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Asylum Reception Centre: Linton-on-Ouse

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

I very much appreciate this opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House the asylum seeker reception centre at Linton-on-Ouse. I must say that although the Home Office has been willing to engage on this issue, the approach it has taken has been pretty much an abuse of power. It has been indifferent all the way along. The approach has been very insensitive and quite uninformed in terms of the issues that we see on the ground.

I would summarise the proposals as a convenience, in that the availability of a site has taken precedence over its suitability. The site is simply not fit for the purpose outlined for it. A key indicator of that is that until now I have not been able to find—I am sorry to say this; I have hunted through Home Office and Cabinet Office Ministers, Secretaries of State and officials—anybody willing to take ownership of the decision and say that it is the right thing to do. No Member of Parliament or Minister has come up to me to say that they believe that this is the right place to put the facility.

Of course such a facility is always going to be controversial; I quite understand that. As I will touch on in a second, this is not about nimbyism. To put right at the heart of a village of 600 people a facility that will ultimately have a capacity of about 1,500 young single men between 18 and 40, coming from different cultures and different parts of the world—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea—is absolutely disgraceful. I have lived all my life about six or seven miles away from the village, and I know many people in it. In North Yorkshire, we are lucky to have a great deal of freedom—that is what we are used to. But the people of Linton-on-Ouse will have those liberties taken from them as a result of this policy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if a developer were to try to build a development of such a size on the edge of such a village, they would be laughed out of court?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I very much appreciate his support and that of many other colleagues; this debate is well attended for an Adjournment debate, which I very much appreciate.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the issue is not race or nimbyism, but scale—the whole facility is way out of scale for this development, as he says. I am talking about the simple liberties that we take for granted: walking to the village shop, sending a child to walk to the village school or playground, walking the dog alone in the morning or evening—all those liberties that have been pretty much taken for granted in Linton-on-Ouse will be taken from its residents. I do not think it is putting it too strongly to say that those residents are the sacrificial lambs to a national policy. That cannot be right and it cannot be something that the Minister will countenance.

Is my hon. Friend not surprised that there was no consultation with local MPs, local authorities and local residents before the decision was actually taken?

I am kind of surprised and kind of not. I can understand the political priority around the policy, which sits alongside the Rwanda policy. It was hastily rushed out and has not been properly considered.

But my hon. Friend is so right. I should point to the facility at Rivenhall, in the Home Secretary’s constituency. That was eventually removed because, according to the Home Office, there had been

“a failure to recognise that Rivenhall was not in a major conurbation”.

It said that asylum seekers should be placed in urban areas that encompass a number of cities or towns so that they can access support more easily. Crucially, to come back to my hon. Friend’s point, there was

“a failure to ensure that appropriate engagement had taken place with council officials and other service providers”.

Those are the Home Office’s own words, but exactly the same has happened again with this facility. There has been no consultation.

My hon. Friend is a tremendous champion for the people of Thirsk and Malton—that is not in doubt—but this issue is also about what is in the interest of the asylum seekers. We are dealing with people who are highly vulnerable, and the point he is making is very strong. It is about their ability to access support networks and to be in an appropriate environment, as opposed to being in an isolated, albeit incredibly beautiful part of the world. He is absolutely right to bring this question to the Floor of the House, and it is absolutely right that Ministers are held to account for this decision.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about the site not being right for the residents of Linton-on-Ouse; it is not right for the asylum seekers, either. I am yet to find any agency that supports this facility in this location, whether police or local authorities, or anyone in the community itself. Crucially, the refugee agencies that have attended all the public meetings I have attended have been clear that this is the wrong facility in the wrong place. That cannot be right for the asylum seekers themselves. Inevitably, in a small local village with no amenities other than a village shop, they will be bored, whatever is put on the site in terms of some amenities, which, to be fair, the Home Office is doing.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for bringing forward the debate, which impacts on my city of York, as I have discussed with York City of Sanctuary. We are concerned about people’s access to vital infrastructure and services such as the NHS, which is based in the middle of my constituency. It is completely inaccessible outside of hours for people in Linton-on-Ouse without private transport.

The hon. Member raises a good point. The first tranche of 60 people—service users, as they are called by the Home Office—are due to move in in seven days’ time. There was an indication by the Home Office today that that might be delayed. We do not know by how long yet, but nevertheless, none of the plan for mental health support, GP support or dental support has yet been articulated. The police plan has not yet been articulated. It is simply wrong. We are going far too quickly with this. We need to slow down, pause, look again, consult properly and make sure that we have mitigations in place.

