that case and the abusive bullying behaviour of British Gas’s management. She made a sound contribution that delivered a strong defence of workers’ rights and the protections that should be afforded to them, but which sadly this Government have denied them. My only regret is that we are having to have this debate following this mass firing at British Gas because the Government would not step in when they should have properly done so.
I thank my hon. Friends for their passionate contributions. Let us be honest: the point has been made that it is only Members on the Opposition side who have contributed because the Government could not even convince their own Back Benchers to turn up to defend the fire and rehire tactics that have become endemic on their watch. There is not only the cases of their own constituents who have faced fire and rehire tactics, but the use of these tactics by major companies that have continued to make a profit throughout the pandemic.
We must remember that fire and rehire tactics are not a new phenomenon, a point that has been made in this debate. They had been around long before the coronavirus pandemic. However, the increasingly precarious nature of our economy and the Government’s refusal to do anything about it, along with the uncertainty created by the pandemic, have given unscrupulous employers the cover they need. Let us be clear: the employers making use of these frankly deplorable tactics are unscrupulous—there are simply no two ways about it.
Under the threat of permanent dismissal at a time when the jobs market could not be more challenging, these unscrupulous employers are bullying their staff into signing away their original contract. They are bullying them into signing a replacement contract where pay is lower, rights are weaker and conditions less favourable, and they are shoving those inferior contracts down the throats of their workers, who know full well that they cannot refuse without being fired for good, as we saw at British Gas.
Despite that despicable behaviour, and the fact that such shameful tactics amount to nothing more than legalised blackmail of staff by employers, fire and rehire inexplicably remains perfectly legal under the Government, and big businesses such as Tesco and the coffee giant Douwe Egberts, which have seen rising profits during the lockdown, are continuing shamelessly to use them.
As a result, those who cannot stand up to their employers and have to begrudgingly accept the new contracts face incredible hardship, going from a job that often comfortably supported them and their families to now being forced to rely on food banks, handouts and social security to make ends meet. Indeed, we all saw the heart-breaking stories during the industrial action taken by GMB members at British Gas where engineers made it clear that they were not striking for themselves but for the young children they needed to support. Fire and rehire tactics do not just leave workers worse off; they leave their families worse off too.
However, fire and rehire tactics are not just bad for working people, who are told to work harder but at the same time paid less; they are bad for our economy too. By being able to change contracts on a whim, fire and rehire tactics are allowing bad employers to thrive and get ahead, cutting wages even at a time when many of them are making bumper profits because of the lockdown. As a result, good employers that look after their staff, pay them good wages and offer favourable conditions are being squeezed out, unable to compete with the bad employers. That is hardly the positive example of levelling up or building back better, as the Prime Minister has pledged time and again. That is why the Labour party, the trade unions and working people up and down the country have been calling on the Government to step in and act, to deliver the legislation that will bring a final, definitive end to the use of fire and rehire tactics for good, just as has been done in Ireland and Spain, as we have heard.
Instead of outlawing fire and rehire, all the Government have been able to offer are warm words and consultation—a point that has been made by a number of hon. Members. Warm words, however, do not pay bills, keep roofs over people’s head or put food on the table. As we saw at British Gas, warm words do not keep people in employment. The consultation that the Government have commissioned with ACAS still has not been published weeks after reporting back to base, with findings reportedly still being considered. I say to the Minister that this is not difficult. The findings and recommendations of the ACAS consultation are obvious for all: fire and rehire is bad for everyone. The Government should ban it, so why are they dragging their feet and what are they waiting for?
Last week, the Prime Minister spoke of dropping a “legislative bomb” to stop the European football super league, so they can act when they want to. However, he cannot even muster as much as a legislative firecracker to stop fire and rehire. Only last Wednesday, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister could not even remember the GMB dispute with British Gas and the mass firing of workers who refused to be bullied. No one should ever try to tell us that this Prime Minister is in touch with working people.
Instead of the Government looking out for employment rights, it has again fallen to trade unions to protect working people and to oppose bully-boy tactics. Unite secured a resolution of the dispute with British Airways and continues to oppose Go North West’s buses plans, and the GMB had a valiant fight to protect jobs and livelihoods at British Gas, but their job is made harder by the fact that the Government will not step in to help them by giving the vital legal backing that they need.
The use of fire-and-rehire tactics by unscrupulous employers is a stain on our economy. The contributions made by hon. Members during this important debate make one thing clear: we cannot just temporarily stop the use of fire-and-rehire tactics during this pandemic; we need to end them for good. To that end, the Government must introduce proper legislation, backed by real enforcement, before it is too late—before we see another big bully-boy employer such as British Gas lay off staff and impose new contracts, dismissing the rest who refuse to be bullied.
The Minister must confirm, as I hope he will and as we have called for, that the Government will bring forward such a measure as a matter of priority in the long-awaited and much-delayed employment Bill in next month’s Queen’s Speech. If he does not give a proper response today and resorts to a wishy-washy one—frankly, a trademark of this Government—the consequences for every worker who has been blackmailed and bullied, every family forced to turn to food banks, and every child forced into poverty, will land firmly at his Government’s doors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate, her first here in Westminster Hall, on fire and rehire. We have heard a lot of powerful and passionate speeches, but before I start on mine, I note that many of my colleagues have been glancing at the annunciator screens around us. Important issues have been debated in the main Chamber. I have seen colleagues on the Government Benches speaking about fire safety and veterans—a lot of issues. Many colleagues have spoken about this subject and will continue to do so.
We heard from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), about the Government giving warm words, about consultation and about people being worse off. On the warm words, however, we agree on many things to do with the “bully-boy tactics” we have heard about today. That also demonstrates the difference when talking about businesses, because with changes to workers’ rights and anything to do with employment, whether for workers or businesses, it is important that we get it right. We have to consult and ensure that legislation is made with careful consideration and debate, and that it is made with people—companies and workers—and not done to them.
Clearly, the flexibility of our jobs market means that the hon. Member for Bradford East was right to say that people and their families are worse off if they get reduced terms. They would also be worse off, however, if their jobs were lost as a result of a different type of restructuring. Again, that is why we need to get the balance right.
We had some international comparisons. Many European countries clearly have more rigid labour markets. Often, in places such as Germany and France, more onerous requirements must be met when considering individual or collective redundancy. In some countries, permission must be sought even to go down that line. So our flexible hiring practice is important to ensuring that our economy is rounded but flexible.
Having said that, however, importantly, we are all constituency MPs and we have heard many examples today. From correspondence I have received—like many Members present—we know that, for those affected, the threat of redundancy or dismissal is always distressing. We expect employers to treat their staff with respect and compassion. That is even more important now, when people feel particularly vulnerable or anxious about the future. I speak to businesses every day and know that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing by their employees. For most employers, the choice to let someone go is not something to be taken lightly. It usually comes at a time of great financial uncertainty for the business.
I pay tribute to all the businesses and workers that have kept the economy moving throughout an extraordinarily difficult time. In the face of those challenges, businesses have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and innovate. Through the pandemic, our priority as a Government has always been to protect jobs. Through the job retention scheme we have supported 11.4 million unique jobs to date. As we build back better from coronavirus, we will continue to support workers and work with employers to protect and create jobs. In the past year we have helped millions of people to continue to provide for their families as part of our plan for jobs, to protect, support and create employment. As we build back better we will work with employers to protect existing jobs and create new ones.
The Government are always on the side of working people, including those on the lowest wages. Earlier this month, about 2 million of the UK’s lowest-paid workers benefited from an increase in the national living wage and the national minimum wage, including a 2.2% increase in the national living wage, to £8.91—the equivalent of more than £345 a year for someone working full time.
I hear yet more warm words, and I hear about the Government’s support for workers, the furlough scheme, and what have you. Let us concede the furlough scheme. However, what does the Minister say to workers who have taken redundancy when faced with fire and rehire threats, or who have been forced out of a business, or to the British Gas engineers sacked without any redundancy payment?
I will come to fire and rehire. In individual company disputes, in the first instance it should always be ensured that the company and employers can have conversations and dialogues with the unions, should there be a union supporting the workers.
