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Asylum Dispersal Scheme: Stoke-on-Trent

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall between speeches.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the asylum dispersal scheme in Stoke-on-Trent.

May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. Today I need to talk about something that is incredibly important to the constituents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, as well as those in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, and that is the asylum dispersal scheme. Before I begin, I would like to place on record how immensely proud I am that Stoke-on-Trent has become the second home of the Home Office. With the recent announcement, we now have more than 550 jobs coming into the city of Stoke-on-Trent—new jobs that will give entry-level opportunities at all grades for the fine people working there, of which 200 will be asylum case workers.

We have a long history of working with the Home Office, and this relationship is set to become even deeper. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office for all their work in making this move possible, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Councillor Abi Brown, without whom, as a team, I do not believe this would necessarily have got over the line.

Following on from the excellent speech by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, who spoke with the Minister at the end of April in a similar debate, I want to keep reiterating the same messages. To be very clear, Stoke-on-Trent has done more than almost any other area in giving asylum seekers a home. We had the fifth highest number of asylum seekers per 10,000 of the population across the whole of the UK at the end of last year, with only Rochdale, Middlesbrough, Cardiff and Glasgow having higher numbers. At the end of August 2020, Stoke-on-Trent was housing 1,010 asylum seekers. This means that one in every 250 people living in Stoke-on-Trent is now an asylum seeker.

We have a very high cluster limit ratio of 79%, compared with 29% in Birmingham, and our city council has repeatedly had to challenge proposals made over the last year to increase numbers further, yet the position is about to get even more unbalanced. The pandemic has led to roughly 10,000 asylum seekers being housed in hotels around the country. Under Operation Oak, which aims to vacate all hotel occupation as close to the end of the first quarter of 2021 as possible, companies such as Serco are stepping up their procurement of more permanent housing. To make the system fair, I would have expected Serco to focus on areas that have taken in no asylum seekers, but no. Rather than taking an even-handed approach, it has chosen to double down in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, which are already stretched to breaking point.

Some 1,760 of those 10,000 people have been allocated for dispersal in the west midlands. Although no figures have been given for individual authorities, the west midlands region will be taking the highest strain in the country. It is very likely that the new arrivals could take Stoke-on-Trent to the one-in-200 limit. The maximum number, based on the one-in-200 limit, would be 1,277 individuals, an increase of just 267.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an important issue. I am aware that the Government have a proposal that by 2029 the proportion of supported asylum seekers accommodated in each government region will reflect their share of the United Kingdom population. Does he agree that there must be substantially greater funding to establish suitable family housing in these circumstances, and that to achieve this goal additional resources need to be set aside from today to make our asylum system work? That would be a minor effort as we have 4,000 people on the housing list. We want them and we support this scheme, but we have to be aware of the reality that there is not enough housing available.

I thank my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he really is my hon. Friend and a superb colleague. He absolutely hits the nail on the head. We will hear a similar story about Stoke- on-Trent, where people are looking for two-bedroom and three-bedroom homes and young families are struggling because we do not have one-bedroom sheltered accommodation for the elderly population to move into. Our schools are at absolute capacity, if not over capacity, and we have a public transport system that has, quite frankly, been well and truly left behind.

All those factors need to be taken into account. Stoke-on-Trent also has the second lowest council tax income in England, just above Hull, so there is a real strain on the public purse. More needs to be done financially to assist areas like Stoke-on-Trent that are—I will repeat this—happy to welcome those who are most in need. We want to be an open, forward-thinking and dynamic city, but we also want the spread to be fair across the whole of our United Kingdom.

Based on the cluster limit of one in 200, the maximum number of asylum seekers would be 1,277 individuals, but based on the average of three asylum seekers per dispersal property, that will require 89 more properties. Indeed, in many areas of Stoke-on-Trent this limit has already been broken, with concentrations of asylum seekers far in excess of the cluster limit.

In March this year, some 14 wards in the city had a ratio in excess of one in 200. In Etruria and Hanley, a ward I am proud to share with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), the ratio is one to 44 and in some other areas it is as high as one in 30. These concerns have been raised by council officers directly with Serco, but, despite the council voicing its concerns to Serco repeatedly, the response to date has been extremely disappointing.

Rather than considering the situation in individual wards, Serco has undertaken only not to exceed the one in 200 cluster limit for the city as a whole. It has also refused to provide real-time feedback on property procurement, offering nothing more than a current quarterly report on the properties being used for dispersal accommodation. Data from Serco shows that 66 requests were made for properties in Stoke-on-Trent in February, compared to 38 in Coventry, 33 in Wolverhampton, 31 in Birmingham, 14 in Walsall and Sandwell and 12 in Dudley.

