I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential effect of provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill on LGBTQ+ people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. Before I begin, I would like to refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support I receive from the excellent Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project. I also pay tribute to the organisations in my constituency and across Yorkshire—such as the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, City of Sanctuary Sheffield, ASSIST Sheffield, Time to be Out and so many more—that do such vital work supporting asylum seekers and refugees in my region.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is a wide-ranging piece of legislation. There are so many problems with it that it has been difficult for Members to address them all as it has passed through Parliament. Today, I want to shed some light on the potentially devastating impact this legislation will have on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees.
I have spoken to many campaigners advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ communities, and every organisation I have contacted is appalled by the Bill. They are appalled because LGBTQ+ people seeking sanctuary are already met with a system full of obstacles and challenges.
In a world where homosexuality is still illegal in 70 countries and punishable by death in 11, it is shocking that across Europe, one in three applications from LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is refused because officials simply do not believe the applicant. According to the University of Sussex, four in 10 people report being rejected because decision makers did not consider them to be persecuted or at risk of persecution in their home country, while more than a third felt interviewers did not listen to their story or ask relevant questions.
In the UK, the story is no less bleak. Around 2,000 people fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation seek asylum here every year, with only about a quarter of those applications granted by the Home Office. However, when those decisions are challenged, almost half of those who have been refused win their appeals. Those numbers alone suggest that something is very wrong at the Home Office. They speak to what researchers at the University of Sussex have described as a “culture of disbelief” that is a symptom of a wider hostile environment for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. As ever, it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most. Ministers should put themselves in the shoes of someone running from violence and abuse for their sexuality or gender identity to truly understand what that is like to go through.
Currently, under UK law, to be granted asylum, a person must demonstrate that if they were forced to return to their country of origin, there is a reasonable degree of likelihood they would be persecuted. They are compelled to prove their sexual orientation to Home Office officials who, as I have said, have been told to be intensely suspicious of anything said to them.
I had a constituent who was from Venezuela. He was told to return. He had married a British person. He was told that he could be more discreet in Venezuela and have no problem, and then return via the marriage route—he had no problem and should not worry. Is there not a problem in the Home Office looking at technical processes rather than at human beings? It expects people to be able to fit into boxes that are just not them.
I completely agree. I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that story has been told many times before.
Imagine being an LGBTQ+ person who lives in one of those countries where homosexuality is illegal, or where it is punishable by death: you live in a constant fear of being outed. Every day is a struggle to erase any evidence of your identity. If you fail or slip up, or accidentally reveal that you are gay or bisexual or do not feel at home in the gender that society has assigned you, you will face horrific consequences. You finally manage to escape, and after what has probably been a very traumatic journey, you find yourself in an interview room in the UK. What will you say when you sit down with Home Office officials and they ask you to produce evidence of your identity—the same evidence that you have been erasing your entire life? How can you prove anything to them? You might think of contacting a former romantic partner from your country of origin, but what if they are unwilling to provide the evidence, for fear of being outed too? Or, even worse, what if they have already been imprisoned or even killed for their gender identity or sexuality? You cannot even rely on family members, who often do not feel safe enough to write a statement for the Home Office. They may even have disowned you for your identity.
Instead of seeking to right those wrongs and to address this impossible situation, the Nationality and Borders Bill increases the burden of proof for asylum applications. Clause 31 says that instead of a reasonable degree of likelihood, the threshold should be far higher and should be based on the balance of probabilities that a person will face persecution if they return.
What if someone does not even have the language to describe their own sexuality and gender identity? What if they come from a culture that describes them in very different terms? I recently heard from a woman who had been accused of witchcraft in her home country for having relationships with other women. After violence and intimidation, she fled to the UK, where she said to officials that she faced persecution for witchcraft. They simply did not understand. They looked on in confusion and denied her application. Only after living here for some months did she have the words to describe herself as a lesbian.
These are not isolated stories. The people who come here have been brutalised and traumatised. They often cannot immediately find the words to describe what they have been through and why. In many cases, they are explaining those difficult and complex experiences in a language that is not their own and that does not easily translate.
Proposals in this Bill make life for people such as that woman and countless others much harder. Under new measures, people could be forced to produce relevant evidence by a fixed date. If they miss that deadline, the Bill allows for the evidence to be given minimal weight.
Evidence is evidence. A person does not stop being LGBTQ+ over time, nor does the threat to someone’s wellbeing in their country of origin diminish. Any legal pretence that it does will have devastating impacts on the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. For them, it is already a challenge to gather evidence. For many, proving their sexual orientation or gender identity is impossible. For some, explaining it is difficult. There are also so many reasons why a person simply would not want to disclose their sexuality or gender identity to people they do not know and do not trust.