The debate has explored a lot of issues related to fire and rehire, where employers dismiss or threaten to dismiss employees, only to hire them again on less favourable terms and conditions. However, the UK already has a robust legal framework to ensure that employees are treated fairly. Employers are clearly free to offer the terms and conditions of employment that best suit their business needs, but they must always act fairly and not discriminate unlawfully, such as on grounds of race, sex or disability. Redundancy law requires that any redundancy process be fair and reasonable, with appropriate equalities considerations. Those rules include giving a notice period and consulting staff before a final decision is reached. We have clear laws on unfair dismissal, covering such things as the application of unfair selection criteria or failure to consider the possibility of transfer to other work.
However, it is not just a matter of what the law requires; it is in businesses’ own interests to have committed, motivated staff who are properly engaged in decisions about their future. As I have said, in the vast majority of cases businesses want to do the right thing by their employees, and I am determined to help them with that, to make sure that we find the best approach for employers and employees. However, we should tread carefully when considering Government intervention in commercial contractual matters between employers and employees. We must and do protect workers from unfair practices, especially when they put unnecessary stress on people who fear for their livelihoods, but we must also allow businesses to take the sometimes difficult decisions that are necessary to preserve their commercial viability.
Some Members have called this afternoon for the Government to legislate for a ban on fire and rehire. The Government have always been clear that we do not accept the inappropriate use by some employers of fire and rehire as a negotiation tactic. I have met Members and trade unions to discuss the issue, and in those discussions it has been made plain to me what anxiety and distress such tactics cause, particularly when individuals feel that they have no real option to say no and negotiate better terms. We have heard examples of that today. However, it is right and proper to consider the evidence, to avoid any course of action that would run the risk of doing more harm than good.
For example, it would be counterproductive if measures that prevented businesses from rehiring staff on different terms and conditions meant that a business could no longer survive, so that its staff found themselves out of work entirely. That would be the worst possible outcome for both businesses and the people they employ, so we need robust evidence to make robust policy decisions. That is why my Department asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to learn more about the use of fire and rehire. Some Members of the House have continued to call upon my Department to publish this evidence, including during this debate. Let me clarify: we asked ACAS for its help in developing the evidence base on this complex and sensitive issue. We are carefully considering the different issues and viewpoints raised, which is vital for good policy making, and we will set out our steps in due course.
As mentioned today, unfortunately, due to the impacts of covid, some employers may be considering making redundancies. We urge employers to consider all options and alternatives before making redundancies, but we recognise that it is not going to be possible to save every business and every job. Collective redundancy legislation requires employers proposing to make 20 or more employees redundant from one establishment in a 90-day period to consult employees or their representatives, and that must include a consultation on ways to avoid redundancies, reduce their number, or mitigate their impact. Within the same timescales, the employer must notify the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the proposed collective redundancies. Failure to notify is an offence. Employees and/or their representatives may make a claim to an employment tribunal if they consider the employers not compliant with the consultation for collective redundancies. If the tribunal agrees, it may make a protective award of up to 90 days’ remuneration per employee. If a protective award is made against a company in liquidation, the Insolvency Service can pay the protective award, within certain limits.
In spite of the unprecedented support made available by the Government, many people have had to make really difficult decisions about their livelihoods since last March. This includes employers who have spent years investing in and growing their businesses, and workers who have shown loyalty and dedication to a particular profession or service. This debate has highlighted the challenges that everyone is having to face, and the enormous impact that losing a job or the threat of losing a job has on individuals and their families.
I have heard all of that, and I have heard the Minister’s justification for not publishing the ACAS report thus far, but can he guarantee that at some point after the Queen’s Speech—in the next Session—the Government will publish the report in full, and what the Government intend to do about it?
What I will say at the moment is that we are fully considering that, and we will continue discussion and debate on it, because it is important that that evidence base forms part of those policy-making criteria. Employers need to make sure that they can take the decisions they need to maintain their commercial viability during all of this, and as I have said, most businesses are doing the right thing. I have been an employer myself for the best part of 25 years before being elected, and I know what it is like to be responsible for someone else’s livelihood. It is deeply unfortunate, however, that the actions of some unscrupulous employers are tarring others with the same brush. Even at a time when businesses face acute challenges, fire and rehire should only ever be used as an option of last resort. As I have made clear repeatedly, it is completely unacceptable to use threats of fire and rehire simply as a negotiation tactic.
Once again, I thank all hon. Members, and especially the hon. Member for Jarrow, for their personal contributions to this debate.
I thank everybody for their contributions today to what was a really good debate, with some very powerful speeches. Anger at the injustice of fire and rehire has shone through every contribution, without a single word of support for this awful practice. I wanted to touch on a few of the points that have been made, but unfortunately, time does not now allow that.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I say to him that the Government need to act now to end fire and rehire. This shameful practice is taking advantage of a pandemic to strip workers of their hard-fought terms and conditions. He says that we need to tread carefully, but the problem is that people are being trampled over, and I do not accept that we need more debate on this issue, because there is no question of right or wrong here. He says that the Government are always on the side of working people, but I am afraid that is just more empty words, because that is not what I see. Where is the evidence that that is the case?
The Government can no longer ignore the damage done by fire and rehire. If, as they say, they feel it is unacceptable and bully-boy tactics, then they need to show this through actions, not words. Two e-petitions have obtained over 14,000 signatures so far, one of which has over 10,000 and, as such, requires a written response from the Government, which I understand is something else that is still waiting to be received. Our trade unions and their members have done a fantastic job in protecting workers, and they continue to do so. However, I say to the Minister and his Government that we need them to do the right thing and the decent thing, and bring forward legislation next month.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Immigration Detention: Victims of Trafficking
I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. As there are only two Members here, I will just remind them that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of immigration detention on potential victims of trafficking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, who has been extremely helpful to me with my questions about immigration over many months. It is a pleasure to see him here. The core of the issues I wish to raise relates substantively to the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2021, which make amendments to the guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention. In brief, the changes remove the special rules governing the use of detention for potential victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery where there is already a strong presumption against the use of detention. I note the prayer against this negative statutory instrument in the form of early-day motion 1696, tabled on 24 March 2021, which has attracted 77 signatures. I also note that, subsequent to Mr Speaker granting this debate, a further debate has been scheduled for tomorrow in the main Chamber, so the Minister will certainly be busy. Again, I am grateful to him for being here today.
One of the reasons I called for the debate is that Yarl’s Wood, which has been a detention centre for women, is in my constituency, and over the years I have worked closely with a number of groups related to the detention of women in particular, including Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and Women for Refugee Women. I would like to thank Medical Justice in particular for its help in putting together some points. I will fire a series of questions at the Minister, which I am sure he will not have time to respond to immediately—it is in the nature of these 30-minute debates—but, if he will commit to writing to me with responses on those he does not have a chance to address, I would be grateful.
Let me start by quoting from the explanatory memorandum accompanying the statutory instrument, which says:
“This statutory instrument brings into effect amendments to the guidance on Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention…The purpose of the statutory instrument…is to bring people who are potential victims of modern slavery and/or trafficking fully within the…AAR Statutory Guidance. This is intended so that detention considerations for potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking will be made using criteria consistent with those that apply to other categories of vulnerable people.”
The reason provided by the Home Office for the change is that it will bring those with a positive reasonable grounds decision through the national referral mechanism fully within the scope of the adults at risk in immigration detention statutory guidance. The Home Office describe it as a measure to amend a “policy anomaly” and the changes will come into effect on 25 May. That leads me to my first and fundamental question to the Minister: why does he want to make this change, which will make it more likely that victims of trafficking will be held in immigration detention?
The Minister will be aware that a Home Office report confirmed that, in 2019, of 1,949 individuals referred into the national referral mechanism after being detained, 89% received a positive reasonable grounds decision and 98% were subsequently released from detention. However, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner noted in her letter to the Minister:
“Having looked at the data on the AAR policy, between November 2017 and October 2018, the rates of rejection for detention by Detention Gatekeepers due to the person being an AAR fluctuated between 3.8% and 36.2%.”
