[David Mundell in the Chair]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered delays in the asylum system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell. I thank the many Members attending the debate for their ongoing efforts to push the Government to address the delays in the asylum system. It is shocking that not a single Conservative Member thought it necessary to take part in a debate on such an important issue.
I pay tribute to the many organisations and charities that campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the issue, as well as those—including the Refugee Council, Detention Action, the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, and Lift the Ban, to name just a few—that provide vital support to some of the most vulnerable people on our planet. So many people are worthy of recognition for their incredible work, such as Councillor Wilson Nkurunziza, Councillor Irfan Syed and Stockport’s own Mrs Sandy Broadhurst. There are also those who do so much at national level to keep the issue at the forefront of everyone’s minds, such as Lord Alf Dubs.
In my region, Refugee Action Manchester and the Refugee Council provide life-saving and life-changing support to asylum seekers, while Stockport Baptist church in my constituency has done so much over the years to help to raise funds to provide accommodation, food, pocket money and transport to those in need. I am grateful to the volunteers from the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, who support the incredibly vulnerable people who are subject to immigration control. Significantly, they have worked with local authorities across Greater Manchester, and seven of the 10 councils have signed up to remote asylum interviewing for looked-after children: Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford and Wigan.
Our country has a proud history of standing up for and protecting refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people on earth, having undertaken perilous journeys to reach our shores to seek sanctuary from the very worst of humanity. We are the fifth richest country in the world and that is absolutely the right thing to do. It is also right that our country provides shelter to people—not excluding them, but enabling them to earn a living to support themselves and their family.
I am proud that my part of the world, the north-west, is the largest asylum dispersal conurbation in the UK, housing 25% of our country’s applicants, with 70% of those living in Greater Manchester. Data provided by the House of Commons Library reveals that 138 asylum seekers are based in Stockport and more than 6,000 in Greater Manchester as a whole, which is two thirds of the total in the north-west region. It is heart-warming to see how my community has embraced those people and helped them to integrate into our community. I have long been an admirer of the work of Stockport Baptist church, whose congregation and supporters have raised funds to support refugees with food, pocket money, accommodation and transport costs.
It cannot be right, however, that so many are simply stuck in the system for long periods, unsure of what their fate will be. Detention Action revealed that more than half of the almost 40,000 people in detention centres have been waiting for a decision for more than a year. A similar number have been waiting for up to five years, with almost 25,000 people indefinitely detained last year.
Greater Manchester Immigration Aid provides urgent assistance to more than 50 young people who have been waiting the best part of a year for an asylum decision, despite half already having had a remote interview. Even when the asylum system is functioning marginally more efficiently, the average wait for those handled by my local unit is 51 days, with the longest wait being 82 days—almost three months. That is completely unacceptable, and it involves the livelihoods of some of the poorest people in our society, including young people.
It is vital that the Government look again at how those in the system are treated. One issue that must be addressed is the Aspen card handover debacle. I focus on that issue because it reflects many of the problems in the system. Aspen is a debit payment card given to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office to provide basic subsistence support via a chip-and-pin system. However, purchases made using the card are closely monitored by the Home Office, making it an insidious surveillance tool. Recently, the Home Office switched providers, which proved nothing short of disastrous owing to the 48-hour period between the old card being deactivated and the new one going live, forcing people to live off what little means they had.
That is just one of myriad problems, from claimants not receiving their cards to their receiving cards carrying the wrong name, cards without money on them or cards that do not work, or people being unable to activate their cards. When cards were not working, asylum seekers could apply for emergency cash payments from accommodation providers, but those have been inconsistently applied and people could not access any more payments. There are stories from the Refugee Council of such people having to survive for days without food.
That is an absolute disgrace, and it can never be allowed to happen again. Why was it even allowed to happen in the first place? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question today. However, well before the card changeover took place, multiple organisations forewarned the Home Office that there could be problems, and it is clear they were simply not listened to. When the matter was raised in Parliament, the Government attempted to give the impression that it was a minor issue, rather than one that had gone on for weeks. Their claims could not be further from the truth, with many asylum experts describing the Government’s handling of the issue as the worst failure they have seen in the system. That is why the likes of Asylum Matters are continuing to raise awareness of it—they want the Home Office not only to acknowledge its failings, but to learn from them so that we never again put the neediest people in society in this desperate situation.
There are also well documented and widespread concerns about the way women are dealt with in the asylum process, particularly whether that process is sensitive to specific issues faced by women. The expectation that a woman has been the victim of domestic abuse or rape, and will be able to disclose that during her interview with a UK visa and immigration caseworker, has been pointed to as a serious problem.
There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. We must acknowledge that these are incredibly vulnerable people in the most desperate of circumstances and act accordingly. That means shining a light on the failings of the system, rather than demonising those within it. Just last month, asylum seekers held at the Home Office’s widely criticised Napier military barracks claimed they would be blacklisted if they spoke out following the High Court ruling that to use the site was unlawful. That included them being told that their asylum application would be at risk if they talked to the media about conditions at the camp. Instead of attacking those in the barracks who are in conditions described as “squalid” during the successful legal challenge, the Government should have acted immediately to close the camp.
The failures in our system cause untold distress and are a considerable factor in the high levels of mental health problems among asylum seekers. Refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than people in the general UK population, while 61% report that they have suffered serious mental distress as a result of their ordeal, including higher rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.
The way the Government treat asylum seekers in this country—the fifth richest in the world—is truly shameful. That lack of humanity was exposed during the 2015 migrant crisis when our European counterparts, such as Germany, showed benevolence, true compassion and leadership by giving asylum to more than 1 million people fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In stark contrast, the UK allowed a paltry 25,000 the safety and sanctuary of our shores.
I am sure Members on both sides of the House agree that on this issue language is important. Asylum seekers are people—fellow human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and in a fair manner—and following a decade when we have experienced the hostile environment orchestrated by the Home Office under this Government, I urge the Minister to do the right thing and offer those people a route out of poverty and destitution.
We do not need more distressing words and scenes from the Home Secretary. Sadly, just yesterday, we bore witness to the Home Secretary’s latest demonisation of migrants, with her shamefully describing those vulnerable people as “vile criminals”, smearing the vast majority of honest, law-abiding citizens who seek sanctuary in our country. As HOPE not hate made clear in its response, the Home Secretary’s words were disgraceful.
The Home Secretary also set out callous plans with proposals revealed for new legislation that will pave the way for offshore centres for asylum seekers, and criminal charges for migrants arriving in the UK without permission. The new laws will likely see thousands of refugees turned away and vulnerable migrants criminalised for seeking a better life. Furthermore, a Refugee Council analysis of Home Office data suggests that 9,000 people who would be accepted as refugees under the current rules—those confirmed by official checks to have left war and persecution—might no longer be given safety in the UK because of how they arrived. That really would be an all-time low for this Government.