The asylum system is not a hospitable place at the moment for someone who is openly LGBTQ+. As we process asylum applications, it is bitterly and cruelly ironic that we often incarcerate people who, in their country of origin, face prison sentences for their identity and sexuality.
LGBTQ+ people already face disproportionate levels of abuse in the asylum centre system. Detaining more people who make asylum claims will only make those statistics worse. The new rules for the so-called group 2 refugees also discourage LGBTQ+ people from telling their stories with their genuine claims for asylum. The UN has already said that the distinction in the Bill between group 1 and group 2 refugees undermines the 1951 refugee convention.
I am worried that giving one group of refugees lesser temporary rights and ratcheting up the uncertainty they face could also force LGBTQ+ refugees to continue to hide their identify, for fear of being returned to their home country. After all, why would anyone disclose their sexuality and gender ID if they knew they could be deported? It could be used to press charges against them once they are sent home and put them at further risk.
I know the Government are aware of some of these issues. Organisations such as Rainbow Migration, a group fighting for LGBTQ+ people in the UK immigration system, have been loudly sounding the alarm. In September 2021, the equality impact assessment for the Bill admitted that it risked indirectly disadvantaging protected groups, including LGBTQ+ people. Six days after the publication of that assessment, I questioned the Minister in Parliament. Back then, he said he was new to his role and had to get up to speed before he could comment in full. Now that he has had time to do his homework, I look forward to hearing what he will do. He told me then that he fully expects the Government to be sympathetic in taking proper account of the issues that I raised.
I would like to reach out to all hon. Members here today. The Nationality and Borders Bill will soon return to the House. When we draft and debate such legislation, we write the future stories of countless thousands fleeing the worst of circumstances. Every pen stroke of every amendment can make a difference to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Every day, LGBTQ+ people flee from violence, threats and abuse, but they cannot flee from who they are. As legislators, we can choose. We can either allow those horrific experiences to follow them here, inscribing yet another chapter of trauma into the lives of people who have already suffered enough, or we can turn the page and write something new. I hope that is what every hon. Member here chooses to do as the Bill comes back to the House in the coming weeks.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing this important debate and on making an excellent speech. Like her, I want to declare the support provided to me in my office by the Refugee Asylum and Migration Policy project.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is a peculiarly awful piece of legislation, designed to solve problems that do not exist, ignore problems that do, and play to a gallery rather than seek to make a difference. The negative impact that this Bill will have on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is a prime example of what is wrong with the Bill. LGBTQ+ people will be disproportionately affected by clause 11, which is the Government’s choice to differentiate on the basis of method of entry into the United Kingdom. They are much more likely, as we have heard, to be categorised as group 2 refugees, and experience second-class treatment at best. Despite fulfilling refugee criteria, they will have very limited leave to remain, reduced refugee family reunion rights, and no recourse to public funds. That will have a huge impact on their ability to integrate. It will affect their wellbeing, mental health, access to services, and ability to work, settle and fully participate in UK society.
Does the hon. Member agree that the two-track system affects people from different regions differently? I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria. Many of the people crossing in the boats are Kurds, because there are no legal ways for Kurds, who may be Syrians in Turkey, to come to the UK. The UK says that Turkey is a safe place for them, but we know that Turkey persecutes Kurds, and the majority of Kurds who come via informal routes get granted asylum here. The Bill would make that much harder for our allies, the Kurds, who fought for us in Syria.
Spot on. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because it frames how ludicrous it is to have a system that sees people as “good refugees” or “bad refugees”. The reality is that creating a second tier of refugee, which the Government sometimes refer to as “illegal route”—there is no such thing as an illegal refugee—is in contravention of international agreements on the matter.
I will reel of a list of countries myself. Cameroon, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Uganda—these are the most common countries of origin for people claiming asylum on the basis of their sexuality. They are also countries where many individuals are persecuted because of their sexual orientation, but they are not seen as areas of conflict or instability and as such do not warrant inclusion in the UK resettlement scheme. As the hon. Gentleman just mentioned, as a result, those people will be treated as second-class asylum seekers. If they can find their way here, it will probably be through very unsafe routes—although safer than staying put, I ought to add. Those fleeing those countries can therefore come here only by the so-called illegal routes—irregular, informal routes.
It is important to recognise that even if those people were in a region where they could access the UK resettlement scheme, they may still remain at risk, due to their sexuality, in neighbouring countries that they would pass through on the way to safety, which for other refugees might be places of safety. They would obviously prefer to move on to safety rather than wait in camps in a country that is unsafe for them. Further to that, it is highly likely that LGBTQ+ people will not feel safe coming forward and identifying themselves as a person eligible for resettlement, because it is quite possible that their families and communities could be the source of the persecution. The Government’s choice to penalise further the late production of evidence will disproportionately impact LGBT people. It is therefore wrong.