She notes that that is a wide range, but it is substantially lower than the 89% to 98% rates under existing rulings. It seems to me that that is a significant difference, not just a policy anomaly. Can the Minister confirm that he expects more potential victims of trafficking to be detained for immigration purposes as a result of the policy change? What are his thoughts around that?
I understand that the Minister held a consultation on the statutory instrument before laying it. Can he confirm whether that is correct, state which organisations he has consulted with, and give a summary of their views and opinions? Why did the Home Office not include the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in its consultation prior to making these changes? The Minister will be as aware as I am that it is important to get all expert advice prior to laying legislation before the House.
Let us spend a moment on concerns raised about the changes. Medical Justice makes two crucial points; first, that the
“new regulations…downgrade protections afforded to potential victims of trafficking held in immigration detention”,
and secondly that they
“run entirely counter to the government’s stated aim to protect victims of trafficking.”
Does the Minister accept that the statutory instrument will, in practice, downgrade protection for victims of trafficking? He may be aware that this week the Royal College of Psychiatrists released its report “Detention of people with mental disorders in immigration removal centres”, which includes the following paragraph—it is quite a long quotation, but worth listening to:
“It is the view of the Royal College of Psychiatrists that people with mental disorders should only be subjected to immigration detention in very exceptional circumstances…There is substantial and consistent research evidence that detainees with pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g. mental health issues or survivors of torture and other forms of cruel or inhumane treatment, including sexual violence and gender-based violence) are at particular risk of harm as a result of their detention. Detention centres are likely to precipitate a significant deterioration of mental health in most cases, greatly increasing suffering and the risk of suicide.”
Does the Minister agree, or does he not, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ conclusions? Does he, or does he not, agree that the changes that the statutory instrument makes may go directly against its advice?
Guideline 6, paragraph 1, of the UN’s recommended principles and guidelines on human rights and human trafficking states that trafficked persons
“should not be held in immigration detention centres”
or other forms of custody. There is no a priori reason for the UK Government to agree with everything that the United Nations says on the matter, but does the Minister agree that this change risks being seen as a significant step back from the UK’s international reputation of playing a leading role against modern-day slavery?
The direct effect of changing this policy anomaly on victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery seems to me quite profound. The practical impact seems to be that after a person has already satisfied the Home Office that they were subject to trafficking or slavery, the Home Office now expects them essentially to re-live that experience so that they can demonstrate the harm they will suffer from further future incarceration or detention—this time by the Government. Why would the Government want to do that?
Let us take a moment to see whether the adults at risk policy is working sufficiently well to warrant its application to this particularly vulnerable group. There are substantial grounds to suggest that it is not proving suitable for the policy anomaly change; let me share some concerns with the Minister.
Women for Refugee Women has commented that a key reason for the continued detention of survivors of trafficking under the adults at risk policy is the lack of a proactive vulnerability screening mechanism before the decision to detain is made. Under AAR, a new detention gatekeeper was introduced
“which assesses vulnerability and provides challenge to decisions about who enters immigration detention”.
However, the gatekeeper looks only at information that the Home Office already holds on record to assess whether a person is vulnerable. There is no proactive screening process to identify vulnerabilities that the Home Office may not be aware of before the decision to detain is made.
Let me note some findings from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons on Yarl’s Wood, the detention centre in my constituency. Its reports have also highlighted how, while it was operating as the main detention centre for women, Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to maintain an appropriate proportion of female staff, both those in direct contact with women and managers. Further, HMIP reports also identified a lack of understanding and knowledge among Yarl’s Wood staff about women’s specific experience of violence and abuse, including sexual exploitation and trafficking. I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the very capable staff at Yarl’s Wood in my constituency. My point is that, with this change, we are placing more reliance on individual case-based judgments and therefore on what might appear to be a rather more fragile decision process.
Let me note some more comments from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton:
“Whilst I acknowledge the rationale for bringing all categories of vulnerability under the AAR policy, there are multiple factors that are specific to victims of modern slavery that are significant.”
“under Article 13 of ECAT potential victims of modern slavery with a positive reasonable grounds decision are entitled to a reflection and recovery period where they cannot be removed from the UK. I am aware that in order to detain there must be ‘a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale’. It is therefore important to highlight that in 2019, it took the Home Office Single Competent Authority an average of 452 days”
to make a conclusive decision. Does the Minister acknowledge the tension in timescales between a realistic prospect of removal and an average of 452 days to make a decision?
I draw attention to the Independent Chief Inspector of Border and Immigration’s report “Annual Inspection of ‘Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention’ (2018-19)”. The first inspection report, which was published in April 2020, noted that
“there is a lot more that the Home Office can and should do to make each component”
of the AAR policy “more efficient and more effective.” Further, the inspector said:
“I have set a deadline (31 March 2020) for the implementation of the recommendations that are specific to Adults at Risk”.
Can the Minister confirm whether the specific recommendations identified for implementation by 31 March last year have been accepted and implemented?
I understand the 2019-20 report is now in draft with publication due in September. Can the Minister advise whether the ICIBI has concluded whether their concerns have now been allayed? Or do those concerns remain, or have they risen? Even relying solely on the concerns raised in 2018-19 report, did they not give the Minister pause in making the changes? Can he, in his response, share what guided his thinking?
Finally, I want to touch on some comments in The Independent about the rationale so the Minister can clarify. The newspaper said:
“Ministers are planning to make it more difficult for trafficking survivors to be released from detention as part of plans to prevent serious criminals from taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards by using them to prevent their removal from the country.”
Essentially, this is a misuse of a provision. Is that the case? If so, what consideration did the Home Office give to improving the existing process rather than closing it down? What consideration has the Home Office given to managing a definition of a foreign national offender that will likely include actions that victims of slavery or trafficking were forced to undertake? Many survivors of modern slavery are forced to commit criminal acts, such as pickpocketing, drug cultivation or even fraud, as part of their exploitation. In 2020, potential victims were most commonly referred to in the national referral mechanism for cases related to purely criminal exploitation, which accounted for 34% of all referrals. I would be grateful if the Minister could just clarify this point, because it would be a shame if the references to foreign national offenders were getting caught up with the issue, whereby many people who are subject to trafficking are forced into crime as part of their victimisation.
May I just repeat how grateful I am for this opportunity to raise these points with the Minister today? There are issues with the adults at risk policy. I know that it was only introduced in 2016, but I think that both the Minister and I wish to see improvements to our immigration policies, to ensure that loopholes are not exploited by those who do not deserve the right to exploit those loopholes. Equally, however, I know that the Minister, the Home Office, the Home Secretary and I are committed to a system that is compassionate and that has eyes on that individual who might otherwise be lost in a very bureaucratic system. I am therefore very grateful for the opportunity to put these points to the Minister today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray; I think for the first time, but I am confident not for the last.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for raising the matter in this afternoon’s debate. As he said, we will have the pleasure of discussing it twice in two days. He is an assiduous campaigner on these issues and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss them with him today, and, I am sure, on future occasions as well.
As a starting point, it is important to understand that the United Kingdom’s commitment to looking after victims or even potential victims of modern slavery is resolute. We enacted the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which has some very substantial protections for victims of modern slavery. We launched a modern slavery strategy back in 2014 and we are assiduous as a country in upholding our obligations under the ECAT treaty—the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings—to which my hon. Friend referred. Indeed, many more modern slavery claims are made and accepted in the UK than in comparable European countries; I think that we had around 10,000 last year, which was many times higher than in countries such as France and Germany. I think our record on identifying and protecting victims of modern slavery is second to none across Europe, which we can all be extremely proud of.
However, we should also be clear that someone being recognised as a victim of modern slavery does not and should not automatically result in their being given immigration status in the UK, or in their being exempted from immigration proceedings. There are protections granted by the modern slavery provisions. My hon. Friend mentioned the reflection and recovery period, which is 45 days. Of course, if there is a recovery need that can only be met by the person remaining, that is obviously respected as well. However, it does not follow that every single potential victim of modern slavery should be exempted from immigration proceedings or indeed from detention.
Therefore, it is very important that we have a proper way of weighing up the various considerations that come before decision makers: on the one hand, there are questions of vulnerability, or potential vulnerability; and on the other hand, there is the need to operate a proper immigration system. That is an important balance to strike. Both those things are important; we are not minimising the importance of either one of them.