The Government must do more to enable those seeking asylum to have the right to work. Last year, the Lift the Ban campaign—a coalition of more than 240 charities and trade unions, including Unison, the National Education Union and the NASUWT, as well as businesses, faith groups and think-tanks—presented the Home Office with a petition signed by more than 180,000 people, which called on the Government to lift the ban. They are still waiting for that ban to be overturned, which is why I recently tabled an early-day motion, which has been signed by 42 MPs to date. It calls on the Government to
“recognise the injustice of preventing people seeking asylum from working”,
particularly when they are forced to live on a derisory £5.66 a day. After all, that is in the Government’s own interest: if those seeking asylum had the right to work, that would lead to fewer support payments and increased income tax and national insurance receipts of up to £100 million for the public purse.
The bottom line is that the pandemic has exposed the harsh reality that asylum seekers cannot be safe under such restrictive rules. Far from being looked after, they are forced to depend on tiny handouts each day and to choose between food, medicine and hygiene products, while being prevented from having the dignity of work.
The Government must do far more to address their unfair dispersal system. The majority of asylum seekers are housed in disadvantaged local authority areas while dozens of councils support none at all. Figures show that more than half of those who seek asylum or who have been brought to Britain for resettlement are accommodated by just 6% of local councils, all of which have household incomes that are below average.
Finally, the Government must heed the United Nations Human Rights Council proposal to reform the registration, screening and decision making process, including introducing an effective triaging and prioritisation system, as well as simplified asylum case processing and front-loading the asylum system to enable more information to be gathered earlier in the process.
It is time our Government stopped their gunboat diplomacy and treated asylum seekers with the dignity and humanity that they deserve. When most are fleeing war-torn countries that the UK helped to play a role in devastating, that is surely the very least we can do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate.
This country had a long-standing tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence. It is our duty to assist those in need, and in a timely manner, especially those who have already suffered grievously through war and persecution, yet when those most in need arrive here, they immediately find themselves confronted by an asylum system seemingly broken beyond repair.
The Refugee Council’s latest report, “Living In Limbo”, found that the number of people awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased tenfold from over 3,000 people in 2010 to 33,000 in 2020. The cost of that failure is staggering, with every year of delay costing the Home Office at least an additional £8,000 per person. The Refugee Council estimates that the total cost of delays is over £200 million.
The Home Affairs Committee, among many other bodies, has made that message very clear over many years, yet nothing has been done to ease the plight of asylum seekers. The Home Office must simplify its asylum case processes and recruit more caseworkers. It must also undergo a thorough review to find out why it has gone so badly wrong over the last 10 years and then take appropriate action in good faith. None of the proposals in the Government’s report, entitled “New Plan for Immigration”, will get even remotely close to achieving that. In fact, the Home Secretary’s response seems to be to follow the merciless responses of her predecessors, as she suggests that asylum seekers should be held on disused ferries, or even oil rigs, or using floating walls to deter them.
We must lead by example. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers living in the UK receive just £37 a week on which to survive. After all they have gone through, that paltry sum forces even greater indignity on people who have overcome tremendous hardship just to make it here. Their suffering must not be allowed to continue in their sanctuary. In my view, asylum seekers need to be given the right to work, which would give them the chance to prosper in this country and stand on their own two feet.
Amid the despair and the delays, there is still great hope among asylum seekers. During Refugee Week at the end of June, I took part in a Working West London employment event hosted by East London Advanced Technology Training, which offers training and skills development courses for asylum seekers and refugees. I met a group of people who were crying out for the chance to contribute to this country, and I could see the rich array of skills, talent and passion they have to offer.
The Government must fix this broken asylum system urgently and once again embody the fundamentally British values of compassion and humanity, and a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this vital debate. I say to the Minister that I am angry. I am angry because, as an MP, I see the daily occurrence of the human misery caused by the failings in his Government’s asylum system. I see that everywhere in my constituency. I am angry because I see my staff dedicating so much of their time to asylum cases, although that is a mere sticking plaster on his Government’s shortcomings.
Countless examples demonstrate how the chaos in the system is inextricably linked to the human misery on display in our urban centres. Let me give one example. I will refer to the man involved as C. He was in the asylum system for four years. He made an initial application followed by a fresh claim. He waited 18 months for a decision on his fresh claim. During that time, his mental health deteriorated. He was hospitalised on several occasions following serious incidents of self-harm. He repeatedly told those helping him that he needed a decision, one way or another. The waiting was so unbearable for him that he resorted to going to the Home Office building in Liverpool and attempted to take his own life in its reception area.
I pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Asylum Link Merseyside, which, alongside MPs’ staff, do the vital work of supporting those in need of support. For all the tough talk that emanates from the Home Secretary’s mouth, it is not her self-styled steeliness that will come to define her tenure; it is incompetence. The Home Secretary is more concerned with playing to the gallery than with tackling any of the causes, symptoms or problems that exist in the system. That incompetence fails asylum seekers, fails communities and fails the British people.
Let us understand the facts. First, the problems in our asylum system long predate the pandemic. As of March 2021, the total work in progress asylum case load consisted of 109,000 cases. Since 2014, the asylum case load has doubled—yes, doubled—in size. It has been driven by both applicants waiting longer for initial decision and a growth in the number of people subject to removal action following a negative decision. Minister, we cannot separate that spiralling case load from workforce issues. These range from downgrading the decision-making grade in the Home Office earlier in the last decade, to announcing increases in weekly targets to 10, as well as failing to initiate recruitment in a timely fashion when higher executive officers started to jump ship. All of those issues have been raised time and again by the Public and Commercial Services Union and ignored by the powers that be. Even one of the former permanent secretaries, Mark Sedwill, called the decision “ill-judged”. This caused so much chaos that attrition rates in the asylum workforce reached 37%.
Alongside the PCS, I want to thank the Refugee Council for its excellent briefing on these related topics. Its summary of evidence shows that the size of the backlog is most evidently influenced by the difference between the number of applications and the number of initial decisions made each year. The delays in the asylum system are of the Government’s own making.
Sadly, it gets worse. In March 2021, the Government published their “New Plan for Immigration” and began a six-week public consultation on proposals to make wide-ranging changes—changes that I have opposed for their contravention of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention. While asylum seekers end up being treated like animals at Napier barracks, the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration wrote in a letter to me two days ago that
“our New Plan for Immigration will reform the broken asylum system”.
Minister, it will not. None of the proposals outlined in the paper was aimed at addressing the backlog of asylum cases. To describe it as a missed opportunity would be an understatement. Instead, all we have is more posturing from a Government who benefit from their own chaos. It is that chaos that has brought the system to breaking point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on both securing and leading this debate.
As we have heard today, delays in the asylum system are currently all too common, and the impact they have on those trying to navigate that system should not be underestimated. Almost every day, I receive communications from constituents who have been left in limbo by the Home Office—constituents like Hanna, who arrived in this country from Yemen. Having made an asylum claim in early 2019, Hanna did not get a response until my office stepped in almost two years later. For years, Hanna had dreamed of completing a PhD, and she received an offer from a good university only to have to refuse it because of Home Office delays. She described that as
“one of the worst moments of my life”.