From these numbers, it seems clear to me that Serco is not taking the concerns raised by the council seriously at all. In fact, Serco has told the council that it will soon start challenging councils when they raise concerns about the procurement of a requested property. The stark truth is that our city has now reached its limits. Services, already under strain, are being stretched even further and Serco has refused to engage with the council on this at all. As such, I completely agree with the council’s decision to pause its involvement in the dispersal scheme.

Far too often, we hear hon. Members and council leaders advocate doing more to help refugees, but when it comes to action no one stands up. It is simply not acceptable that, while Stoke-on-Trent has taken in more than 1,000 asylum seekers and is set to take in more, a host of councils around the country have taken in none. In fact, more than 200 local authorities across the UK have not given accommodation to a single asylum seeker.

Given the frequent attacks that the Conservatives get from Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party and Green politicians about how Conservatives are heartless and must do more to help asylum seekers, one would think that they would want to lead by example. Imagine my shock when I learned that at the end of December 2020, the champagne socialists in Labour-run Islington, Labour-run Exeter and Lib Dem-run Eastleigh have not given accommodation to a single asylum seeker.

In Scotland, out of 32 councils only three have taken in asylum seekers, and two of these—Edinburgh and Fife—have taken fewer than 10. The fact is that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems talk the talk about helping asylum seekers, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to doing anything about them. We have to rebalance the equation, and to do that reform must come from a number of angles.

I am 100% behind the Home Secretary, her new plan for immigration and the new sovereign borders Bill. I have discussed the plan with Reverend Jim Lowe of Burslem Elim Church, who is a Trustee of the Burslem Jubilee Project in my constituency, which the Home Secretary visited in 2019. I thank the Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for taking the time to meet us yesterday.

Talking to people such as Mehdi Mohammadi, an Iranian refugee from the Burslem Jubilee Project, makes it clear just how important it is that we continue to offer a safe haven for people who live in fear of persecution around the world. However, while we proudly continue to act as a beacon for asylum seekers, we must also take action to ensure that the people who are coming here are doing so legally and are genuine refugees. Failure to deter illegal crossings will inevitably lead to more people risking their lives to get here and scumbag gangs taking money out of people’s hands. Tragically, we will therefore see more people die as they try to reach our shores.

There must also be reform, so that councils that refuse to willingly play their part are mandated to take their fair share in the future. That point was made in the letter sent from council leaders and MPs in the west midlands to the Home Office, which I wholeheartedly endorse. Dispersal must be organised equitably, so that councils across the country shoulder an even share of the burden, rather than a few local authorities doing the heavy lifting, as at present.

One reason why places such as Stoke have a greater number of dispersed asylum seekers is commercial opportunity. For companies such as Serco, which administers the scheme, it makes sense to house asylum seekers in cheaper accommodation, giving the company more profit per head. It cannot be allowed to continue. Commercial considerations cannot be allowed to take precedence over local services and communities.

I am pleased to say that my excellent local branch of Citizens Advice in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire has suggested a potential solution, or at least a way that other areas might be encouraged to take part in the scheme. Rather than providing support centrally or nationally, the support budget could be divided and provided as a ring-fenced grant to the local authorities taking part in the dispersal scheme. They could then commission local services that are tailored to local needs. There is a precedent for running services like this: the funding to support victims of crime is divided between police and crime commissioners, so that they can run things based on local needs.

To rebuild trust in the system, I would urge the Minister to seriously consider the recommendations made by Stoke-on-Trent City Council on how to proceed. Serious discussions have to be had with participating authorities and those like Stoke-on-Trent, which has paused its involvement in the scheme, about what numbers they are expected to take in future. Figures must be agreed for each local authority in the west midlands, based on existing and proposed numbers. A funding package linked to the dispersal of asylum seekers should be agreed with participating authorities before any further dispersal takes place. Most important, the Secretary of State should start talking to non-participating authorities to get their agreement to accept dispersed asylum seekers, and she should use the powers to mandate participation where necessary.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we are proud to have given a home to asylum seekers, and our city council has long been a willing volunteer in the Home Office’s asylum dispersal scheme. We have a long history of working with the Home Office. As I said earlier, we will soon have even stronger ties with the Department as we become its second home. Stoke-on-Trent City Council wants to carry on working with the Home Office, but the situation has reached a point where local leaders have had to temporarily withdraw from the dispersal scheme. I do not want that, the council does not want that, and I know Ministers do not want that, but, frankly, the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke have had enough of other areas failing to chip in. I say again that we are proud to have played our part and given a safe home to so many, but now is the time for other councils to do the same.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate on asylum dispersal in Stoke-on-Trent. It featured a rare intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), which was appreciated.