I was on the call with the police and the Home Office today, and the police came out with the phrase that they use, that they want to keep people safe and for people to feel safe. Neither of those things do people in Linton-on-Ouse feel. People do not feel safe. I think those fears are rational; they are not irrational fears. In any cohort of 1,500 young single men, there will be some who do not play by the rules. The vast majority will, but that is of little comfort to people genuinely in fear of their lives and wellbeing. I have had children as young as nine writing to me and meeting me at these public meetings saying how panic stricken they are. I have had elderly residents saying that they have lost the sale of their home and they are in ill health, including one lady whose husband is in ill health. This issue is changing lives today.

Crucially, one thing that has not been considered at all—this was the subject of an exchange of correspondence with the Home Office only yesterday—is what happens to existing service personnel in accommodation on the site and in the village. According to the Home Office, they have been given an option to move elsewhere, but that should not need to be the case. What happens with someone in the armed forces, currently or previously, who has already bought a house in the village of Linton-on-Ouse? I speak with some experience in the property market, and there is little chance of selling any house in Linton-on-Ouse at the moment. We are basically saying to service personnel or former service personnel who live in the village—it is commonly known where they live, and it may be that some of these service users hold a grudge against service personnel who have fought in Iraq and elsewhere—that a grudge held against them might put their lives in peril. No consideration has been made of that. It cannot be right that the Home Office is not showing a reasonable duty of care.

My hon. Friend has spoken of some 60 or 70 service users due to arrive next week. That is already 10% of the entire population of the village. Can he clarify whether this will be a closed facility? Will there be any management of ingress and egress, or will the service users be widely open to move around the population at will?

That is a good question; I should have touched on that earlier. It is a non-detained site, so the service users—asylum seekers—will be able to leave the site and return at will. There will be some management of that on the door to get the name of who is leaving and who is coming back, although there is always a concern that people will get out by other means as it is a very big site, but the point is that they are non-detained. There is an informal curfew at 10 pm, so there is no requirement for them to come back. Safeguarding calls will be made to them after 10 o’clock if they are not back, but there is no limitation on the number of times that they can leave the site. In fact, they can go and stay overnight elsewhere. They are free to come and go, which is clearly a big concern for the village.

I am sure that this is not the Home Office’s intention, but it appears to me that the village is collateral damage of a wider policy. It cannot be right to put the whole burden of a single national policy, however important it is, on one small community wherever it is in the UK—whether it is in my constituency or not. This is not about my popularity locally or my majority. I know many people in the village and was at school with many of them. It is simply unfair, it is simply wrong and Ministers must think again.

My hon. Friend is making a valuable speech about the implications for that community. Has he had any indication from the Home Office about extra funding that may be available for local services such as extra policing or health? It is a small community facing a very large potential increase in the population. What happens to that funding?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that position is not yet clear. It has been made more apparent recently that there will be that kind of funding, but we have no plan in place. The police, fire and crime commissioner, Zoë Metcalfe, has been very helpful and engaged in the whole process, as have Hambleton District Council, Mark Robson, the leader of the council, and Mal Taylor, the local councillor. Apparently, there will be a double-manned police car in that village 24/7, which is good to hear, and there will also potentially be CCTV in the village, which does not currently exist. Those potential mitigations would help, but it is not clear that those plans will be in place on 31 May when service users move in. I have also not seen a clear plan anywhere.

On the funding of the centre, I understand that money will be made available from Home Office funds, but again that is not clear, which is why we are saying that the plans should be paused until we understand what is needed and how it will be deployed properly.

I have been called all kinds of things on Twitter since I objected to this facility, such as racist, which is complete nonsense. Thirsk and Malton has been welcoming of asylum seekers from all different parts of the world. We have some Syrian families in Malton and we have Ukrainian families all across the constituency, so it is complete nonsense. Nor is it a question of nimbyism. As I said, I would object to such a facility and support other hon. Members—I am delighted to see so much support in the Chamber—wherever it was going to be if that was the wrong location, as this is. We can tell it is the wrong location because Home Office guidance on dispersal is clear that there should be one asylum seeker per 200 head of population. This is on a completely different scale. The only comparable facility that we operate in the UK is at Napier in Folkestone, where there are now 320 service users against a population of 47,000. In this case, there will be 1,500 against a population of 600. Clearly, that is a trebling of the population.

I very much support the debate that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention, I have visited the Napier site and found that it was entirely inadequate for the needs of the asylum seekers based there, that it had put a burden on local health services, and that facilities had not really been put in place to deal with that number of people—and that was 300, not the 1,500 suggested for the site at Linton-on-Ouse. Does he share my concern that, without engaging with the local community, it would be difficult to get support for any size of facility on people’s doorstep?