That is one example of the impact that delays have, but each week I see many more, like my constituent Erkin, a Uyghur Muslim who fled the genocide in China three years ago. He approached my office in March 2020, at which point he had been waiting more than a year for an asylum interview. It was not until earlier this year that the Home Office decided that he did not need an asylum interview after all and granted Erkin and his family refugee status on the evidence available.
With the experiences of my constituents in mind, I have three proposals for the Minister. I know that he understands these issues very well, and I look forward to hearing his response. First, the Home Office’s decision to move away from the six-month service standard needs to be reversed. As every Member will know, one of the main points of distress for our constituents who are experiencing Home Office delays is that they do not know when their torment will end or at what point they can take action to expedite the process. Giving claimants a clear timescale is a key part of reducing delays and the distress those delays cause our constituents.
Secondly, the Minister must do more to reduce the number of unnecessary asylum interviews, which only delay the decision-making process, particularly in cases where individuals have arrived from countries where the Secretary of State accepts a universal risk of persecution or violence. I think we can all agree that in such cases there must be an effort to reduce the number of interviews.
Finally, it is vital that the frontline workers at the Home Office are given the resources they need to do their job. Data show that by the end of 2020 more than 33,000 asylum seekers had been waiting at least 12 months for an initial response to their application. As previously stated, the pandemic alone cannot explain that. From the length of delays that so many experience, it is clear that the Government need to recruit more staff and conclude asylum interviews online whenever possible. It is the duty of the Secretary of State to decide asylum cases as soon as possible. That means that, whenever the evidence is sufficient, a decision should be made without resorting to an asylum interview. I urge the Minister to look into what can be done and to act quickly.
As I draw to a close, I want to highlight that this is a cross-party issue. Whatever one’s views of the Government’s immigration policies, nobody believes that we should leave thousands of people in limbo, unable to participate in society. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the points that I and other hon. Members have made and will make today, and to commit to putting forward a concrete plan to bring delays in the asylum system under control.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this important debate.
Only this morning I received an email from a constituent who has been waiting for more than four and a half years for a decision on her asylum claim. That is four and a half years she has been unable to work, four and a half years of mental anguish, and four and a half years excluded from the fabric of the country to which she desperately wants to contribute because it offered her a place of safety. This is no way to treat a fellow human being who fled unimaginable horrors in search of a safe, secure life.
We are lucky in Salford to have the brilliant Salford Forum for Refugees and People Seeking Asylum, which is led by Councillors Wilson Nkurunziza, Irfan Syed, Alexis Shama and a team of brilliant people who have established a support network for people such as my constituent. Sadly, her case is one of thousands and most areas do not have a support network like ours. The Select Committee on Home Affairs, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, the National Audit Office and the all-party parliamentary group on refugees have all raised concerns over the rise in the backlog of cases over recent years and the failure of the Home Office so far to address the issue.
As we have heard, the Government’s “New Plan for Immigration” sadly appears to contain no proposals to address this backlog, and I fear it will make the problem much worse. The most dangerous part of the proposals is that someone’s means of arrival will determine how worthy they are of protection in the UK. Asylum seekers arriving through anything other than resettlement will receive a lesser form of protection, including temporary status, with no access to financial support and limited rights to family reunion. In fact, the new proposals go as far as criminalising anyone arriving “irregularly”, not through official channels. As we know, people fleeing war and persecution are rarely afforded the luxury of arriving through official channels.
I would argue that those proposals are in breach of the refugee convention, which protects people seeking asylum from persecution on the grounds of their method of entry, and guarantees them access to claim asylum, for the very reason that there is no viable way to seek permission to enter a country in order to apply for asylum. To conclude, those are cruel and unworkable new immigration plans. As Refugee Action has said:
“Compassion, evidence, and 193 refugee and voluntary organisations tell us to fight against the principle of these plans, not help to thrash out the details.”
I hope that the Minister has listened to my concerns and will not just address the backlog at the Home Office, but throw out the unworkable and callous new immigration proposals.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for raising this massively important issue. How we treat people who come to this country seeking sanctuary is probably the most significant measure of whether we are allowed to call ourselves Great Britain. It speaks of us as a people and it speaks around the world about what kind of country we are.
I have some figures of which people will perhaps be aware. At present, 66,185 people in our asylum system are waiting for a decision—that is the highest figure for a decade. Of those people, 50,000 have been waiting for an initial decision for more than six months—again, that figure is the highest for a decade. In 2014, 87% of cases were decided within six months; in 2020, it was just 20%.
I understand, as we have heard it before, that Ministers will say that that is down to the covid crisis, the pressure on the system and excessive numbers. The reality, of course, is that the number of asylum seekers coming to this country fell by 21% last year, to among the lowest recent levels, with just 35,355 applications—down from the height of 84,000 in 2002. That gives us a bit of a sense that what we have is a massive backlog that has a colossal impact on the lives of people who have already gone through desperate situations.
Let us not have any nonsense about them being bogus asylum seekers, because we know that the majority of them will succeed in claiming refugee status and a right to remain in the end. By the way, if I apply for a job and I do not get it, I was not bogus; I was unsuccessful. The notion that people who come here seeking asylum are doing something nefarious is a rotten thing to start off with in any event.
The idea that we are being swamped by asylum seekers, and that that is why there is a problem, does not stack up. What does stack up is a failure of Government—perhaps we could be generous and argue that it is a failure of Governments over the years—to tackle this issue. Their lack of competence is being disguised by the bogus rhetoric that we have too many asylum seekers. As I say, we have fewer this year than last year by the order of 21%, so there is even less excuse for this backlog than there has been in the past.
The notion that we are overwhelmed with asylum seekers is, again, the same rhetoric and the basis on which the “New Plan for Immigration” is formed. We will get bad legislation if it is formed on a bogus basis. That bogus basis is that we are overwhelmed with asylum seekers, but we had 35,000 asylum seekers in 2020, while Germany had 120,000 and France and 96,000. If we were to add ourselves back into the EU for the purpose of a league table, we would be 17th out of 28—we would be a Blackburn Rovers, in the lower-mid table. The notion that we have a problem is nonsense. Actually, we do have a problem, but it is the competence of the Home Office’s systems, not that we are “overwhelmed” with asylum seekers. Because this country is an island, we find ourselves with fewer of those desperate people to help, so why on earth are we making it so hard for them when they are here?
Imagine the things that they have gone through and experienced on their way here. We then make them wait six months, a year, 18 months and longer, in poverty and often in totally inappropriate accommodation, almost punishing them for having fled appalling circumstances. The “New Plan for Immigration” will make that worse. It will formalise the incompetence in the process because it will mean that some people will have to wait more than six months before they can even be looked at, and then they will be given a maximum right to stay of only 20 months.