There are reasons why, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, rightly set out, LGBT+ people are less able to access safe routes to the UK than other categories of refugees. It is important, therefore, that refugees are treated the same, regardless of their method of travel. The conditions that refugees are granted should not be dependent on how they reach the UK. There are many valid reasons why people have no choice but to use irregular routes. None of us wants people to have to resort to using criminal gangs to access safety.
The hon. Member mentioned Uganda. In 2014, it passed an anti-homosexuality Bill into law, which created a big outpouring of refugee communities. The problem that many Ugandan refugees had was that, although in neighbouring countries the laws were not as strict as Uganda’s, they did not want to identify themselves as LGBTQ and to have it known. Their only option would be to come to a country such as the UK. We need to recognise that.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. That is what is wrong with the Bill. He sums up the problem of having this nonsense, immoral, two-tier system. We do not want people to use criminal gangs to get here, but if the Government will not provide safe routes for those people, they will have to do that and we should have compassion for them.
Irregular journeys and the fact that we are an island mean that people will travel through other countries before reaching the United Kingdom. Data shows that most refugees remain in neighbouring or other European countries. Many countries take more asylum seekers per capita than the United Kingdom. The international refugee system relies on countries sharing the refugee population. We cannot rely on certain countries to host all the refugees who reach them just because they happen to be the first point of arrival in Europe, for example. It is not fair on Greece, Italy and so on. It does not work. We need to do our bit. Treating certain kinds of refugee as second class or worse is wrong, and likely to be against international law. How can we look Putin in the eye at this terrible moment and challenge him over his breaches of international law when we risk doing so ourselves? It is not just generally about having a second, lower-tier of less worthy refugees, but in particular the way that we make life demonstrably harder for LGBTQ and other marginalised communities. That is wrong; the Government must rethink it.
Thank you, Mr Sharma, for the excellent job you are doing chairing the debate. I extend genuine thanks to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). I am not just going through the motions of thanking the Member in charge; this is a hugely important debate, and I particularly enjoyed the video that she put on Twitter earlier, which clearly laid out the information and I thought it was incredibly helpful.
My colleagues have covered some of the detail and some of the clauses of the Nationality and Borders Bill. We disagree with the entire Bill, but I want to talk specifically about the issues facing LGBTQ people. I do not get why the UK Government have chosen to take this direction in the Bill. We all agree that life is more difficult for someone who is LGBTQ+. They are more likely to be persecuted or discriminated against. That is demonstrably the case.
It is especially the case for those who live in a country that has systematic prejudice built into the authority systems and also into the family system and the traditions. That makes it is even more difficult for an LGBTQ+ person to live their life. As has been said, it is not something that someone grows out of and they suddenly forget that it is a part of their reality; it is that person’s self for their entire life. Why would the Government decide to make it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to claim asylum in the UK? I cannot get my head around it. I would like the Government to explain why they have chosen to go down this route when so many organisations have raised concerns, made it absolutely clear and provided evidence about how much more difficult things would be as a result of the Government’s actions.
I want to focus on a couple of things. If somebody is coming from a country where they have had to hide their sexuality or gender identity from the Government, officials, and everybody in authority they have ever had a conversation with, how can we expect them to sit down with Home Office officials and openly talk about it? They have spent their entire lives having to hide it from officials for fear of being imprisoned, being killed or facing incredibly serious prejudice and discrimination from those authority figures. How can we expect these people to be able to sit down in a room with Home Office officials and say, “Yes, absolutely. I am gay” when they have spent their entire lives hiding it? I do not understand how the bar can change on this issue when it has been made clear that it is difficult enough under the current route.
I also want to highlight, and I will not talk for terribly long about it, that there is a significant number of asylum seekers in the UK at the moment. That means that a number of non-dispersal authorities have asylum seekers placed in them. In areas, such as mine, and in areas outside Glasgow, which is a dispersal authority that is used to dealing with and supporting refugees, there is not the infrastructure to provide that level of support. We have hardly any immigration lawyers who deal with asylum claims in Scotland—never mind Aberdeen.
We are looking at raising this bar when the situation has already been made more difficult because of the lack of support. Given that in Scotland, we do not have the systems in place outside Glasgow, refugees in Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire are finding it more difficult because they cannot access the systems that they would normally get support from, so why are we not cutting them slack? These people should be cut slack at this moment, rather than having the bar lifted and things made more difficult. I appreciate that there is a huge number of organisations, such as Rainbow Migration, that are doing a great job, but they do not have that significant presence in my constituency; they do not have that significant presence in Aberdeen; they do not have the ability to assist the refugees in explaining their case and making that clear.