Yes, I think the hon. Member is absolutely right, and she does great work on the all-party group on immigration detention, which is heavily engaged with me on these matters. Whatever we do with these facilities, we have to plan them properly. That did not happen at Napier, hence the trouble. This is a better-planned site, there is no doubt about it—some of the issues of dormitory accommodation and other things have been solved, and the accommodation itself has been planned better—but it is much worse for accessing amenities and public services for the service users, which leads to all other kinds of problems.

As I say, we are where we find ourselves, but I do not think it is right that we can effectively use this village, which is clearly not the right the place for this facility. Everybody can see that. I am really interested to hear whether the Minister will defend this choice, because I have not heard a Minister or an official do that yet. There is lots of finger pointing going on.

Although I am from the other side of the Pennines, I find the hon. Gentleman’s case completely compelling. Is this site intended to be permanent or is it temporary? I would be grateful if he could explain that.

I think it is more than temporary. We are not quite clear, and I appreciate the hon. Member’s support. Clearly, the Home Office is putting quite a big investment into this. It is putting a gym, a library and facilities for multi-faith worship activities on site. It is clearly a big investment, so I can only imagine that it is not a two-year but a decade-long thing, if not longer, depending on how the wider asylum and small boats issue carries on. I think people’s lives are going to be blighted for a decade at least—that would be my guesstimate—and that affects things in so many different ways in the village, not least the liberties that people should reasonably expect.

To me, the plans are half-baked. I cannot put it any more kindly than that. On the call today with Home Office officials, the words were, “This is going to be a journey.” I just do not think that is right. I just do not think we can treat a community of 600 people like that. Of course these matters are controversial wherever we put such facilities, but nevertheless it is clearly easier and more likely to work as part of a local community in a bigger community, for so many different reasons—not least the fear of crime, of course. In a bigger conurbation, when someone is walking down the street there are likely to be other people on that street, but in a village such as Linton-on-Ouse there often is not, so people are going to feel like prisoners in their own home much of the time there.

I said right at the start that this is an abuse of power, and I do not think that is putting it too strongly. The Home Office is using its emergency powers, with a Q notice, so it did not have to go through the planning process for this material change of use, which it undoubtedly is. The reason for those powers—why is it an emergency?—was, we were told, covid. Well, we thought that covid was actually largely behind us, especially at this time of year. I do not think it is right to say that covid can be one of the reasons why we are using emergency powers in this way. I know that Hambleton District Council is looking at enforcement action against the Home Office to find out the exact reasons behind the emergency powers, which should be used exceptionally rather than on a more frequent basis. So this really does not seem to have been properly considered or thought through, and it is ill-informed.

Where do we need to go now? There are other sites available. My belief is that this should stop completely. It is not just about putting mitigations in place; it is the wrong place, and there is no way to mitigate this facility in a way that will make residents feel safe and be safe, so we should stop completely. I have a list of other sites that could be considered. I am interested to see what the Minister says about the consideration of other sites, but the Linton-on-Ouse action group has put together a list of other sites, all from the MOD disposal list. I think that is where we should go next. We should suspend these plans, look at this and consult on other sites. We absolutely should delay right away, and there should be no talk of this happening in a week’s time. The police have asked for at least a month’s delay. If the police want a month’s delay, the Home Office surely cannot ignore the police and crime commissioner’s recommendation, which has the support of her senior officers, and carry on regardless without listening to the expert advice of those people.

The line of least resistance is that the Government simply change tack, have a change of heart, reverse their plans and look at this again, which I would welcome. If that is not going to happen, and I have no indication that it is, then as I have said, I will be working with Hambleton District Council on a legal challenge. I think it is serious enough that we should challenge the basis of the decision and the process by which it has been made in the courts if the Government do not change tack. I do not think it is right to do that unless we have a serious chance of reversing the plans completely and blocking them altogether. If all we were to achieve were simply to delay things or give the Home Office the opportunity it should have taken in the first place to consult properly, I would not want to waste taxpayers’ money. We are still waiting for legal advice, but if there is a realistic chance that we can block the proposals and make the Home Office think again, we should do that on behalf of those people who live in the village.

I am told all the time by Home Office officials that this is a political decision. It will take the Minister or the Home Secretary to intervene, either to own the decision and say, “This is my decision, this is the right thing to do”, or to own up and say, “It is not my decision, and this is the wrong place.” There is lots of finger-pointing going on, but it cannot be that the fortunes of that village hang on a decision that no one will take ownership of. That is very much where we are. I would like to understand who owns the decision, and the rationale behind it in the context of other sites. I want the Minister to tackle the issue that I believe is at the heart of all this —tell me I am wrong—that it is not simply that the availability of the site has superseded the suitability of the site. I cannot see any other justification for the selection of Linton-on-Ouse as the place for this asylum reception centre.