I will finish by challenging the Minister to think about an intelligent, compassionate way through this: giving people the right to work. Why cannot people who are waiting for asylum be given the right to work? That would be good not just for the Exchequer, because they would pay their way, but for their mental health, their personal income and, given that we know that most of them will be given the right to remain, their ability to integrate into our community. As the MP for the Lake district, which is desperate for staff because the Government’s new visa rules have robbed my businesses of a workforce this year, I say that that might be one way of helping us through this.
I will end with this cheeky request. Will the Minister meet me and, more importantly, Cumbria Tourism chiefs to talk about how the Government’s immigration policy could help rather than hinder the Lake district’s tourism industry? Finally, surely we have to prioritise solving the backlog in a compassionate and competent way, not legislate to make things worse, which is the Government’s current plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this hugely important debate.
The current delays in the asylum system are appalling, with 66,000 people waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office on their asylum claim—the highest number for more than a decade. Three quarters of them have been waiting for more than six months, with many waiting in a state of severe anxiety for as long as three years or more. I am dealing with cases in my constituency of people waiting seven or eight years for a decision. That is why we must fully support the Lift the Ban campaign, which calls on the Government to overturn the ban on people seeking asylum being able to work. How do the Government expect people to survive for months and years without earning a living?
Under this Government, the number of children waiting for an initial decision for more than a year has increased more than twelvefold—from 563 in 2010, to 6,887 in 2020. That appalling record robs those children and young people, who have already endured unimaginable suffering, of their childhood. The size of the backlog is a result not of an increasing number of asylum applications but rather of the inability of the Home Office to keep pace with initial decisions. This is a crisis of the Government’s own making and it stems from their utter disregard towards those seeking safety. I fear that this crisis will only get worse, as the Government’s immigration plans lack basic humanity and represent the latest step in their pernicious demonisation of migrants and asylum seekers. They have rightly been criticised by human rights organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the British Red Cross.
Yesterday, as we heard, the Government confirmed that they will press ahead with the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is anti-refugee to its core. The Bill will enable the UK Government to block visas for overseas visitors if the Home Secretary believes that their country of origin is refusing to co-operate in taking back rejected asylum seekers or offenders. It will also allow for the removal of asylum seekers from the UK while their asylum claim or appeal is pending, which opens the door to offshore asylum processing, and family reunion rights will be further curtailed as well. Analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council found that, under the reforms, 9,000 people who would be accepted as refugees under the current rules may no longer be given a place of safety in the UK due to their method of arrival. Time and again, the Government have chosen to turn their back on those seeking protection from climate catastrophe, war, torture, persecution and other heinous acts. The Bill will compound the misery of people fleeing intolerable conditions.
The Government must end the delays in the asylum system, as well as the abhorrent practice of indefinite detention, which has led to inhumane treatment in centres such as Yarl’s Wood and Napier barracks. Ultimately, the Government must repeal the Immigration Act 2014; end the destructive demonisation of undocumented people, migrants and asylum seekers; address the backlog of those seeking asylum; and abandon the deeply damaging Nationality and Borders Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I pay tribute to my 2019 colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for calling for this important debate and bringing the matter to the Government’s attention.
Our asylum system is in disarray. A recent report by the Refugee Council found that more 50,000 people had waited for more than six months for an initial decision on their applications, the highest number for a decade. In the past 10 years, the number of people waiting for more than a year for an initial decision has increased almost tenfold.
Hon Members have noted the fact that most asylum seekers are not allowed to work and that many are denied the assistance and support to which they are entitled. In its findings, Refugee Action discovered that fewer than half of the initial applications for emergency assistance were granted, although 92% of applications were upheld when challenging the initial decision, that initial refusal. The barriers to people accessing support and their being wrongly denied assistance mean that people are further pushed into poverty and destitution. The delays have an immense impact on the mental health and wellbeing of asylum applicants.
My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) have highlighted cases in their constituencies. I, too, will talk about two of my constituents, because these are real people we are talking about—they are not just stats from the Home Office figures.
The first is a Yemeni national, who contacted me while he was in the immigration centre waiting to be deported. He told me that he had been the victim of trafficking to the UK. I contacted the Home Office to ask for his deportation to be halted. Since then, the Home Office has confirmed that my constituent is a victim of trafficking and it has halted the deportation. That is good news for my constituent, but that was more than a year ago. Since entering the UK in June 2020, he has still not been invited for that initial interview.
My second case is that of an Eritrean national, who entered the UK in January 2020. Since then, he has been moved by the Home Office to four different hotels while waiting for an initial interview. When he was staying in one of the hotels, he and his friend were the victims of a suspected hate crime, an acid attack that led to his friend losing his vision at just 18 years old. Only yesterday, I received a response from the Home Office confirming that he is still waiting for that initial interview—18 months after he claimed asylum, and despite that horrific attack.
My constituents’ experiences speak for themselves, without me needing to state the obvious or to impress on the Minister just how shameful this is: that is how we treat asylum seekers when they come here for safety and shelter. The Minister must not only offer warm words of reassurance today; he must give us concrete guarantees that that disgraceful situation will be corrected immediately.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this important and timely debate. I also thank organisations such as Asylum Link, Migrant Help and Our Liverpool in my constituency for their tireless and invaluable work and the support that they give to asylum seekers in Liverpool, stepping in to fill the role of Government in supporting some of the most vulnerable people who have fled unimaginable circumstances, seeking safety on our shores, because Liverpool has a proud history as a city of sanctuary.
Asylum seekers are met with appalling treatment by the Home Office, forced to live on just £5 a day, not permitted to work, housed in substandard accommodation and trapped within a system that was never designed to be used over the long term. On top of the desperate living conditions that asylum seekers are forced into, the toll of living in protracted states of limbo with so little support is extremely damaging, cruel and unjust. Many asylum seekers are already desperately vulnerable when they reach the UK.
I receive many emails about the delays from victims of war, persecution, modern slavery, torture and sexual abuse. After entering the system here, their mental health deteriorates drastically through years of uncertainty and powerlessness. Women stuck in abusive marriages are left unable to leave their husbands, who are the principal asylum applicants, because they would be left without status or support. The separation of families torn apart by conflict is prolonged indefinitely, with no family reunion rights for the years that they are stuck in the asylum system. Countless constituents have contacted my office describing sleepless nights, escalating medical problems due to the stress and anxiety, endless months of waiting without the ability to work or get an education, and the devastating sense of powerlessness and hopelessness that creates.
The Government’s new plans for immigration contain no plan to reduce the backlog. Its provisions are instead likely to worsen waiting times for applicants, so even more vulnerable people will be living in limbo, plagued by uncertainty and anxiety. We need urgent action to ensure that the system is fair, humane, efficient and effective. We must implement the proposal set out by the UNHCR for reform of the registration, screening and decision-making processes, including investing in more caseworkers, establishing a dedicated backlog clearance team and putting in place an action plan to determine and address the reasons for the backlog by a given deadline, among many other recommendations.