I would ask the Government, at this moment, particularly where non-dispersal authorities are having to support refugees, what slack will be cut? What support will be given to ensure that people can make the proper claims? We all agree that there are a number of people who should be able to make these claims and should be granted asylum. How will we provide them with the support that they need to make those claims when we are already failing to do so within the current system?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), who made an excellent speech. In fact, I agree with pretty much everything that has been said all the speeches so far, so I can be pretty brief. Indeed, I can be brief because I have spoken for hours on end on the subject of this Bill, and I do not need to go into every single last detail of why we find the whole measure fairly horrendous. Well, not fairly—it is absolutely horrendous.
Starting on a note of consensus, I think I would say that we agree—or I agree—that the asylum system, if not broken, is at breaking point, but I believe that it can be saved. Unfortunately, far from fixing it, this Bill absolutely breaks it beyond the point where it can be salvaged at all. That is true for all asylum seekers, but is particularly true for those who are LGBTQ+.
As we heard earlier, we should address all sorts of issues that are not addressed in this Bill: the delay in the asylum process; the impoverishment that asylum seekers face because of the appalling levels of asylum support; the ban on work; poor-quality decisions; a failing accommodation system; inappropriate and overused detention; and the lack of safe legal routes, which has already been mentioned. Those all apply to all asylum seekers, including LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
However, there are particular issues for that group, some of which have been touched on already. Those have not been addressed in this Bill, but they must be addressed. Those issues are, for example, how the Home Office conducts interviews, and the assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices that many claimants face. That applies not just to those doing interviews at the outset, but sometimes to immigration judges and the Home Office presenting officers who appear before them.
There is also still a significant problem with interpreters. Asylum applicants are often supported by people from the very country from which they have fled homophobic and transphobic prejudice. Much more needs to be done to ensure that those people feel safe and secure with the interpreters provided to them.
On analysis of evidence, LGBT claims based on sexuality are often criticised because statements of support from friends and colleagues in this country are described as “self-serving”—whatever that means—yet, if they do not provide those very statements, their absence is criticised as fatal to the application. We have heard about the standard of proof already being too high. It is supposed to be “at real risk” at the moment but, in reality, it is often set way above that thanks to the culture of disbelief, which has been described already.
We still have the problem, which was referred to in one intervention, of the idea that people could simply return to their countries of origin and exercise their discretion. That idea should have been done away with, and we thought it had been by the Supreme Court a number of years ago, but, in reality, it still lingers around in the Home Office system.
On detention, why is it that LGBT individuals are not in the adults at risk policy? There are various other points in Home Office policy where their vulnerability is recognised, but why is that not the case when it comes to detention? The list of issues goes on, but I must stop there so that I can press on.
We have spoken at length about why we object to the Nationality and Borders Bill. In our view, it is illegal and immoral. At heart, it is a Bill about deliberately—intentionally—making life miserable and making life worse for people in this country to try to disincentivise other people from coming here to seek refuge. It is an appalling concept, when we think about it like that. It will cost an astronomical sum of money. I want to see the economic impact assessment, which we have been promised for months on end—we still have not seen it, despite being three quarters of the way through the parliamentary process.
Nothing in the Bill is going to make things better. It is going to make everything worse at every single stage for asylum seekers, including LGBT+ individuals. When they arrive here, they will be criminalised, with an offence that could see them imprisoned for up to four years. It is an astonishing concept. Their claims will be deemed invisible for six months. Essentially, we just add six months on to the already horrendous waiting time. What on earth does that solve?
The Bill seeks to increase the use of Napier-style warehouses for asylum seekers, even offshoring individuals. These measures have particular consequences and challenges for LGBT+ individuals. The Bill also complicates the process. We have heard already that we are going to see the standard of proof increased from real risk to the balance of probabilities. We need to think about what exactly that means. A Home Office decision maker could decide they are 49% sure—
I will wind up quickly. We could have a decision maker almost certain that the applicant before them has accurately described the events and the persecution that they suffered in their country, but if they fall slightly short on the balance of probabilities, even if that decision maker is 100% sure that LGBT+ people will face persecution on return, that claim will be refused because of this new higher standard of proof.
The whole Bill is an absolute shambles. We need to hear in detail today, clause by clause, what the Home Office is going to do on each of the provisions to protect LGBT+ asylum seekers. We also need to hear much more about resettlement. It is often said to be the answer to all these criticisms, but how is resettlement going to help anybody in the LGBT+ community?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her for her tireless work on this issue and on protecting and extending the rights of LGBTQ+ people, regardless of their passport, country of birth or immigration status.