It is clear from what we have heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is a strong champion for his constituents. It will come as no surprise to them or to the House to hear that he has made regular and firm objections to the opening of an asylum accommodation centre at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, in addition to those he has made clear tonight.

Our asylum system is broken. It is not delivering value for taxpayers; it is not delivering for those who are genuinely in need of protection in our country. We need to change and accommodation centres are part of that. Our nation has a long and proud history of supporting those in greatest need, as do many communities across Yorkshire. I take on board the points my hon. Friend made that this is not about his objecting to the idea that communities across Yorkshire should provide refuge; it is about his views on this particular proposal. In other contexts, such as Afghan resettlement and supporting those from Ukraine, he has been very clear that he wants to see his constituency play a full part in those efforts. It is essential that we reform our current system to crack down on those who abuse our hospitality so that we can focus on those genuinely in need of help. That is exactly what the Government are doing through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and our migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda.

As the House is aware, the UK has a statutory obligation to provide suitable accommodation and support to those who claim asylum and would otherwise be destitute.

The unprecedented and unacceptable rise in dangerous small boat crossings continues to put huge pressure on the UK’s asylum system. That pressure is most keenly felt in the asylum accommodation estate, where demand significantly exceeds capacity. Alongside the enduring impact of the pandemic, that has resulted in a significant increase in the numbers of asylum seekers needing to be accommodated. Many have had to be placed in hotels at huge expense to UK taxpayers. Hotel accommodation is now costing the taxpayer nearly £5 million per day. This is not appropriate or right and cannot continue to be the default option if we need to find someone a bed for the night to meet our statutory duties.

Whatever one’s view in the debates around asylum policy, everyone will recognise a need to reduce the use of hotels and provide more suitable accommodation for those seeking asylum, which is why the Government are taking forward work to design and implement asylum accommodation centres, of which Linton-on-Ouse is the first. I would like to set out why the Government are progressing the use of the site, what accommodation centres are and why we are adopting this model, which is already successfully used in Greece and other European countries.

The Home Office has been working with Government agencies and public sector bodies to identify suitable locations for accommodation centres. It is safe to say that there are not large numbers of sites available for us to pick from. Following substantive work with the Ministry of Defence, RAF Linton-on-Ouse was identified as a viable location to. develop an accommodation centre. That is because the site offers many established accommodation units and amenities that have been kept in reasonable condition, given its previous use, including canteens and recreational and sports facilities together with education, religious, medical and office facilities that will support its use.

The presence of those existing facilities means that the Government can move at pace to meet the increase in demand and use the centre as part of the move away from hotel usage. A site such as RAF Linton-on-Ouse allows the Home Office to provide services and activities for those accommodated there, minimising the impact on the community and local services more widely. As I touched on, the accommodation centre model is part of a wider transformation designed to make the system more efficient and effective.

I very much commend and agree with the Minister, but I note that in correspondence I have received from the London Borough of Hillingdon, which serves much of my constituency, the costs to the local authority of providing services to refugees housed by the Home Office is currently about £1.8 million, of which just over £100,000 is met from Government funds. Does he agree that it would help to reassure local authorities such as those around Linton-on-Ouse—and, indeed, my local authority—if we had a clear guarantee that the costs to council tax payers would be met in full?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we already have a consultation under way about a major reform to the dispersed accommodation system. As he will know, we are moving to a full dispersal system in which all local authorities will be involved—previously, not everyone was involved—and part of that is looking at the cost to local authorities. There is a slight difference with accommodation centres in that in such sites a number of facilities are provided that we would not provide at each individual location where dispersed accommodation is provided. We cannot realistically provide it in contingency hotels. As he will be aware, the London Borough of Hillingdon has quite a large number of people in contingency hotels and I think that, whatever our views on the proposal and some other aspects of asylum policy, we can all agree that we need to move away from that. It is not good for them, for the taxpayer or for the local communities.

The Minister makes a good point that the number of sites that might fit the bill are few and far between and that the site’s accommodation may be suitable, but does he not agree that, in the interests of the asylum seekers, it would be better to have the centre where people could access other amenities, leisure facilities and public services? Surely he can see that the selection of a site that completely lacks all those things is pretty sub-optimal.