The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, to be debated next week, not only fails to protect those in need of safety but treats them as criminals. All people seeking protection should be allowed to make an asylum claim, no matter how they have arrived. Creating a two-tier system that grants lesser rights to those who arrive in the UK outside the so-called official route flies in the face of the refugee convention. Instead of tackling the current inhumane conditions in our asylum system, the Bill will leave those asylum seekers with a wait of up to six months while the Government try to remove them to so-called safe countries. The provisions will only add to the backlog of cases and create further anxiety and uncertainty for those people who deserve our compassion and protection.
Instead of treating people fleeing war, persecution and trauma as criminals and forcing them into poverty and destitution with no prospect of escape for years, I implore the Government to show humanity and to stop punishing people for seeking protection. Instead, they should address delays in the asylum system, improve the provision of support and legal aid, publish data on waiting times of all those in the asylum system, restore permission to work and grant an immediate uplift in asylum support rates to lift asylum seekers out of destitution.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this debate. I wholeheartedly welcome the debate because it provides me with another opportunity to raise the plight of those who are the hardest hit victims of the delays in the asylum system—those who are detained.
As we heard, the process for claiming asylum is complex, slow and, at times, chaotic. It can be inhumane, degrading and a humiliating experience. Many of the people who reach us to seek asylum have experienced severe trauma on their journey of hope to reach safety and security in our country. In my community, the most recent arrivals have been from Iran, Syria and Eritrea—some of the most dangerous areas on the planet where human rights count for very little. Many have lived in destitution. Doctors in my local community whom I met recently have identified many of them as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the suffering they have endured and the hardships they have experienced, even on their travels to our country.
The processing of claims can be a lengthy process of uncertainty, which just piles additional worry and distress on these people whom I count as my constituents. As we have seen from reports today of the breakdown in the Aspen card system, the refusal to allow those people to work, who desperately want to work, leaves them dependent on the vagaries of financial support from the state and struggling to live on just over £5 a day. As has been said, nearly 80% of them have to wait at least six months for their asylum claim to be considered, but example after example today has demonstrated that it can be so much longer.
I want to raise the plight of those who are the hardest hit by the current system—those who have been forced into detention. I have two detention centres in my constituency—Harmondsworth and Colnbrook—which can hold more than 1,000 detainees. The UK has been described as an outlier when it comes to the scale of the number of asylum seekers that this country detains. On average, more than 20,000 people are detained every year. The covid pandemic has resulted in the numbers being reduced, but I fear that number will rise again as we come through the pandemic. Why? Well, the detention centres produce significant profits for the private companies that run them. The detainees have become valuable, profitable economic units under this system. As we have witnessed in the United States, incarceration pays for these companies.
Detention can be a brutal experience. There have been 38 deaths in detention since 2000 and self-harm is endemic within the system. We have seen the reports of brutal treatment of women at Yarl’s Wood in the past, and the suicides and deaths in Harmondsworth in my constituency. Despite the strength of the condemnation from human rights bodies across the world, the UK has retained indefinite detention. The Government have even recently, to their shame, changed the rules—it is disgraceful—and they have admitted that more people who are potential victims of trafficking will now be detained.
There is a savage irony in the fact that about 60% of those detained will be released. In the light of various UNHCR investigations and reports, Governments across the world are now promoting alternatives to detention. I urge the Government to bring forward their own strategy for developing alternatives to detention, because the aim should be to close down these monstrous institutions.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Mundell—thank you for calling me. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing the debate. He and I have been in many debates together over the last two days, and I am sure there will be many more where we will be on the same side.
The way we treat asylum seekers is something that I have spoken about on numerous times in this House and the message remains the same. I am not changing my stance; I cannot give encouragement to the Government. I believe in the immigration system, I understand that an open-door policy cannot work in terms of security and in distribution of resources, but I also believe that we have a duty of care to help those who do not have the capacity to help themselves. While they are in the process of determining their status, we must do better by them.
The hon. Member for Stockport referred to the Baptist church in his town and I want to refer to all the faith groups in my constituency who are enormously active in trying to help in every way. I give credit to the Government and the Minister in particular for the Syrian resettlement scheme, which was an excellent scheme in my constituency. Six Syrian families needed help at a time when they were under pressure. The churches came together collectively and ecumenically in a great way, Government bodies came together, and the people came together. It was a superb scheme. Is there any intention of doing something similar in a wider sense in the future?
I was contacted by the British Red Cross regarding the asylum process. It highlighted the need we are facing and the steps that it believes must be taken. I am happy to give it voice this afternoon. Since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, we have supported more than 30,000 people at all stages of the refugee and asylum process across 58 UK cities and towns, including people who are being accommodated in hotels and military barracks. That shows the scale of the issue faced by the asylum system at present.
I am quite fond of the British Red Cross, which does excellent work. We should give it credit. It asks for the expansion of safe routes for people to reach the UK; improvements in asylum decision making to ensure decisions are made quickly and are right the first time, which is important to retaining confidence; and the provision of the right support to people, at the right time, so that they can engage with the asylum system and integrate successfully.
I totally agree with all those requests. Last week, or perhaps this week, the Home Secretary referred to the family who were trafficked from across the water and who were forced on to a dinghy at gunpoint. The two wee girls were left on the shore. They have not seen them since. That is an example that makes your heart ache. We are all touched by the images of children in dinghies trying to make their way here, but I agree that they should not have gotten this far. However, given that they are here, should we not treat them with the same care and respect with which we would want our own children to be treated? Should we not ensure that they are living free from fear? Above all, should we not extend our compassion? We should and we must.
I recently read an article highlighting that the queue for asylum decisions is nine times longer than it was 10 years ago, rising from 3,588 in 2010 to 33,016 in 2020. The number of children waiting more than a year for an initial decision has risen twelvefold from 563 to 6,887, and 55 applicants who applied as children have been waiting five years, as referred to by some hon. Members here. I have great respect for the Minister and believe that he has an interest in this subject and wants to help, so what is being done to shorten those waiting times?
In conclusion, there are simple and straightforward changes that can and must be made. They will not allow more people in; they will simply help us to treat those who are here better. They seek to cut the waiting times for decisions and improve the mechanisms for living while waiting, which is right and proper. I look forward to working with the Minister and charitable bodies, such as Red Cross and Mears, which has the contract in Northern Ireland to supply accommodation for asylum seekers, to see how we can collectively do this in a better way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this debate, which provides Members with an opportunity to raise concerns about both specific cases and the generality of the increasing and increasingly worrying delays experienced by so many people in the asylum and immigration system. It is pretty clear from today’s debate that the delays are just one failure among many in a system that is no longer fit for purpose, and has not been for many years, and is one that—whether by accident or, as is more likely, design—contributes to the continuing hostile environment for people seeking safety and refuge in this country.