It is important to underline that our United Kingdom has a proud record of helping people facing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty around the world. A crucial part of this endeavour is the contribution that many local authorities make in supporting those obligations being delivered in reality, which applies especially to Stoke-on-Trent owing to its contribution to the asylum dispersal scheme over a number of years. I gratefully acknowledge the Members of this House who represent the local community and the city’s consistent interest in this area of work—not just by talking in the House about supporting those seeking asylum, but by actually doing it in their area. As my hon. Friend will have heard me say before, declarations of solidarity do not house anyone.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the system of supported asylum accommodation run by the Home Office. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we took the decision to pause the cessation of asylum support. That decision was taken to alleviate pressures on local authorities from people exiting the asylum system, in line with the public health advice at the time. Continuing with the cessation of support at a time when international travel was not possible and the accommodation market was very restricted across all nations of the United Kingdom would have posed a significant health risk to communities across our UK by leaving people unable to secure housing or to return home.

That decisive action has led to a significant increase in the number of people we are supporting while we consider their claim for protection. To put that in context, we have seen around a 30% increase in demand for accommodation during the pandemic, resulting in more than 60,000 asylum seekers currently being provided with accommodation while their claims are considered. That has also resulted in the use of contingency accommodation, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, including hotels and Ministry of Defence sites, requiring some people to be accommodated in such accommodation for more than a brief period.

We are, though, working closely with local authorities across our United Kingdom and our contractors to procure more housing to reduce our reliance on that type of accommodation and to minimise the amount of time that individuals are housed in it. Despite the challenges that we have faced over the past year, we have consistently met our statutory obligations to destitute asylum seekers. That has included at times, and where appropriate, continuing to provide accommodation where support would normally be ceased.

On asylum dispersal, which has rightly been the focus of this debate, hon. Members will know that, by virtue of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the United Kingdom has a statutory obligation to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation while their application for asylum is being considered. Section 4 of the Act also requires us to provide support for failed asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and where there are reasons that they are not able to leave the UK. That has been particularly relevant over the past year during the pandemic.

I very much recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. Many of the issues that he raised are symptoms of our broken asylum system. As he said, the measures proposed in the Home Secretary’s new plan for immigration are intended to make the asylum and appeals system faster and fairer, which will have a direct impact on the provision of asylum support and the quantity of it that we need to provide.

However, I acknowledge the desire for a much more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the United Kingdom to ensure that all local authorities are playing their part. I acknowledge that that has been a particular concern in the west midlands, as highlighted by the local authorities that take part in the dispersal areas writing to the Home Secretary on this matter. I would very much repeat my hon. Friend’s encouragement to all local authorities to participate in the dispersal scheme, which would enable all areas, including Stoke-on-Trent, to take a fairer share as we reform the system.

My hon. Friend mentioned the April debate. I always find it odd to hear MPs state in debates that they are desperate to do more, but they seem to think, for areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, that it does not mean their own council becoming a dispersal area. Prior to the pandemic, my officials and local authority chief executives agreed a changed plan to move, over time, to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the whole United Kingdom. Inevitably, work on that sadly had to be paused as we responded to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, but I am pleased to say that we have restarted that work. That would see the west midlands, for example, moving from currently supporting more than 12.5% of supported asylum seekers to less than 10.5% by 2024. In addition to implementing the changed plan, my officials continue to work with strategic migration partnerships and local authorities to discuss the costs associated with supporting asylum seekers in their region. Again, that touches on the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made.

We have also implemented process improvements to support collaboration between the accommodation providers and local authorities when identifying wards for future procurement. The Home Office is also working closely with a wide range of local authorities to increase the number of areas, as of today, that accommodate and support people seeking asylum protection. Every local authority is being encouraged to contribute their share. In the past three years there have been some successes, which I want to highlight, not just in the north and the midlands but in other areas—someone called them the Tory shires. Aylesbury Vale, Gosport, Oxford and Wiltshire are places that have come on board with the system. That means that we have been able to increase the number of voluntary dispersal agreements from 92 to more than 160, and we continue to try to increase dispersal across our UK, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North touched on. It is worth noting that we have agreements in place with more than 40 more authorities than are currently participating but where the providers find it particularly difficult to procure suitable properties.

I would reassure my hon. Friend that, as we take forward the new plan for immigration, we will continue to focus on working with local authorities in the UK, to move to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers. My officials have been asked to prepare advice on options, including analysis of the impact on communities of the current system. I intend to consult local government on those options in due course, once there is more detail to discuss with them.

The Government demand the highest standards from contractors and their accommodation, and we monitor them closely to ensure that those are maintained. Accommodation providers are required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose and correctly equipped accommodation, complying with the decent homes standard, in addition to standards outlining relevant national or local housing legislation.

The Home Office has worked closely with our providers to improve property standards over the lifetime of the previous asylum accommodation contracts, and has made several improvements in the current asylum accommodation and support contracts. Where a provider is found to fall short of those standards, we work with them to ensure that issues are quickly addressed. When they are not, we can—and do—impose service credits. Housing providers are required to inspect each property every month. The Home Office also inspects properties on a targeted basis each year.