The Nationality and Borders Bill will have a deliberate, devastating impact on the rights of refugees, migrants and people of colour. Refugee Action has described it as
“the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen”.
Approximately 2,000 LGBTQ+ people claim asylum in the UK each year, fearing persecution in their home countries. This Bill will make it harder for any refugee to find safety here, but for this group, it is even more concerning. Many people who have been welcomed into our country’s LGBTQ+ community would simply not be here if the Nationality and Borders Bill had been law at the time they made their claim.
LGBTQ+ refugees are already put through dehumanising so-called tests to prove their identity and are still disbelieved by the Home Office. The Bill increases the threshold to prove that they are LGBTQ+ even further, taking it from the internationally accepted standard of reasonable degree of likelihood to the far stricter balance of probabilities.
If they are granted the new temporary protection status, LGBTQ+ refugees could be forced to hide their identity while in the UK for fear of persecution if they are made to return to their country of origin. For trans refugees, that might prevent them from transitioning—from changing their name, altering their gender expression or undergoing medical treatment—and that will have devastating consequences for their mental health and wellbeing.
The introduction of accommodation and offshore processing centres also poses particular risks for LGBTQ+ people, such as experiencing violence and abuse in these settings. Those seeking asylum should be housed in the community, not far-flung islands, derelict barracks, or unsuitable hotels such as the ones in which many refugees are being housed in my constituency.
The severity of this Bill’s impact cannot be overstated. This Government are risking not only breaching international law, but sending people to their deaths. If LGBTQ+ allyship does not extend to the most marginalised in our community—our refugee siblings—it means very little at all, so I urge the Minister to listen to what all of us have said today; to listen to our words, and those of refugee organisations and refugees themselves; and to please take a stand in his own Department.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. Contrary to everything the Government claim, the Nationality and Borders Bill is not some piece of wonder legislation that will fix a broken system. It will not break the business model of people smugglers or offer any safe and legal routes to these islands, although the Minister is going to say that it will. It is called the anti-refugee Bill for a reason, and, as we have heard in some powerful contributions, the Government have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that it punishes the most vulnerable in the flawed belief that deterrence works.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing the debate. We must keep pushing on this terrible Bill generally and emphasising who it will affect, but I am glad that she has given us the opportunity to look at it through the lens of the LGBTQ+ community, given that there are 70—I had 69, but she told us 70—countries across the globe where being gay is still considered a crime. The hon. Member said something that I found quite moving: you can flee, but you cannot flee from who you are, and why should you?
The former leader of the Lib Dems, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about differential treatment being more likely for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Although the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) did not speak in the debate, his many interventions demonstrated a strong understanding of what is happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) talked about people spending their life in hiding, and what happens to them when they get here. She asked why, and I will come on to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who served on the Bill Committee with myself and the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), as usual showed a forensic understanding of what is going on. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) talked about the devastating consequences for trans people—let us not forget them.
I would like to talk about Bahiru, an extremely brave gay man from Ethiopia, where homosexuality is still punishable by up to 15 years in prison and LGBTQ+ people are at huge risk of violence and persecution. I thank PinkNews for telling his story. Growing up, he suppressed his sexuality to keep himself and his family safe, but eventually managed to connect with a few members of the community, meeting as a secret and underground group. What shocked him was the lack of knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues, especially safe sex, so he took it on himself to change that situation and educate those around him. He managed to get those travelling back to Ethiopia from abroad to bring condoms and other items unavailable in Ethiopia so he could distribute them around the community—a brave, selfless, and noble thing to do—and he did all of this in the knowledge that he was at risk of being found out, criminalised and prosecuted.
It was not long before the word was out, and Bahiru received threats to out him and release his photo and personal information. He knew his life was in danger. He said,
“I had to escape. I could not even hide in my own parents’ house, because the violence could have come from any side.”
He was lucky—he had been to the UK recently, so he had an active visa and the support of organisations that he had been working with—but most people who are forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives have no time or way to access the very few safe and legal routes. When he arrived in the UK, he was put into shared accommodation with people who had brought their prejudices with them from other countries with homophobic laws and he spent months fearing for his safety. That type of communal living for asylum seekers has been described as a powder keg of different views, prejudices, languages, traumatic experiences and lifestyles. Bahiru was scared to challenge the views of others, saying,
“The homophobic tendencies, the tensions, the passing comments that people make and jokes about sexual minorities, it was awful.”
He was mentally, physically and emotionally burnt out.