It is worth observing that the reasonable grounds threshold for a modern slavery decision is, by design, extremely low. At the moment, it is set out as “suspects but cannot prove”, which is an extremely low threshold. We are looking to make adjustments to that, as set out in the policy statement a few weeks ago, consistent, of course, with our ECAT treaty obligations. However, once the reasonable grounds decision is made, that does not mean that the person involved is a victim of modern slavery. It means that there are reasons to suspect, but without proof, that they might be a victim of modern slavery, which is extremely important to bear in mind.
There has been some evidence recently—I am talking about the last 12 months in particular—that for some cohorts in particular, including some foreign national offenders, it appears that modern slavery claims are increasingly being used as a means of disrupting immigration proceedings. We need to be mindful of that, and mindful that we should do everything to protect genuine victims of modern slavery, many of whom will have suffered appalling trauma and mistreatment. It is in the spirit of achieving that balance that the changes we are discussing today and will discuss again tomorrow are being made.
The change that my hon. Friend outlined so eloquently, enshrined in the statutory instrument laid on 25 February this year and coming into force, if passed, in a few weeks’ time, to make the release decision in relation to people with a positive reasonable grounds decision if they might be a victim of modern slavery is inside the ambit of the existing adults at risk policy. That is not to say that their potential vulnerability will be ignored, but the issue will be considered in the round and a balancing exercise will be performed, as it is with other forms of vulnerability in the existing scope of the adults at risk policy to make sure that everything is being properly accounted for in the round.
Having done that exercise, release decisions might, and in many cases will, still be made. An adults at risk policy, as my hon. Friend said, was introduced in 2016. It has had time to bed in and is being continuously improved upon, but it has a well-defined grading scale—level 1, level 2, level 3—and the more serious the evidence of vulnerability or potential harm, some of which my hon. Friend laid out in his speech, the higher the balancing factors have to be in order not to release.
Viewing the matter in the round and considering everything is an appropriate thing to do. It is a balancing exercise that we are trying to achieve. The caseworker guidance that will be published in due course will address the specific situation of potential victims of modern slavery. My hon. Friend laid out some of the unique circumstances associated with them, and the caseworker guidance will take into account the particular vulnerabilities that my hon. Friend drew attention to in his speech.
I hope that gives some reassurance about the approach that will be taken. The detention decision making process will of course include an assessment of the individual’s recovery needs. That will ensure that detention is maintained where the balancing criteria are met, and also where those needs can be provided from within detention. If those needs cannot be met from within detention, that would obviously argue very strongly and persuasively, probably decisively, in favour of a release decision being made.
It is also worth saying by way of context—I know my hon. Friend has a wider interest in detention; we have discussed it on many occasions—that detention is used sparingly. At any one time, 95% of people who might be eligible for detention are in fact in the community. The numbers being detained are relatively small by historical standards. If I take the figure from 31 December 2019, before coronavirus, because coronavirus has caused the number to go down even further, there were 1,637 people in immigration detention, which is a pretty small number when we measure that against the number of people who probably do not have the right to be in the country.
The 1,637 number approximately halved in the two-year period preceding. From 30 September 2017 to 31 December 2019, the number of people in immigration detention roughly halved. The vast majority of people—we have debated this previously—are in detention for relatively short periods of time. Some 74% are detained for 28 days or less, so detention is not being used on a widespread, indiscriminate basis, but it is an essential component of running a proper immigration system. Where someone does not have the right to be here, or where they have committed a serious criminal offence and they are a foreign national, it is right that we take steps to remove them. Without having immigration detention available, it is extremely difficult to do that, so it is an important thing to be able to do.
As I have set out, we accept that modern slavery is a truly despicable crime. We take our responsibility to identify victims very seriously. We also take our responsibilities in using immigration detention very seriously as well. Our focus as we take forward these changes will be to make sure that the right balance is struck and that potential victims with genuine vulnerabilities are protected. We are determined not only to protect those vulnerable individuals, but to bring the perpetrators of modern slavery to justice. It is in that spirit that we have introduced the changes that will be debated in the main Chamber tomorrow.
Air Pollution: London
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address.
Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery initially and move to the horseshoe when seats there become available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered air pollution in London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I am very grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on the incredibly important topic of air pollution in London.
No one can fail to be moved by the big, beautiful, beaming smile of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose life was so tragically taken at the age of just nine as a result of London’s poor air quality. I pay tribute to Ella’s mother Rosamund, who, in the face of such a personal tragedy, has campaigned relentlessly for the true cause of her daughter’s death to be recognised. The landmark verdict from the inquest recording the cause of death as air pollution has reverberated around the country and marks a silent public health crisis unfolding in the capital city and beyond. As a London resident and MP, but also as the mother of two young children, living close to Heathrow airport and half a mile from a busy dual carriageway on which several local schools and a college are located, I have a moral and personal duty to act. We must ensure that future generations do not die prematurely because of the air that they breathe.
The coroner in Ella’s inquest stated last week that
“there is no safe level for Particulate Matter”
and called for a change in the law. And this is what I am doing today: I am asking the Minister to commit to introducing Ella’s law, which would introduce legally binding limits on air pollution in the UK, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines. This call is supported by the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation, Asthma UK, Friends of the Earth and many, many more.
The Conservative Government stated in 2019, when they published their clean air strategy, that
“exposure to the pollution still present in our atmosphere is one”
“the UK’s biggest public health challenges, shortening lifespans and damaging quality of life for many people.”
Yet robust action and commitment to tackle this silent killer has not followed.
This debate is focused on London, where a staggering 99% of the population live in areas where particulate matter exceeds WHO limits. Up to around 4,100 early deaths each year in London can be linked with air pollution. Central London is one of the most polluted places in the UK and is currently the main area failing to comply with the legally binding limits set by the EU, which the UK is committed to. Worryingly, research by the Environmental Defence Fund found air pollution to be on average 19% higher at inner-London primary schools than at those in outer London, exacerbating existing health inequalities—and we have seen the devastating impact of those inequalities during the pandemic.
Anyone can be affected by air pollution, increasing the risk of developing a lung or cardiovascular condition and even stunting lung growth in children, but air pollution can leave those with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, struggling to breathe and at risk of having potentially life-threatening attacks and flare-ups. Various studies suggest that it can increase the severity of covid-19 as well. About 500,000 people are estimated to live with COPD in London and about 120,000 live with asthma.
I am grateful to the House of Commons digital engagement team for seeking feedback from the public in recent days about the impact of air pollution on their lives. I thank the more than 700 respondents to the survey. I have some of the quotes that came back from London residents. Brendan said: “Air pollution has hospitalised two of my nephews and I am now very concerned about its impact on my very young daughter. Pollution along my street can feel choking when diesel vehicles are left idle there, and my own curtains are left blackened from the air that comes in through the gaps in my windows.”
Jenny said: “My son was born and grew up in Holloway, where his nursery was on a busy main road. He suffers from mild to moderate asthma, which sometimes causes him to have to stop physical activities and laughing too much, due to getting short of breath and a tight chest, which is sad to see in an 11-year-old.”
Karen said: “I live next to Heathrow airport, the most polluted area in the country. Most days, even sunny ones, I find it hard to breathe as I have asthma.”
That is why we need radical action, starting from the top, with national Government setting much more stringent air-quality targets and resourcing regional and local authorities to implement measures on the ground that will clean up our air.
At a London level, it would be churlish not to credit the Mayor of London for taking action on air quality during his time in office and improving levels of air pollution. The ultra low emission zone has cut nitrogen dioxide levels by 40%. However, it is fair to say that much more needs to be done, starting with scrapping plans for the Silvertown tunnel, which will only increase the number of vehicles on the road, driving up emissions. The approaches to the Blackwall tunnel have among the worst levels of air pollution in London. Shockingly, plans are not yet even in place to monitor particulate pollution around the proposed tunnel. The Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, Luisa Porritt, has stated that the Silvertown tunnel is the Mayor’s “dirty little secret”. If he is serious about improving London’s air quality, that proposal must be scrapped.