We should thank the Refugee Council and some of the other organisations that have been mentioned for their hard work in producing the report that has provided the statistics about difficulties and delays in the system, which are borne out by the experiences from our own case work. That is, I suspect, a cross-party experience—even in the absence of any Government Back Benchers. To ensure that the Minister and the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson have plenty of time to respond, I will briefly consider the situation, the evidence, the consequences, some specific examples, the wider context of the hostile environment, and the need for action from the Government.
The stark reality of the situation has been set out in the report from the Refugee Council and in today’s speeches. There is a significant and growing backlog of cases and asylum applications waiting to be cleared, and that simply compounds the pressure, with things starting to spiral out of control. In recent months, we have all become familiar with the difficulties of exponential growth, and that is almost happening here. That comes despite the fact that, yes, there has been some investment in Home Office caseworkers. It is worth noting that many of them are hard-working—like our own caseworkers, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) pointed out—and have to deal with incredibly difficult situations and listen to people’s difficult life stories. This is challenging for our caseworkers and for Home Office staff.
Individual Home Office officials are not to blame, but they are implementing the policies that are to blame. What they are having to do is ultimately driven by political decisions and a culture that pervades the Home Office. Earlier today in this Chamber there was a debate about visas for high-value migrants who are having their status denied due to minor tax return issues. I have spoken repeatedly in Westminster Hall and in Adjournment debates about the trouble with visas for artists, for priests and even for diplomats invited to this House to speak to all-party parliamentary groups. Later on, my SNP colleagues will be debating the impact of the bringing to an end of the European settled status scheme.
The basic message from the UK Government seems to be that people are simply not welcome in this country unless they have an awful lot of money that they are prepared to spend very quickly before they leave again. So, despite all of the rhetoric, it is clear that the “hostile environment” is still very much in operation, not least in the detention system, as the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out.
We have heard about plenty of individual cases today. In my own constituency, by May 2021 we had at least eight cases waiting more than six months for a response, and it was not the individual asylum seekers who were waiting more than six months for a response—it was our constituency office. Eventually we got some of those cases cleared by writing directly to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but it should not have to be that way. Going to Members of Parliament to get a case dealt with should be a worst-case scenario, not a routine part of the process. Having a case raised by a Member on the Floor of the House, either in Westminster Hall or in Prime Minister’s Question Time, as we hear so frequently now, should not be a normal part of the process.
It is clear that the UK simply wants to make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible for people to apply for asylum in this country, despite the fact that, as Members have said, many of those who come here have been driven here by factors that we helped to cause, whether it is conflict, the use of weapons that we have manufactured and sold, or climate change caused by pollution from this country and other countries in the west. They have had to overcome extreme hardship and make incredibly difficult journeys, and they have not done that so they can live on £5 a day or so that they cannot even access things by using their Aspen card, which we have also heard about today.
Meanwhile, we deny our economy the opportunity to benefit from the skills and experience that people bring by denying them the right to work. The Conservatives are supposed to be in favour of entrepreneurship and a liberal, free-market economy, yet the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) spoke about the fact, which is true across the country, that tourist areas are crying out for people to work and the health service is crying out for support during covid. How many doctors and nurses do we know who are waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, but are being denied the opportunity to help others in this society?
In addition, people are forced into substandard and inappropriate accommodation, not least in Glasgow. There was the tragic situation of the people caught up in the incident in the Park Inn hotel. Just in the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to two constituents who were traumatised by their experiences there, as if they were not traumatised enough by the situations that caused them to come here and seek asylum in the first place. I would particularly like to hear from the Minister about what support, including what trauma counselling, is being provided to people who were caught up in that incident through no fault of their own, but through a decision taken by the Home Office to force people into hotel accommodation.
Many asylum seekers receive support from incredible community-based organisations, a number of which have been mentioned today. In particular, the hon. Members for Stockport and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) spoke about the local organisations in their areas. I will just mention the Maryhill Integration Network, which does incredible work in Glasgow, North. This year, it is celebrating 20 years of working with the community and its outgoing director, Rema Sherifi, has worked for it for over 17 of those years. I wish her all the best.
Such organisations should not have to be firefighting. They are supposed to be about proactive integration across the community as a whole, building stronger communities. Many of them do that, but they could do more.
On the point of voluntary organisations and professional organisations that campaign on these issues, lots of them have said that lifting the ban on work is very important. However, there is also a toxic environment in the media—perpetrated by the Home Office and several Government Members—that these humans should not be treated as humans. Does he agree that treating people with basic decency and kindness is extremely important?
Yes, absolutely, and that is the approach taken by the Scottish Government. They have published their “New Scots” strategy, to ensure that people arriving are supported and integrated from day one. That strategy sets out the vision:
“For a welcoming Scotland where refugees and asylum seekers are able to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive.”
The strategy commits to better access to essential services, such as education, housing, health and employment, recognising the skills, knowledge and resilience that refugees bring, and it aims to help people to settle, become part of the community and pursue their ambitions. The message that comes from Scotland, and from many of the Members here despite the message that comes from the UK Government, is that refugees are welcome and we want them to stay.
I endorse all the calls in the report from the Refugee Council; the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) in particular spoke about them in detail. However, what is clearly needed is a step change in attitude, and that is not provided in the “New Plan For Immigration” and the forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill. Debates such as this one will help to make sure that the UK Government continue to be held to account, even if it is uncomfortable for the Minister that none of his party’s Back Benchers are here, either to support the Government’s policy or to speak about the difficulties that their constituents are facing. The message from the rest of us who have spoken in this debate today is very clear indeed—refugees are welcome and we will do all that we can to continue to make that a reality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this timely and important debate, his excellent speech and his commitment to raising the serious issue of delays and the myriad of associated problems with the asylum system.
Many people, myself included, are proud of the British values of fairness and decency. Those values underpin our shared sense that people in the UK will get a fair hearing, backed up by the rule of law. However, chronic delays in the asylum system are undermining and eroding those values, causing human suffering and creating a system that is unfair and chaotic. There is copious evidence of this in the “Living in Limbo” report, published by the Refugee Council earlier this month, and referred to by hon. Members throughout the debate.
The Minister should be alarmed and appalled by its findings. The raw data obtained from the Home Office via freedom of information requests are truly shocking. The data make it crystal clear that delays in the asylum system are endemic and have got worse and worse over the last decade. If the asylum system were a hospital patient, it would be in intensive care on a life support machine with a prognosis of a slow but terminal decline. The facts speak for themselves. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made compelling cases illustrating the Government’s failures via the data. More than 30,000 people are currently waiting between one and three years for an initial decision—in 2013 this was only 4,500 people—and 6,388 of those in 2020 were children, which is a tenfold increase since 2012.
The data and the facts say one thing, but the decision to propel myths about asylum seekers is a cruel and politically calculated choice by the Government. Instead of blaming the people, the Government should hold up the mirror to themselves to address the actual problems they have caused by refusing to fix the broken asylum system. Even more staggering is that at the end of March, over 66,000 people were waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office—more than will watch England at Wembley tonight. That is the highest number in over a decade and a truly shocking state of affairs.