The Nationality and Borders Bill will warehouse asylum seekers like Bahiru in large-scale detention centres. The Government are already trialling places such as Napier barracks and Penally to see how that will work. I should say at this point that I am to visit Napier barracks tomorrow with the APPG on immigration detention. I was at best disappointed by, and at worst deeply suspicious of, the refusal of Home Office officials to allow us MPs to speak to residents without officials being present. Will the Minister intervene today and allow them the chance to speak with us freely? If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason not to allow that.
It is hard to imagine much worse than warehousing, but the Bill paves the way for asylum seekers to be warehoused and processed offshore—to be shipped around the globe to any country willing to strike a deal with the UK. Who is to say where that might be and what that country’s laws on sexuality might be? At his asylum interview, Bahiru was asked to prove his sexuality. He described the process as “very heteronormative”, saying, “It’s only heterosexuals who could ask you to prove you are gay.” He knows of people who took pictures of themselves having sex with other people as evidence. Imagine how degrading and humiliating that must be.
In addition, people like Bahiru face the prospect of differential treatment, with a requirement to present themselves without delay to authorities, which they are less likely to do for a multitude of pretty obvious reasons; they could lose their rights to public funds and family reunion, and they could be issued with priority removal notices, along with a requirement to provide relevant evidence by a fixed deadline. Bahiru is applying for indefinite leave to remain, but for him the uncertainty is still there.
The experiences I have described should act as a warning. Everything an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker or refugee goes through today will be made much, much worse when the Bill is passed. We should not be considering legislation that aims to strip dignity and basic human rights from people. We should not be talking about legislation that will make it even harder than it already is for an LGBTQ+ person to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity. We most certainly should not be shipping people across the globe for processing.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for bringing the debate to the House. My experience tells me that we will get very little out of the Minister today, although something tells me he has fixed it so we can see those people tomorrow, without Home Office officials—I saw him typing away. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North asked why it is like this, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said that the Government are intentionally trying to make things worse for people. The Bill is ideologically driven, and although I predict the Minister will say he is hurt and offended that we could think such a thing, the conclusion that the Government simply do not care about these people is the only one I can reach if the Bill proceeds.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma.
I start as others have by thanking and paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). In her typically powerful opening speech, she shared some bleak statistics on the situation around the world, reminded us that the death penalty still exists in 11 countries and that there are regions of the world where homosexuality is equated with witchcraft, and finished with a really powerful sentiment: you cannot flee from who you are. I thank her very much for securing the debate and bringing the Nationality and Borders Bill gang back together—we spent a lot of time together in the Bill Committee—to revisit some of the really important points that we need to continue to push the Government on.
Attempting to build a cross-party consensus on these issues is incredibly important, especially when we are discussing a Bill that has the potential to affect vulnerable people and those at increased risk of harm in a multitude of different ways. The Minister and I both served on the Committee scrutinising the Nationality and Borders Bill, so we are returning to strongly held and familiar differences of opinion on a great deal of the legislation, but I am sure we all agree on just how many members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to face human rights abuses, gender-based violence and threats across the world, which is utterly unacceptable.
As we have heard, about 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relations. Everyone should feel able to live their life openly and safely, and to be proud of who they are. For those who seek sanctuary in the UK, it may be the first time they feel able and safe enough to express themselves and truly embrace their identity without fear of repercussions. In 2020, there were 1,012 asylum applications lodged in the UK where sexual orientation formed part of the basis of the claim, representing 3% of all asylum applications. In 2020, there were 440 grants of asylum or an alternative form of leave to remain to applicants where sexual orientation formed part of the basis of their asylum claim—7% fewer than the previous year. Furthermore, last year, nearly half of appeals relating to LGB asylum applications were granted. We have a moral obligation to get this right, to recognise why LGBTQ+ people might not be safe where they are and to design an asylum system that recognises that with compassion and understanding.
The Government’s own equality impact assessment accepts that there is a risk of indirect discrimination against this group but says it will be mitigated through monitoring. I am sorry, but, as the Minister knows, we have been here before. I cite Napier barracks as the reason why I do not accept that the Government will do the right thing in looking after particularly vulnerable groups of people. The Government ignored public health and fire safety advice and failed to identify vulnerabilities within the cohort accommodated there. I appreciate that that was before the Minister’s time in office, but the Government had to be dragged to every incremental improvement, very slowly made, at Napier and Penally barracks. Rainbow Migration outlined in its written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee:
“The “Suitability Assessment for Contingency Accommodation” and the “Allocation of accommodation policy” do not mention LGBTQI+ people at all, thereby deeming them suitable to be accommodated in the barracks, despite the issues that arise for LGBTQI+ people in this type of accommodation.”