Just 4% of London’s buses are electric, with only 400 all-electric buses in service in a fleet of 9,000. We fall well behind other cities internationally. With Transport for London and the Department for Transport negotiating a long-term settlement, I urge the Government to push for commitments to increase take-up of electric buses in London.
At a local level, many councils have been seeking to build on the increase in walking and cycling and the reduction in car use during the pandemic, through improved active travel infrastructure, such as additional cycle lanes and school street schemes. Since the Liberal Democrats were elected to run Richmond Council in 2018, there has been a particular focus on cracking down on cars idling, especially near schools. The legislation on idling, however, is toothless and merely creates an offence not to comply with instructions from a traffic officer to stop idling—the idling itself is not an offence. Will the Minister look at how the law can be strengthened in this area?
I am also proud that Richmond Council has the highest number of electric vehicle charging points of any outer London borough. I am disappointed that Transport for London has stalled its programme to roll out more EV charging points.
For south-west and west London and neighbouring counties, a major source of air pollution is Heathrow. The airport has a significant impact on my constituency. While the Department for Transport has considered aviation pollution only within a two-kilometre radius of the airport, plenty of research suggests that ultra-fine particles sometimes travel far greater distances from airports, with a reach of 10 miles from airports elsewhere around the world. Furthermore, the surface transport to the airport is a major contributor to air pollution in the area.
Despite the heavily publicised announcement last week that aviation emissions will be counted towards the UK’s sixth carbon budget, the Conservative Government have made no moves to cancel their plan for a third runway at Heathrow airport or update their aviation national policy statement, which remains in favour of Heathrow expansion. If the Prime Minister is serious about air pollution and climate change, it is time for him to make good on his promise to scrap a third runway.
Although this debate has focused on London, I would like to briefly add some national context about the size of the problem. Air pollution contributes to diabetes, dementia and heart disease, and can even cause problems for children in the womb. Public Health England has estimated that the cost of air pollution to the NHS will be approximately £1.5 billion by 2025, and £5.1 billion by 2035. Research by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation has found that over 8,500 schools and colleges are in places with levels of PM2.5 that are above World Health Organisation guidelines, yet an answer I received to a written question revealed that there were only three air quality monitoring sites in Birmingham, two in Manchester, and some 19 in London. Given that these are our biggest and most polluted cities, I would welcome feedback from the Minister on whether she thinks this level of monitoring is adequate.
The House of Commons digital engagement team also heard from residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme, who have also been very active on my Twitter feed in recent days, highlighting the impact of pollutants from Walleys Quarry, which have caused some to be violently sick and triggered asthma attacks two to three times a day for some children. Others in the north-east highlighted the impact of wood-burning stoves, and residents in the south-east raised the impact of Southampton airport. It is clear that we need national-level action on what is a national problem, and is felt acutely in London. Even this year, in a case that started before Brexit, the European Court of Justice found the Conservative Government to have systematically and persistently breached air pollution limits. As we are no longer bound by the EU’s air quality rules, we are likely to see even less accountability for their refusal to tackle this problem.
The Environment Bill provides the ideal opportunity for the Government to act and to introduce Ella’s law, yet the Conservatives have been so unambitious in merely stating that the Government will set themselves a PM2.5 target by 2022. They have said absolutely nothing about the level of ambition that this target will achieve, or whether it will be stronger than our previous target or provide adequate public health protection. The Bill has been delayed yet again, and even before this current delay, some 354 Conservative MPs voted against an amendment to introduce limits in line with WHO guidelines. As well as the potential health gains, there are economic gains to be had. The Confederation of British Industry has estimated that a £1.6 billion annual economic benefit to the UK could be realised by meeting WHO guidelines.
Targets and limits are not enough. They need to be accompanied by action and money to support cycling, walking, and public transport use, as well as greener vehicles. That is why, as part of an ambitious green economic recovery plan, the Liberal Democrats have proposed an £20 billion community clean air fund to boost new walking and cycling routes, new light rail and tram projects, expansion of bus routes, conversion of bus fleets to hydrogen, council-led clean air zones for congested towns and cities, and extra electric vehicle charging points. After a year, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that public health should always be a priority for the Government, yet the Prime Minister continues to look past the fact that poor air quality is contributing to up to 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. We owe it to Ella and her family to take action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for having secured this incredibly important debate.
Prior to covid-19, polluted air was contributing to over 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. That is a truly shocking statistic, and the British Lung Foundation has previously stated that air pollution is the main environmental threat to public health in the UK. Despite this, under Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty, London has made progress on this issue. Between 2016 and 2019, there has been a 94% reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide, and a 97% reduction in the number of state primary and secondary schools in areas exceeding the legal limit. This, in part, has been achieved by the rolling out of the ultra low emission zone, along with funding to clean up London’s taxi fleet and almost £53 million of grants to take older, more polluting vehicles off the roads, in hand with schemes to make walking and cycling safer and easier.
In addition, the school streets initiative, implemented to varying degrees across London since 2018, has also been a great success. Under the scheme, local authorities can put a temporary restriction on roads outside schools to turn them into a pedestrian and cycle zone during school drop-off and pick-up times. In one year alone, Lewisham Council created 26 school streets, with studies showing that they can reduce air pollution by up to 23%. Meanwhile, Bromley has managed to adopt only six streets as of September 2020. With no traffic camera enforcement, the scheme can easily be breached without punishment for offenders. There is inconsistency across the capital, often depending on the make-up and inclination of the local authority.
We must remember that children are particularly vulnerable to breathing polluted air and that those who grow up in polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood. With this in mind, the school streets scheme should be rolled out across all of the capital, and boroughs should receive the necessary dedicated funding from central Government to ensure that it can be properly implemented and enforced.
While a lot of progress has been made in London since 2016, 99% of Londoners still live in areas exceeding the World Health Organisation recommended guidelines for fine particulate matter, otherwise known as PM2.5. These are pollutants that are 30 times smaller than the average human hair and can settle in our airways and get into the bloodstream. There is no safe level for this particulate matter and breathing it is one of the largest risk factors for an early death, with around 4 million people a year across the globe dying early from breathing it. In London, the figure is nearly 4,000 early deaths a year.
As the hon. Lady noted, one of these deaths was the heart-breaking case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She lived near the south circular road in Lewisham, just outside my constituency, and was exposed to excessive levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide. In 2013, Ella died aged just nine, which is tragic. Tireless campaigning by her family led to the landmark ruling last December by Southwark Coroners Court that air pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death. This was the first time that toxic air had been given as a cause of death in the UK. The coroner said in his ruling that Ella had been exposed to pollution principally from traffic emissions in excess of the World Health Organisation guidelines.
In his prevention of future deaths report, published last Wednesday, the coroner said:
“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
We have already mentioned that in 2019 air pollution contributed to over 4,000 premature deaths. If we are to tackle this awful statistic, the Government must follow the recommendations set out by the coroner and set legally enforceable targets to bring PM2.5 below the harmful levels set by the WHO. We cannot wait any longer.
In October last year, I called on the Government put this in the Environment Bill. That was refused. At Committee stage, the Opposition also voted to amend the Bill to include this, but again the Government refused. Without proper targets enacted now, how can we expect to meaningfully reduce this threat? What will it take for the Government to finally listen and include these measures?
Air pollution is a silent crisis that has gone on for far too long, but it is currently being left to local authorities already on tight budgets to sort it out. Local government cannot tackle this on its own. This is a national problem that requires the Government to lead on it and provide the necessary support. I hope that today’s debate will highlight the seriousness and urgency of the issue and push the Government to make the concerted effort that is needed truly to tackle this public health emergency.
Thank you, Mrs Murray, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing it, and thank her for doing so.
I want to speak about point source pollution and the need for comprehensive planning law that crosses boroughs to protect lives. Redeveloping sites, building new affordable homes and giving people places to live are good. We need more housing, but it is not always simple to make those sites habitable. We need new laws to protect the people who are already there, which may mean delaying or not redeveloping some sites, but it is for the good of everyone.