The statistics are shocking enough, but the human cost of the delays is even worse. I am talking about people—many of them children—whose trauma of lived experience is compounded by being left in limbo in the asylum system, in many case for years on end. My hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) gave examples of worrying cases of constituents who have been caught up in the asylum system and whose cases are unresolved. I have an example of constituent F who came to the UK from Afghanistan as a child and applied for asylum in August 2013. It took seven and a half years, and my involvement as his MP, for the matter to be resolved this February. As the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, it should not take an MP’s intervention to resolve such problems: it is not good enough. The impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people in this position is devastating.
During the time before a decision is made, people live on just £5 a day and are not permitted to work. People awaiting a decision are accommodated within a system that was not designed to be used for the long term. People are becoming increasingly mentally unwell as the years of uncertainty, trauma and demonisation erode their mental and physical health. The Refugee Council reported that this has led to an increase in the numbers of individuals self-harming and reporting suicidal thoughts. We heard of the appalling situation for the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), which is really concerning. The Children’s Society report “Distress Signals” also outlines serious concerns about the damage done to children’s mental health in those conditions—damage done at a formative age that will last a lifetime.
As a lawyer, I am fond of the axiom that justice delayed is justice denied. Those cases, where people are placed in limbo, is justice denied on a vast scale. Beyond the human cost of these delays is the financial cost. The backlog adds considerably to the overall cost of the asylum process. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) spoke about the cost and failure of the asylum system. The Refugee Council has calculated that, for every month of delay, the additional cost to the Home Office per person is at least £730.41, equating to £8,765 per year. Therefore, the total cost per year of the current backlog of people awaiting an initial decision for more than six months is estimated to be approximately £220 million. The delays make absolutely no financial sense. What is clear is that the Home Office needs to get a grip of why it is that staffing increases have not helped to reduce the unacceptable delays and backlog.
What further concerns me is the fact that the Government appear to have very little by way of a plan to solve the backlog issue. For instance, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, published yesterday, contains no measures for tackling the backlog. The Government’s desire to define safe and legal routes in an increasingly narrow way while criminalising irregular routes will do nothing to help with the backlog. The measures are likely to make delays in the system far worse, because the inadmissibility proposals will result in more people having to wait six months before their claims are even looked at.
Rather than chasing headlines through the draconian measures outlined in the Nationality and Borders Bill, there are practical steps the Government could take to make the asylum system function in an effective, fair and humane way. Some actions could be taken straightaway to tackle the unacceptable delays in the system, which cost so much in terms of both human suffering and public money. In February 2021 the UNHCR outlined proposals that would address the current backlog and prevent future ones from building up. Those proposals include introducing an effective case prioritisation system and introducing simplified asylum case processing procedures.
I also urge the Government to stop the increased pressure on our judicial system by ensuring that there is better decision making at the outset, with fair, quick decision-making processes instead of processes that drag on and leave lives in limbo. The Government must look at the proposals seriously and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Only by making concrete change to the system will they enable it to be effective, fair and humane. That, I believe, is what everyone wants to see. We must reflect on what the Government’s plan would mean for Britain as a society: I do not want to see our British values of decency and humanity eroded.
The end of this month, 28 July, marks the 70th anniversary of the refugee convention. In the aftermath of the second world war, in a shattered Europe, Britain came together with 26 other countries to form a strong foundation and create the convention. That is true British pride and patriotism, and a historical legacy. Almost 70 years later to the day, the UK Government are seeking to step back from that agreement. That is the sobering reality, and one of the many social and political impacts of the Government’s proposals.
We can look back on how we treat people seeking sanctuary here today with pride, or we can look back on this time as one that could and should have been much better. The humane treatment of those seeking sanctuary is as much about us rescuing our own values as it is about rescuing people in need. The Government must not delay in dealing with this issue.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—I think for the first time, and I hope not for the last.
It is worth mentioning that I am appearing here today on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is participating in an Opposition day debate at the moment. He has direct responsibility for the area that we are discussing this afternoon.
Let me start by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on raising this important issue and on the thoughtful speech he gave in opening the debate.
Let me outline the steps that the United Kingdom has been taking and is taking to discharge our obligations to people who are in need of protection; they are obligations that we stand by and will not resile from. I first point to our resettlement programme, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referenced in his speech earlier. The programme has been going for some time, but it really took off in around 2015. Working with the UNHCR, we directly resettle into the United Kingdom people who are most directly in danger. The scheme is particularly focused on people in and around the Syria area, for obvious reasons. Over six years, a total of 25,000 people have been resettled directly into the United Kingdom from places of danger; 20,000 of them under the vulnerable persons resettlementj scheme, which focused particularly on Syria. That 25,000 is more than any other European country, which is something that the Government and we as a nation can be extremely proud of.
We also offer safe and legal routes via refugee family reunion, where people granted refugee status can bring in close family members and, in exceptional circumstances, wider family members. That scheme, over the past five or six years, has seen about 29,000 people come into the UK, about half of whom were children. We can also be proud of our record in that area.
Some comments were made earlier, particularly by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), asking whether we were playing our fair part. I have already pointed out that our resettlement programme is the largest of any European country. He also mentioned asylum numbers. In 2019, the last full year for which the European Union published data, the UK received 44,800 individual applications, according to the European Union’s website. Of the 28 countries covered, including the UK at that time, we came fifth. As far as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under 18 are concerned, in 2019 the UK’s intake was, from memory, 3,775—higher than any other country in Europe. Last year, 2020, only Greece had a higher UASC intake than we did. All of that shows that the UK is committed to meeting its obligations.
When it comes to supporting asylum seekers, referred to by a number of hon. Members, the provisions we make are more generous than many European countries. We provide accommodation and free health care. Council tax and utilities are paid for. There is free education for those under 18, and a cash allowance is paid in addition, which has been endorsed by the courts as adequate to cover essential costs. We are meeting our obligations. That system as a whole is extremely expensive, partly because of the backlog, which I will come to. It costs about £1 billion a year, so we are spending a huge amount of money supporting the asylum-seeking population. Those measures we are taking are more generous than most other European countries.
Hon. Members referred to the “New Plan for Immigration”, a policy statement published a few months ago, and the Nationality and Borders Bill, which was introduced yesterday. Second Reading will be shortly before the summer recess, so we will have the opportunity to debate that more fully in a few weeks’ time. I would like to make a couple of points regarding the policy statement and the Bill. The Bill is intended to be fair to those who are genuinely in need but firm where people are trying to abuse the system. By fair, we mean continuing to commit to that resettlement programme. We have already continued the resettlement programme beyond the 20,000 people I mentioned earlier. The VPRS 20,000 commitment was met in February of this year, a few months than expected because of coronavirus. We are still resettling people under the replacement UK resettlement scheme.