The Minister’s thinking that we would have any confidence in the Government marking their own homework on looking after vulnerable people in the asylum system and adapting accordingly is, I am afraid, for the birds. That is why we are here.
The part of the Bill that gives me greatest cause for concern, particularly for to LGBTQ+ people, as others have said, is about the principle of late disclosure undermining credibility in both the asylum and modern slavery provisions. When we debated the specific modern slavery measures in the Bill Committee, I and others made the point that the additional barriers to protection and entry into the national referral mechanism contradicted the Home Office’s statutory guidance that that a victim’s early accounts may be affected by the impact of trauma, which can result in delayed disclosure, difficulty recalling facts or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These well understood principles must apply to LGBTQ+ people, as acknowledged in the Home Office guidance on sexual orientation in asylum claims. I ask the Minister once again why measures that go against the Home Office’s statutory guidance have been included in the Bill.
The reality and impact of those measures is perhaps best understood when listening to those who have personally experienced our asylum system. Much like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who told the story of a young man from Ethiopia, I will share Samir’s story. Samir remembers how hard it was to take the first steps in his asylum process. He had to recount the traumatic things that had happened to him in his home country. He had also never openly discussed the fact he was a gay man before. He said:
“It was the first time talking about my sexuality…just saying aloud the word gay, it was very surreal. I knew that although I was scared, this was my only chance for me to tell my story…and if I didn’t, I knew that my case would be dismissed and they would send me back.”
Samir’s asylum claim was initially rejected, only to be challenged following legal assistance provided to him by Rainbow Migration, which offers free legal advice, and he was eventually granted refugee status. There are a multitude of reasons why someone who is LGBTQ+ might need time and support to disclose their experiences. It is our view that, given the vulnerabilities of those groups and the Government’s own guidance, the clauses will most adversely affect those most in need of protection and undermine our moral and legal obligations.
Before I conclude, I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his contribution. He made the point that the notion of a good refugee and bad refugee, and the way the Government seek to legislate for that, contravenes international law. He was assisted in making that point with examples from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle).
I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for her typically powerful speech. In a number of cases, a person will have had to hide their identity from their Government, but we ask them to openly share it with ours without that understanding of any difference.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) also made a typically powerful contribution on the difference in the standard of proof, a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) for reminding us of the stark consequences if we return somebody to a country that does not recognise their sexuality or gender identity or, quite frankly, does worse than fail to recognise it.
The Minister understands my concerns about the Bill and its potential to detrimentally impact on those most in need of asylum—those who have the hardest stories to tell. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam is therefore quite right to highlight its impact on LGBTQ+ people. The Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords, and Labour Front Benchers have tabled an amendment that would disapply late disclosure penalties to those who have made a claim on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I am aware of several other amendments tabled by Baroness Lister, Lord Etherton and others that all seek to deliver similar safeguards. I hope the Minister can say whether the Government are minded to accept any of those proposals.
In many of our previous exchanges, the Minister has cited the provision of further detail in the statutory guidance. Only today, in response to a written question about the timing, the Minister said to me that any statutory guidance
“will be developed in line with usual process, which includes any requirements to consult. The timetable for implementing the guidance will be dependent on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill.”
I thank the Minister for that clarity and if he has anything further to add it will be incredibly welcome.
We do not believe assurances that can be provided only in guidance. We need comprehensive measures that introduce necessary safeguards. I hope the Minister has listened to the concerns voiced today and I strongly encourage the Government to adopt the amendments about to be debated in the Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this debate on what is undoubtedly an extremely important topic.
I want to say at the outset that many of the reforms in the Nationality and Borders Bill are being introduced against the backdrop of these terrible crossings of the English channel. People are putting their lives in the hands of evil criminal smuggling gangs. They are putting themselves at great risk. These groups treat people as cargo, with no regard whatsoever for human life. I make no apology for feeling very strongly—
I am very conscious that we have a lot to get through; a lot of points have been raised in the debate, so I will make some progress. I am very mindful of the need to stop those crossings. That is front and centre of the policy that we are delivering through this Bill. Nobody needs to get into a small boat in order to reach safety. I am also concerned when we debate these issues that I hear a lot of criticism of policy, but I do not hear much by way of a credible alternative.
We have had an extensive debate this afternoon on these matters, and that has also been the case throughout the Bill’s passage through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where these clauses were debated yesterday. I acknowledge this House’s interest in the issue. As well as the Nationality and Borders Bill, there is a lot of work that is going on internationally to address those issues and to advocate the values we hold in this country and believe others around the world should adopt. A global envoy is dealing with this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) also has responsibility within the Foreign Office for advancing that agenda.