In air quality, there is a concept of total load. In London, that is already high The background or baseline level of air pollution that we suffer daily makes us more susceptible to local increases. In areas such as my constituency, polluting activities have been grandfathered in, and many of my constituents have not seen the air quality improvements that so many others have enjoyed. That is just one face of the systematic racism that black, Asian and minority ethnic people encounter; their health is so often sacrificed for the benefit, economic or otherwise, of others. Environmental justice means not letting that happen and not tolerating pockets of more polluted air because it is hoped that people in those diverse areas might complain less. Getting away with it is not justice. It is racism.
Many sites that companies such as Berkeley Group are so keen to redevelop are deeply contaminated with poisonous chemicals, so that even when they are redeveloped carefully, and even when there is proper monitoring, the total load is driven higher. While on the site itself limits might not be exceeded, people living around it will be exposed to dangerous levels of pollution and their lives will be put at risk. That happens today in my constituency and many others. PM10, mentioned earlier, and PM2.5— particulate measures for which there are really no safe limits—build up from traffic, the Southall gasworks redevelopment by Berkeley Group, the tarmac factory in the next constituency, smaller building sites and other businesses. While each of those factors may itself be within a safe limit, they combine to create a totally unsafe state.
Planning, therefore, has to cross borough boundaries and consider the other industries and activities in an area before permitting building and redevelopment. A modelling system that took all the different pollutants into account would still be unfit for purpose if it did not liaise across boundaries. That approach would mean delaying some redevelopments when one was already going on in the same area. More importantly, it would mean that some would never go ahead because the total load in the area was already too high. Environmental justice cannot be secured by the millions in need of it until the planning process puts the real lived experience of people at the heart of the system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to attend this incredibly important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on calling it.
The problem of poor quality air is a source of major concern to the constituents of Richmond Park. The air pollution in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames exceeds the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide and PM10 levels. We know that the overwhelming contributor to poor air quality in Richmond is motor vehicles, and that we see the worst examples of exceedances along our major roads. In the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, more than 4,000 people live in areas where levels of nitrogen dioxide exceed legal levels.
In Richmond Park, we are all immensely fortunate to live in close proximity to the park and enjoy all the benefits of the extensive green space that it offers. However, the downside is the huge constraints it imposes on traffic movements, especially on the western and northern sides, where traffic is confined to a limited number of roads between the park and the river, and further constrained by the railway line and a large number of level crossings. The almost relentless congestion that ensues creates poor quality air for everybody. I am committed to supporting any measure that can address it.
I am really pleased that both local authorities, led by Liberal Democrats, are taking positive action on combating poor air quality. The main priority is to encourage people to reduce the number of car journeys they make by making alternatives safe and accessible. To that end, both councils have made significant investments in walking and cycling routes to make active travel a more attractive option for residents across Richmond Park. We already have fantastic routes across the park and by the river, and work is ongoing to make road cycling safer, such as through introducing 20 mph speed limits.
We need to see continued investment by the Mayor of London into bus routes and for bus travel to be affordable and accessible. That is why I opposed the Department for Transport’s attempts to force children and young people to pay for travel on public transport, which would have resulted in more young people being driven around by their parents. I encourage Transport for London to increase and extend bus routes, especially in the Barnes area, which has been so badly affected by the closure of Hammersmith bridge. The closure of the bridge is the main contributor to congestion in East Sheen and Barnes, greatly contributing to poor air quality in those neighbourhoods, and I take the opportunity again to call on the Government to come up with a funding solution for the repairs.
The Liberal Democrats’ excellent mayoral candidate Luisa Porritt has made clean air in London a cornerstone of her campaign, calling for new road pricing schemes and for rewilding our roofs and public spaces. I am pleased to say that we are already enacting similar schemes in Richmond and Kingston, introducing greater biodiversity into our verges and green spaces. There is no doubt that close proximity to Heathrow also plays its part in poor air quality in west London. The Government must make a clear statement that further expansion of Heathrow cannot be permitted to go ahead both because of the impact of increased poor air quality on the communities that surround the airport and because expansion cannot be compatible with the Government’s net zero targets.
It was highlighted to me when I spoke to officers at the local councils about the challenges of combating air pollution locally that what local authorities really need is the power to create clean air zones that would put greater restrictions on activities such as using wood-burning stoves or driving polluting vehicles. What is needed is a new clean air Act. Think about how transformational the Clean Air Act 1956 was and the difference it made to London’s air. Within a few years, the type of pea-souper smog that killed as many as 4,000 people in its worst incarnation, in 1952, was virtually eliminated. There is no doubt that modern pollutants and those smogs of 70 years ago represent an equivalent risk to human health, as the case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah so tragically illustrates. We need to take the same approach today, prioritise clean air and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that we can all breathe freely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this hugely important debate. It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). We share many of the same concerns, having a similar type of air quality in our areas.
Air pollution is also one of the biggest health challenges for my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields. It is the issue raised most frequently with me on the doorstep. Just last week, a resident showed me her stairs: she has painted them white, but she showed me how black they get, constantly, because of the air pollution coming through her door. If we could see that air pollution, I think we would take this far more seriously. It is the silent killer.
One of the first things I did after being elected was to establish the Putney Environment Commission, bringing together local residents and stakeholders to develop solutions to poor air quality, which is one of the main issues raised by all the Members. Putney High Street is frequently ranked among the worst-polluted streets in the UK. I am saddened to know that I walked my children to the local primary school in Wandsworth every day for 15 years without realising the damage that I was doing to their lungs. King’s College London research shows that children’s lungs are stunted by up to the size of an apple by the age of 10, which cannot be repaired; it is permanent damage. In London, 9,400 premature deaths a year are attributed to poor air quality. This is a health crisis. Road vehicles account for half of this pollution, but cooking and heating with domestic gas accounts for 14%. It is a social justice issue too, with many of the poorest residents living on the highly toxic, most-affected roads but not having cars themselves.
What are some of the solutions? First, we need more measurement of pollution. What gets counted counts. We need more monitors to measure pollution levels in far more places. The whole Borough of Wandsworth has only seven continuous monitoring stations. We need far more. Secondly, we need to stop the plans for Heathrow’s third runway. We cannot look the health crisis in the face and continue the plans for that third runway, which will result in millions of tonnes of carbon dumped across London.
Thirdly, do not give up on the green homes grant. I hope we will hear from the Minister about the replacement for that grant, which was scrapped only a few weeks ago. There needs to be an easy incentive for homeowners to insulate and switch to green energy, developed in conjunction with mortgage providers, because there needs to be financing for this; with the building industry, so that builders can deliver it; and with education providers, so that they can train people to perform green jobs. We need that not only for social housing; I would like to hear from the Minister how the green homes grant will be replicated for private homeowners and commercial buildings.
Fourthly, we need to decrease vehicles on our roads and increase cycling, with more safe storage—we need more cycle hangars. Wandsworth Council installed only 21 new bike hangars last year, out of a total of 60 across the whole borough. It is just not enough. We also need safe cycle routes. During his first term in office, the Mayor has overseen record-breaking growth in London’s cycle network, which has been fantastic to see and to join in on myself and with my children. He has delivered 260 km of high-quality, safer cycle routes. We need to do more, but we are seeing the results, with the number of people cycling increasing dramatically in the past year.
Fifthly, we need more school streets. They really work in encouraging parents to stop driving, or to drive to a different area, increasing safety on our roads for our children. I congratulate Albemarle, Our Lady of Victories and Granard primary schools in my constituency on their successful school streets, where everyone takes part.
Sixthly, green buses are another excellent example of delivering on policy to cut pollution. The low-emission bus zone, which goes along Putney High Street, for instance, introduced by the London Mayor and the London Assembly in 2017 has reduced the nitrogen oxide pollution on the High Street by 87%—a dramatic reduction. We need more of those green buses.
Seventhly, the extended journeys caused by the closure of Hammersmith bridge have increased pollution dramatically across Putney. I hope to hear from the Minister about when the Government will agree funding for its repair.
The Mayor has committed to 80% of all journeys by 2041 being walked, cycled or made via public transport, while also putting in place a zero-emission bus fleet by 2037. He has also committed to making London a zero- carbon city by 2030—faster than any comparable city. Thanks to this bold work, toxic air in central London has reduced by 44%, and 94% fewer Londoners are living in areas that exceed the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide.