We can look at what will be provided on the site. For example, it is fully catered, so there will be three meals a day for those accommodated there. We will provide a number of basic services and facilities for recreation and entertainment and, on top of that—this is perhaps one thing we were to come on to—we will provide the ability to progress cases while on site, such as doing the pre-interview questionnaire and conducting the substantive asylum interview so that people’s cases can be processed more efficiently. We believe that that will deliver a better outcome overall. We are working on healthcare and other areas as well. Again, it is about the balance between having numbers in one location where we can provide a number of services versus more dispersed accommodation where we do not supply specific services and people may be more reliant on those in the community.

I will take one more intervention, but, given the time, I do want to respond to some of the other points made.

I appreciate the Minister giving way. Will he explain exactly how people will get legal support on site in a village in the middle of nowhere? Would he not be better to go back to the alternatives-to-detention pilot projects, the recommendations of which the Government have accepted and which have been found to be a cheaper and better option for all involved?

Again, it is worth pointing out that people are not detained on the site. Transport will be provided to York, and they will also have access to legal aid and migrant help services. Again, a place where, for example, we can progress asylum interviews—a place with video conferencing technology and other things available—will lead to better outcomes for people than being in a hotel, which for many is the alternative.

I am conscious of the time and want to respond to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. We have said that we will start small, with only about 60 people accommodated at the site in the first instance. That will be followed by a phased approach, with numbers gradually increasing to ensure that services are appropriate and that the site operates as we expect. To reassure my hon. Friend, the final decision to place service users on the site will only be taken once the services are in place and we are clear it is safe and legal to do so. As touched on, all asylum seekers will receive a thorough induction, including site and local information. The site is fully catered and there will be a number of recreational facilities. I am sure colleagues will appreciate that it is not a holiday camp, but there are facilities that allow people to occupy and entertain themselves.

I have heard the very strong representations made about the impact on people living in the local area. I will provide some further detail on local services. Only single adult males with low health vulnerabilities and the lowest level of additional needs will be accommodated at the site. That is specifically to ensure that local health services are not unduly impacted by the creation of the new centre. Those being accommodated will already have undergone a robust screening process consisting of mandatory checks, which include the capture of biographic and, crucially, biometric data. That information is then cross-referenced against a number of systems to verify a person’s identity. Furthermore, Serco will have a comprehensive security model for the site, which will be scaled up as occupancy increases, ensuring a presence on the site. I am sure colleagues will appreciate why I will not go into the full details of security arrangements on the Floor of the House, but there will be a presence. In addition, we have set up multi-agency forums, which include the police, to develop approaches for responding to any potential incidents.

My hon. Friend touched on engagement. He has certainly engaged regularly on this issue with me, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and senior Home Office officials. Earlier today, he was again making very clear his thoughts on particular things. At every meeting he has been very clear that his view is that it should not go ahead and that he wants to raise his concerns. We now have regular meetings with key partners, including from the local authority, police and fire, who can raise operational points relating to the site. Having met the leader of my hon. Friend’s local council, I know that it supports his objections, while engaging on the operational side. It is very clear that it will do so while not compromising on its overall view of the proposal.

We recognise the need for an open dialogue with the local community. We are putting in place a programme of communications to keep people in and around Linton-on-Ouse informed, alongside meetings for local people to attend. We recognise the strength of feeling in the local community on this issue. There is a strong determination within the Home Office to ensure that everything possible is done to answer people’s questions and lessen their concerns, while recognising the objections being made, including by my hon. Friend who represents them in this place.

My hon. Friend raised a couple of specific points. One was in relation to the families-in-service accommodation within the wire of RAF Linton-on-Ouse. As he touched on, they have been offered the chance to move from the site. They are on the site. My understanding is that they would have liked to have been aware that being on the base itself would not be permanent accommodation, given the fact that the RAF has ceased using it for flying operations. Clearly, the presence there was due to be run down, but provisions have been made to ensure that they are there.

We today received a letter from the Vale of York clinical commissioning group setting out its approach to primary care services for the asylum seeker population at Linton-on-Ouse. Again, to reassure my hon. Friend and the House, it is our intention that we would not look to house those with significant health needs at Linton-on-Ouse. If people developed those needs or vulnerabilities while on the site, they would be considered for being housed elsewhere, recognising that this type of facility should not put undue pressure on particular parts of local health services, including—my hon. Friend has been very clear on this point—mental health services. It should not just be seen as a matter of physical health.

I recognise the points made by my hon. Friend. He has been a very strong advocate for his constituents. This is not a decision the Government have taken lightly, but the need for action to reform our asylum system is abundantly clear and part of that includes accommodation centres. The Government will not shy away from taking the necessary steps to fix our broken asylum system and to ensure we have an accommodation system that is no longer reliant on hotels as the default option.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.