Several points have been raised in the course of the debate and I would like to deal with each of them in turn. First, on differentiation, currently all those who seek our protection are treated in the same way, regardless of factors such as whether they came directly to the UK or have been illegally present in the UK for a long period before claiming asylum. We will change that by introducing a new form of temporary refugee permission to stay, meant for people who meet the requirements of refugee status in the UK but who may not have come directly to the UK or who have not claimed asylum without delay once here. Decision makers who are considering granting someone temporary refugee protection status will work on a case-by-case basis, taking properly into account all of the relevant factors. That may include taking into account that the delay in claiming asylum may have been as a result of the claimant being fearful of presenting to the authorities as a LGBT+ person.
The Government very strongly believe, and would argue, that all the measures that we are advancing are compliant with our international obligations. With regard to accommodation, centres will build on current capacity while ensuring that individuals have simple, safe and secure accommodation while their claims and removals are being processed. One of the things that I want to see happen—and I am determined to see it happen—is that cases are considered more quickly, that we make sure that those who require our sanctuary are helped and supported as quickly as possible and get that sanctuary, and that those with no right to be here are removed as quickly as possible. To me, that is the safe, decent and humane thing to do.
I would like to clarify that individuals will also have opportunities to disclose the information and supporting evidence as to why they should not be housed in accommodation centres, which could include reasons linked to their sexuality. I should make the point that the accommodation centres are not detention; people are free to come and go as they please. In any event, we do not detain people indefinitely, and various safeguards are built into the arrangements and set-up to ensure that that is the case. Again, I would expect appropriate consideration of all relevant factors when deciding what accommodation is appropriate for any given individual. If people have particular needs, it is right that they are accommodated within the community.
I am afraid I have got a lot to get through.
A lot of points have been raised, and I want to deal with one that was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Knowing colleagues as I do, I think it is fair to say that nobody would walk around anywhere on a visit in silence, and I am pleased to say that everybody on the visit tomorrow will have the opportunity to speak to those at Napier. That is exactly the same arrangement as when I visited Napier a few weeks ago, and I welcome the opportunity for Members to speak to people there.
On safe third country removals, our intention is to reduce the draw of the UK by removing protection claimants to a safe country if they have a connection to a safe country where they could and should have claimed asylum. We will also make it easier to move asylum seekers from the UK to a safe country while their asylum claim is pending. A safe country is one where there is no real risk of persecution or harm to individuals sent there, and which will not send individuals to a country where they could be persecuted. Any vulnerabilities will be taken into consideration, and any representations from the claimant will be considered ahead of any removal to a safe third country. Again, this could include matters that are linked to an individual’s sexuality. Of course, we will only ever work with countries that are compliant with the refugee convention and any obligations under relevant human rights law. I should add that we do not return people if to do so would put them in danger, and the Home Secretary also has discretion to provide sanctuary to individuals if there is a risk to their lives.
On the one-stop process, late evidence and damage to credibility, the Bill will introduce a new and expanded one-stop process to ensure that asylum, human rights claims and any other protection matters are considered at the earliest opportunity. Where evidence is provided late without good reason, that should be taken into account by the decision maker as damaging to a claimant’s credibility; but where there is good reason, there will be no damage. I should add that this is not a new concept: it has underpinned existing immigration legislation under not just this Government, but previous Governments.
I am conscious of the time and that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will want to sum up, so I will wrap up my remarks. I will very gladly comment on the outstanding matters that I have not been able to reach in the short time we have had available, and I will place that in the Library so that Members can see my remarks.
I will use the last two minutes, if colleagues do not mind. Everyone gave such strong and meaningful speeches in the debate, and I am thankful to those who have taken part.
I want to respond with the words of refugees in Stonewall’s 2016 report, “No Safe Refuge”, which is about the current system. One asylum seeker said:
“The interviewing officer was surprised to see a person like me talking about these things. He doesn’t believe I am transgender. ‘You don’t look transgender!’”
“I had my head rammed through a door. I was bullied. The guy they put me with was a nightmare, the guy was a bully. I reported that but nothing was done about it.”
“The officer didn’t approach the heterosexual couple, she approached the lesbian couple straight away. She didn’t even say to them excuse me. She said: ‘There are different religions in here and different cultures in here I ask you to respect that and there are also children in here.’”
The comments about mental health are probably the most concerning. One asylum seeker said:
“I tried to commit suicide twice. I didn’t know how to do it but I had that urge in me to do it. I broke the mirrors and tried to cut myself.”
“I am having very difficult moments. I get flashbacks of exactly what happened—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).