With full support, these levels can come down, so we need to see more work from the Government. The Environment Bill, for example, should include a legally binding commitment to meet World Health Organisation guideline levels for fine particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the very latest. I have spoken to the Minister about that, having been on the Bill Committee with her, so she knows that I am calling for it. It is not too late, but the Bill has been massively delayed. When will it be passed? When it is, let us see that air pollution target in it, and let us see the difference that it can make.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope that she can assure colleagues that London will get the resources that it needs to continue to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution and build on the progress that has been made in the past four years.
Air pollution recalls images of 1950s smog, or even of far eastern cities where people were into wearing masks long before we were, but this silent killer is still very much with us, accounting for some 9,500 deaths per annum in the capital alone. Thanks to the tireless campaign of the family of the late Ella Kissi-Debrah, air pollution has been attributed for the first time ever on a death certificate.
How do we reverse the UK’s long-standing, illegally high air pollution? First, we should stop Heathrow expansion. It is incompatible with the UK’s net zero targets. Why add to what is already Europe’s biggest CO2 emitter, which is doing enormous damage to my constituency and to that of my near neighbour the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) through air and noise pollution? We know that in the new normal we will do things differently, and Zoom works for business meetings, so why not save those air flights for sparingly used leisure travel? The expansion of Charles de Gaulle airport in France has been stopped; we should do the same.
Secondly, we should stop new road building. It induces demand. Thirdly, we should stop lying to the public—remember the VW emissions scandal, and what the people who bought diesel cars were told, among other examples. Fourthly, the cycle to work scheme needs an overhaul to include larger firms and to be a genuine incentive, not just a faff. Children should be included, too.
Fifthly, we need more proper, dedicated, segregated, permanent cycle lanes, not the pop-up things that come and go and do not join up to anything else. Sixthly, we should re-examine low-traffic neighbourhoods, recognising that all streets matter. My borough has loads of them—they appear seemingly every day. This weekend there was a march against them; the police say that there were 2,500 people there, and others have estimates either side of that. That just shows the danger of having no pre-implementation consultation on very dramatic changes to people’s lives. In our borough, every street is residential. Cutting off direct access to every side street and to the ladder-type roads that join them means that all the cumulative traffic goes on to main roads. People there already suffered with unacceptably high air pollution; now they are living in permanent traffic jams.
Covid has highlighted health inequality, and we can see air quality as a social justice issue as well. Opening windows in extreme heat should not be harmful to our health, as we have seen in the last year—especially when the public health advice is to ventilate. There needs to be consistency in the consultation. My borough is still unclear about how it will be evaluated whether it works. It is also unclear whether people who live in a zone can go the most direct way to their own property by car: in the Hounslow bit of Chiswick they can, but they are also popular in Ealing, where the opposite applies.
Seventhly, we need free public transport. My late parents were a two-car household; it was freedom passes that did away with that. Eighthly, we need more high-speed rail; I have to say that I have issues with the HS2 company itself, but let us not get into that—it is a debate for another day. Ninthly, we need more taxation on big businesses that are heavy road users and use air freight. I am thinking of companies such as Amazon, which pay less tax than you and I do as it is, Mrs Murray. Tenthly, as Bob Dylan did, let’s go electric and encourage people to do the same with home heating, cooking, cars and all those things.
Good things are happening; I do not want to be too negative. We have seen e-scooter trials—I think they are being rolled out all over the capital—in the hon. Member for Twickenham’s borough and in mine. I feel like calling the hon. Lady a friend even though we are in different parties, along with everyone else who has spoken in the debate—they are all friends—and it is funny how there is no one from the Conservative side in the debate, apart from the Minister, who is obliged to be here. Other good things are happening. Where London leads, everyone else follows. I know they are doing city-centre charging in Bath, Birmingham, Newcastle and Oxford, in loads of places. Again, London has set the template there.
We have seen over this past year that people are prepared to make behavioural change in the face of a crisis, but we need to be proportionate and realistic with such changes. Another big figure from the last year is George Floyd. Let us not forget that his last words were, “I can’t breathe,” which also alludes to air quality issues. Let us not let his killing and Ella’s death have been in vain. It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. In London, the greatest city on earth, clean air should be a right not a privilege.
It is pleasure to serve under you today, Mrs Murray. It is also very good to see the Minister for the third time today as we discuss issues of real importance to our planet and the environment. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important and timely debate. Indeed, I thank all those who contributed and provided such thought-provoking contributions to today’s excellent debate.
Air quality is one of the most important policy areas in the Minister’s inbox and one of the most important issues facing all our constituents the nation over. The facts are there for us all to see and they show just how damaging toxic air is to our communities and its disproportionate impact on the health and wellbeing of our people. Covid-19 has highlighted these inequalities and has again disproportionately impacted those living in areas with the worst air pollution. I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government are weak on tackling toxic air and weak on the causes of toxic air.
Air pollution is bad for everyone, but for the 12 million people in the UK who live with a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it poses a real and immediate threat to health. A spike in air pollution levels can lead to symptoms getting worse, flare-ups and even the risk of hospitalisation. We now know from the coroner last week that it leads to death, too. There is robust evidence of a clear link between the high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems presenting at hospitals and GP surgeries.
As I said, air pollution can worsen existing health inequalities and people living in the poorest areas are often the most exposed, reinforcing unequal health outcomes for deprived communities. It can also contribute to health inequalities later in life. Children living in highly polluted areas are four times more likely to have reduced lung function in adulthood and my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) have highlighted this eloquently today.
If you do not mind people marking their own homework, you will be satisfied with the UK currently meeting the legal limit for PM2.5. However, this is only because our legal limit is more lenient than a limit recommended by the international health community. The UK legal limit for PM2.5 is more than twice as high as the World Health Organisation recommendation. Scientists have not been able to identify a level of PM2.5 that is harmless to breathe, so we need the strongest possible action, much of which was reflected in our amendments to the Environment Bill—amendments that were voted down.
It will be no surprise to you, Mrs Murray, or to the Minister that Labour takes air quality matters seriously. We can see that in the leadership shown by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has worked so hard to deliver real results since he was elected in 2016. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham for giving him that credit. Indeed, air pollution in London has plunged since he became mayor in 2016, with a 94% reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide. The number of schools in such areas has fallen by 97% from 455 in 2016 to 14 in 2019. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Putney for highlighting that fact.
Last month, the Labour party held a clean air summit—the first of its kind to be hosted by a major party—and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and I set out our demands for a clean air Act. Labour’s clean air Act would establish a legal right to breathe clean air by ensuring the law on air quality was at least as strict as the WHO guidelines, with tough new duties on Ministers to enforce them and grant new powers to local authorities to take urgent action on air quality—powers that councils across London need, and need now.
It is not just me expressing concern at the Government’s inaction as that concern is felt by members of the Minister’s party. I welcome the recent report produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). The Committee said that the Government need to increase their urgency and ambition on objectives for air quality, and the Chairman said:
“The problem will only get worse if the Government ignores the extent and urgency of this health crisis. Its disappointing response ignores the most important recommendations set out in our report, but we hope that the Environment Bill will still be amended to set more stringent targets for tackling pollutants.”
I could not agree more, and I encourage the Minister to join the Chair of the Select Committee in getting behind Labour’s demand to write the WHO guidelines into law.
All colleagues will know of the devastating way in which toxic air played a part in the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013. Once again, we send our thoughts and prayers to her family, particularly her mum, Rosamund, and all those close to her. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) for her animated speech highlighting the plight of Ella.
In December 2020, the coroner ruled that Ella had died as a direct result of air pollution. Indeed, he said that he believed air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. We can do something about this if we want to, so may I invite the Minister to work with me and Labour colleagues and with Members across the House to make the Environment Bill fit for purpose by writing the WHO guidelines into law? I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Twickenham and others across the House to deliver Labour’s clean air Act, and the Minister is more than welcome to join us. The future of our planet and the lives of Londoners depend on it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I thank all hon. Members for taking part in the debate and thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing it. Like her, I have a great interest in the issue, as do all of us who have spoken today. We know that air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health. Although air pollution has reduced since 2010—there is no doubt about that—there is a lot more to do. That is why we have a clear ambition and policy agenda to improve air quality, backed up with significant investment.