The German scheme was not a resettlement scheme. What Angela Merkel did briefly in 2015 was simply declare that their borders were open. About 1 million people irregularly just crossed into Germany, many of whom were not from Syria or Afghanistan. That was not a resettlement scheme; that was essentially mass illegal migration. With our resettlement scheme, which we do properly in partnership with the UNHCR, we go directly to dangerous places around Syria, although we plan to expand that in future. We identify people in need of protection and bring them to the UK from dangerous places such as Syria, or near Syria, rather than have them make dangerous, illegal journeys across Europe first. That is the right way to do it. We are committing to safe and legal routes and to being fair to people in genuine need via the Bill, but at the same time it is important that we are firm where people abuse the system.
There are problems with our legal system, to which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) referred. The legal system often gets protracted in the most extraordinary way when people make repeated claims often over a period of years, many of which turn out to be without merit, and yet they can do that repeatedly, which does not serve anybody’s interest. Partly as a result of that, there are now for the first time ever more than 10,000 foreign national offenders circulating in the community, which is an unacceptable situation that we intend to act on.
It is worth saying a word about illegal migration. When people come here from France—I am thinking about the small boats—that journey is unnecessary, because somebody coming from France is not directly fleeing a war zone. Calais, and France more generally, is not a dangerous place. They do not need to leave France to claim protection or asylum because France has a well-functioning asylum system, and so does Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy and the other European countries that people have passed through. No one needs to cross the English channel in a rubber dinghy to claim asylum. They should claim it ideally in the first safe place that they arrive in, which would include France.
Such journeys are dangerous. People have died. A family of five, including an 18-month-old boy, died trying to cross the channel last October. There have been incidents where ruthless people smugglers who take money to facilitate illegal routes have threatened people with guns, including a family that was separated because the people smuggler they had paid to smuggle them into the country turned on them. We should all seek to shut down those routes. It is not humanitarian to have people smugglers paid to smuggle people across the channel. It is dangerous and unnecessary, and we should stop it. Routes into the country should be safe and legal, not dangerous and illegal, and that is the objective of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which I am sure we will debate at length in a few weeks’ time.
Specifically on delays in the asylum system, it is true to say that the delays are considerably higher now than they were a year ago. A great deal of that is due to the disruption caused to the asylum decision-making system by covid, which has obviously affected many areas of our life. It has affected us here in Parliament. We are still sitting here wearing masks and having remote proceedings. It has affected the NHS, our call system, all of our national life, and the asylum system has been affected in the same way.
For some months last year, asylum interviews stopped entirely because it was considered unsafe to have a face-to-face asylum interview. People who worked in asylum decision-making offices, including in my own borough of Croydon and elsewhere in Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds and other places, were not able to go into the office in the normal way to take asylum decisions and conduct interviews, and that has been enormously disruptive over, roughly speaking, the past year and three months, which means that the number of decisions taken in the past year has been dramatically lower, and we have not yet fully recovered.
We are still sitting here wearing masks, and the asylum decision-making process has not fully recovered either, which means the backlog and delays have built up. I agree with the points made by hon. Members that the delays are not what we want to see at all. For those whose claims will be granted, clearly we do not want to see them kept in limbo for protracted periods of time. If they are going to have their asylum claim granted, it is much better that it is done quickly so that they can move on with their lives. Equally, if the asylum claim is rejected, we should then look to move them to the country of origin quickly, because if someone’s claim is not genuine, it is only right and fair that they are removed. Whether it is accepted or rejected, we need faster decision making. That is a completely fair point.
That is an interesting point. We had a six-month operational guideline previously, but that was moved away from in order to try to focus resources on the cases that most need attention. For example, priority is given to cases involving children. Hon. Members have mentioned that some cases have been waiting a long time. We are now putting a particular focus on trying to resolve those long-standing cases, so a slightly more holistic view has been taken, but I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s point and mention the idea, which I know was offered in a constructive spirit, to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay.
Actions are being taken to address the issue that we have been discussing. First, we have been introducing remote interviewing by video link, like we are using now. We did not really have that at all about a year ago. It has now been introduced and its usage is more widespread. Indeed, for reasons of convenience for applicants and others, it is something that we may well continue with, even after the pandemic, I hope, subsides in the near future. That investment in remote interviewing technology has been made and is being rolled out.
Secondly, we are interviewing on sites outside the Home Office. We are trialling interviews in places such as the Napier barracks in Folkestone, as well as in the hotels where some people are accommodated, to try to speed things up a bit. We have also opened up additional registration centres where people can register their asylum claim, so there are now offices in Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Leeds, Solihull and Cardiff, in addition to Croydon—it used to be that Lunar House in my borough was principally the place where people went before. Those places are now available, too, which was intended as a covid measure, but continues to this day.
We are also investing in better IT systems. We are trying to make the work rate of the caseworkers more efficient by, for example, shortening the letter to someone who is granted asylum. When someone is granted asylum, they are not going to argue with it, clearly, so rather than writing a great long letter, it has been shortened to make the whole process a little faster. There is some effort to prioritise cases in which we think a quick decision can be made. If particular indicators suggest that the case is likely to receive a positive response, we would like to do that. We are also introducing specialist caseworkers, such as specialists in a particular nationality. If people feel familiar with a particular country and its circumstances, that will facilitate quicker decision making.
My hon. Friend for Torbay intends to increase staffing levels, to which hon. Members have referred. About 550 people are currently engaged in making those casework decisions—550 full-time equivalents—and the objective is, over time, to get that up to 1,000, which is almost double. That investment in people should clearly have a dramatic effect on speeding things up. As someone said earlier in the debate, wherever someone sits on the immigration issue—we believe in proper border control, as well as fairness—it should not be difficult or contentious to say that it serves everybody’s interests to get those decisions made quickly, whether they end up being positive or negative.
I have outlined the steps that my hon. Friend is taking, and I am sure that all hon. Members present will hope and expect that the measures I have outlined will have the desired effect and that waiting times will come down. We are of course somewhat in the hands of the intake. We have had an extremely high intake in the last few weeks because of the dangerous, unnecessary, illegal English channel crossings, and if they continue in large numbers, that will add to the backlog. The intake is somewhat unpredictable—I mention that caveat for completeness. In the interests of giving the hon. Member for Stockport an opportunity to reply, I will conclude my remarks.
I am incredibly grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate and brought many powerful stories from constituency casework. I thank the Minister for his contribution, although I must highlight that he did not comment on the Aspen card disaster and people being left without food or hygiene products, or on my remarks on the special requirements for women asylum seekers fleeing domestic abuse and rape. The one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. Asylum seekers and refugees are five times more likely than British nationals to have serious mental health issues.
Clearly, there is a lot of appetite among MPs for the Government to lift the ban on people working. Just over £5 a day is simply unacceptable. We also want to see an end to the toxic and divisive language from the Home Office, the Home Secretary and some MPs on the Government Benches. Treating people like insects is not acceptable; everyone deserves decency and respect. We also want proper financial support for local authorities that support asylum seekers. We have a system whereby some local authorities support asylum seekers and will accept them, while others do not—that needs to be changed. We need reform to the system.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).