In total, 3,300 property inspections were carried out in 2018-19, meaning that approximately 28.3% of the provider property portfolio was visited. To reassure hon. Members, only 17 properties out of that 3,300 were identified as having a defect requiring immediate action. It is important to recognise that defects will occur in properties that we are using, just as they do in social housing or the private rented sector. We would always encourage service users or their representatives to raise issues with Migrant Help as soon as they occur, so that they can be attended to.

As already mentioned, the Home Office, along with local authorities across the United Kingdom, has had to use hotel and other contingency accommodation during covid-19, although not to my knowledge in Stoke-on-Trent directly, given the contribution already being made as a dispersal area. When we look at procuring contingency accommodation, we expect our providers to engage with the 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, crucially, occupancy figures. We believe that the hotel and contingency accommodation we provide is of good quality. Asylum seekers receive three meals a day, with staggered mealtimes to cater for social distancing requirements, and wider support that meets all the current public health guidance and usual contracted standards.

Where issues have been raised, we have inspected many ourselves. Our providers have also conducted surveys and acted on recommendations, in relation to matters such as the type of food provided. We have undertaken several measures in the short term to mitigate the use of hotels as contingency accommodation. Working groups have been established with three providers, to monitor the availability of accommodation within their portfolios. The groups meet Home Office officials weekly and their objective is to mitigate moving to hotel use wherever possible, by increasing the amount of dispersal accommodation in all regions of the UK.

We again thank councils such as Stoke-on-Trent for maintaining their commitment to this process, and to other areas that have been prepared to increase their share, if I may put it that way. As a result we have reduced our reliance on contingency accommodation by 25% since December, including exiting a number of hotels and ceasing use of the Penally site in Pembrokeshire. Hotels are only ever a contingency option. The Home Office does not view them as a long-term solution; it is not a position we wish to be in. We do recognise that that presents the challenge of how to ensure an effective system of dispersal accommodation that does not overburden those areas that have already made a significant contribution, especially when compared with some areas that are keen to make statements but not to provide solutions.

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 per day, and options are provided that cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements. Additional meals can be provided as required. There is power, heating, water and access to phones, and support items such as toiletries are provided, along with access to laundry facilities. All asylum seekers housed there have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility—AIRE—service provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services. We are also looking into how we can use time at locations such as Napier to move forward asylum claims, including by creating interview rooms on site.

Yet the root of the issue in Stoke-on-Trent is the fact that our asylum system is broken. It is expensive and has lost public trust. It is vital that the generosity of the UK is not open to abuse from illegal migrants with no right to be here, and the ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting vulnerable individuals. The challenges that we are grappling with have not been helped by the pandemic, but we must also recognise the pressure being put on the system by those who have no legitimate claim for protection or who simply want to use the asylum system as an alternative route for economic migration. While I continue to ask local authorities to act as dispersal areas—in Scotland, for example, where only Glasgow currently agrees to do so—we should not lose sight of the need for more fundamental reform of the system, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.

We will stop those who come here illegally making endless legal claims to remain in our country at the expense of the taxpayer, and we will expedite the removal of those who have no legitimate claim for protection, reducing pressure on communities such as Stoke-on-Trent. In doing so, we will not turn our back on those who do need our protection where we can work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and our local authority partners to provide a planned pathway to integration in the United Kingdom for genuine refugees, just like the 20,000 we have successfully resettled from the conflict in Syria with the help of more than 300 local authorities.

Through our recently announced new plan for immigration, we are committed to increasing 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, breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger, including from dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings. We must do all that we can to stop that criminal activity. It is putting lives at risk. There are no two ways about it. That is why we must move to make a change. I encourage all with an interest in this area to take part in the consultation on our new plan and help to shape the future in creating a firm but fair system.

Again I thank all in Stoke-on-Trent—MPs, councillors and the community—for the commitment that they are making, and I urge other local authorities across the United Kingdom to play their part in the asylum dispersal process. As I have said before, simply making statements, joining a protest or passing motions does not deliver the support needed. I encourage more local authorities from across the country to engage with the Home Office on the strategic migration partnership to increase dispersal and relieve overall pressures on the system.

As I said, the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge and sanctuary to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people, and the city of Stoke-on-Trent has provided us with invaluable support in doing that, alongside other communities in the west midlands that I look forward to meeting in the near future. As I have confirmed a number of times, the UK Government remain committed to ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees receive the support and care that they need, even in the challenging circumstances of a pandemic. Yet we cannot do that without the support—the active, engaged support—of local communities, something that the city of Stoke-on-Trent can be proud that it has provided for many years and is continuing to provide. It is now for others to do their bit as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.