The hon. Lady made many points about how to tackle air pollution and the issue of air quality, but it seemed quite clear that she is perhaps not aware of how much is going on and how much the Government are putting in place, backed by funding. We are taking this matter extremely seriously, which I hope to make clear in the debate. Of course, we never accept that there is not more to do. On that issue, many of the measures being introduced in the hon. Lady’s constituency come from funds that the Government have set up and allocated, particularly to local authorities. We should recognise that.
I want to refer early in my speech to the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah. We have all referred to it and we are all aware that the prevention of future deaths report was published last week. We will be considering it extremely carefully, looking at the recommendations and responding in due course. As ever, my thoughts and all our thoughts are with the family. We referred to that this morning in our debate.
I have met with Ella’s mum and really value her views and comments, and ideas that we can work on together. To be honest, the inquest was a horribly stark reminder of the impact that air quality can have on our families. It brought the issue right to our back door. I have a son who had chronic asthma as a child, and eczema—they are all related—so it is something I am aware of. I will cover the target setting a bit later, but I want to stress that we will put health centre stage and there will be a strong focus on people’s exposure to pollution, in particular the more vulnerable. That matter was referenced especially by the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma).
I was interested in the responses to the digital engagement survey as well, and I have met many of the health charities to which the hon. Member for Twickenham referred—the British Lung Foundation, the British Heart Foundation and Asthma UK. We are working with all of them to ensure we get things right.
I will now turn to London, because the debate is about London. I am aware of the air quality issue not only in our capital city, but in other cities and towns across the country. We can all agree that London is a large and vibrant city that faces its own unique challenges in tackling air pollution. However, our programme of action will improve air quality here in London, as it will elsewhere.
It is important to highlight that the Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital. He has received funding from central Government to implement measures to improve air quality as part of the 2015 £5 billion transport funding settlement. In addition, London has received further funding for specific projects totalling almost £102 million, including more than £10 million in 2019 to clean up London’s buses, and £530 million has been available for plug-in grants up to 2023, as well as favourable benefit-in-kind tax rates for zero emissions.
The hon. Member for Twickenham raised the issue of clean buses. I think she will agree that an awful lot is being done about clean buses and that there is much funding. She also mentioned the issue of engine idling, which we discussed a lot when I was a Back Bencher, but local authorities have powers to tackle engine idling and should use them. The hon. Lady and other Members might be interested to hear that we announced two electric bus terminals back in January, which were Coventry and Oxford, so we will all be looking at how they work and whether we can learn lessons from them.
The expanded ultra low emission zone in London is being introduced by the Mayor of London in line with his responsibility to tackle air pollution. His responsibility —just as with the Government—means that he has to put the necessary measures in place to bring London into compliance with the legal limits for air quality as soon as possible. That is why, obviously, he is introducing that whole raft of measures. For a number of schemes, we will provide support for the cost of upgrading to nitrogen oxides or NOx-compliant vehicles.
The hon. Member for Twickenham touched on monitoring. I think she asked why there had not been more of an increase in better monitoring. Indeed, there is a great deal of monitoring. We are working with our expert air quality group on how to evolve monitoring, to keep looking at it so that we meet the needs that will align with our new targets, which we are setting in the Environment Bill. In oral evidence, Professor Alastair Lewis, a great expert on this, stated that it is really important that we give due consideration to ensure that the network is fit for purpose, alongside setting the new targets—the monitoring must make sure that we are held to account on our new targets.
I want to touch on the clean air strategy, the Environment Bill and some of the wider air quality issues at the national level, which are also relevant to London. We published our clean air strategy, which the World Health Organisation welcomed as an example for the rest of the world to follow. People keep knocking it, but the World Health Organisation has itself held the strategy up and said, “This is a great document.” The strategy aims to cut air pollution and to save lives. It focuses on emissions beyond road transport, setting out the comprehensive action required by all parts of Government and society to reduce air pollution and the impacts on public health.
We have made progress in reducing pollution from several sources, such as, and more particularly, reducing industrial pollution. We have a clear pipeline of action to continue reducing emissions to improve air quality for all, including by controlling emissions from domestic burning, establishing new air quality targets and tackling emissions of ammonia, which come from agriculture.
I want to touch on domestic burning, because it is a major source of pollution, which includes the fine particulate matter that is identified as the most harmful pollutant to human health. New legislation restricting the sale of the most polluting fuels used in domestic burning comes into force on 1 May 2021—very soon. It will restrict the sale of traditional house coal and small volumes of wet wood and high-sulphur manufactured solid fuels. This was a key commitment in the clean air strategy and it will also make a difference in places such as London, where so many people now have log-burners.
Our landmark Environment Bill delivers other key aspects of the strategy. Of course it is progressing through Parliament and it will be back soon; we expect it to receive Royal Assent in the autumn. Let us just look at the targets first. The Bill introduces a duty on Government to set a legally binding target for fine particulate matter, demonstrating our commitment to take action on this pollutant, and it also includes a duty to set at least one additional long-term target for air quality, which shows further commitment.
The long-term target will work alongside the concentration target to reduce the public’s exposure to PM2.5 across all parts of the country, including London—that is how many people in a given area are subject to a particular amount of PM. I think it will be a really important target for tackling more specific areas. The dual target is supported by experts and we will ensure that action is taken, using it to help the public health issues. Those issues have all been mentioned by hon. Members who contributed today, for which I thank them. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), the hon. Member for Twickenham, of course, and the shadow Minister all touched on this issue of the targets.
I only have a few minutes left, so I really want to press on, because I also want to mention other things alongside the targets in the Bill. There is some significant change for local authorities. The Bill will ensure that they have more effective powers and a clear framework for tackling air pollution in their areas. That includes updating the current smoke control area framework, to make it easier for local authorities to enforce by making smoke emissions in their areas subject to a civil regime rather than a criminal regime. They will be able to police much more carefully what is going on with fuel burning.
We are also introducing the concept of air quality partners, who will be required to work with local authorities to develop collaborative action plans to reduce pollution levels where they are above required standards. We have already held a call for evidence on this, regarding which public bodies should be designated as relevant public authorities, which would then become air quality partners. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall touched on this issue regarding new developments; I think that this is exactly what he is calling for and it will be very helpful—[Interruption.] I think Madam Chairman is asking me to wind up my speech.
We have so many other funds that are committed through our NO2 plan—£3.8 billion, with £880 million to support local authorities, which is very important, and we are updating the local authority framework for that. Also, we have myriad funds for transforming cities, for green buses, and for cycling and walking, which so many people touched on. We aim to double cycling and walking by 2030, so we have massive ambition in that regard.
I cannot comment further on Heathrow, which was mentioned by many Members, but we will have to abide by all of our air quality obligations in whatever we do.
I will close now and sum things up by thanking everyone for raising these issues. I think we all agree that health is absolutely crucial and that we have to tackle this air pollution issue, but I hope that I have set out clearly that we have the measures in place to do that.
I thank all the hon. Members who participated so thoughtfully in this debate. I think that there was unanimity in the Chamber about the need for urgent action, and the Minister has been given a very strong message for her Department for Transport colleagues from several Members here about Heathrow expansion, about the step change that we need on public transport—I appreciate she said that measures are being taken, but we need to go much further—and indeed about Hammersmith bridge, the message on which came from both my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). I thank the hon. Member for Putney for raising the important issue of domestic fuel and heating, and for expressing the disappointment about the scrapping of the green homes grant.
However, there is also unanimity—certainly on the Liberal Democrat and Labour Benches—for a clean air Act or Ella’s law. That needs to be implemented and it also needs an independent environmental regulator with teeth to implement it.
On the point about not legislating for WHO guidelines on air pollution, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, when he was the Environment Secretary:
“We have got to ensure our Environment Bill includes a legally binding commitment on particulate matter so that no part of the country exceeds the levels recommended by the WHO”.
I ask again: if the Government are so committed to tackling air pollution, as the Minister has made out this afternoon, why will they not commit themselves to legally binding targets that can be implemented?
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).