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Asylum Accommodation: Barry House, East Dulwich

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

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

I am grateful to have secured the Adjournment debate to bring to the House my concerns about the wellbeing of asylum seekers living in Barry House in my constituency. Barry House is Home Office initial accommodation that is provided under contract by Clearsprings. It provides housing for approximately 140 asylum seekers. Among the residents of Barry House at any given time are a significant number of children, babies and pregnant women.

I raised concerns about Barry House in a Westminster Hall debate on initial accommodation in 2018. I looked back at that debate today, and not only is every single concern I raised still relevant; every one of them has worsened because of the growing Home Office backlog. So I want to speak again about Barry House and to raise concerns about the plight of asylum seekers living in hotels across the country, which are being used as overspill accommodation under the initial accommodation contract.

I meet regularly with residents of Barry House. They are clear that the issues they are experiencing are not the fault of staff who work at Barry House, whom they describe as trying to do their best. The problems are structural. They are in the nature of the Home Office contract and the management of the contract. They are an indication of how this Government regard those who come to the UK fleeing violence and persecution.

There is a major accountability gap in relation to initial accommodation for asylum seekers because the Government publish no data and have no official target for the length of time that an asylum seeker is supposed to spend in initial accommodation. There is also no official data on the length of time that asylum seekers wait to receive section 98 support, without which they would be destitute.

I understand that the Government have historically aimed to move asylum seekers on from initial accommodation within 35 days, but a freedom of information request by The Independent newspaper revealed that, at the end of September 2021, two thirds of asylum seekers in hotels, including 1,079 children, had passed that limit, and the situation is no different at Barry House. Nearly 1,000 asylum seekers, according to that data, spent more than six months in hotel rooms, with 356 longer than a year. The Home has Office refused to publish more up-to-date data, but it is not a wild leap of the imagination to suggest that the situation may have got significantly worse.

I hear regularly from residents in Barry House who have been there for many months, and there is currently at least one family, with two teenage children and a disabled grandmother, who have been stuck in a single room in Barry House for more than two years. While asylum seekers wait at Barry House, the quality of accommodation is dire. Barry House provides bedrooms with shared bathrooms and no kitchen facilities. Covid restrictions remained in place long after they had been lifted for everyone else, meaning that the shared common room and dining space were closed and residents had to eat in their rooms.

One of the most frequently raised issues at Barry House and in hotel accommodation is the quality of the food. Residents report that the food is bland, unappetising, nutritionally poor, culturally inappropriate, often cold and repetitive. Fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce. I have been told by several residents, including the mother of a teenage girl, that after a period of time they have found the repetitive diet so unpalatable that they are only eating bread and yoghurt.

This morning, along with other south London MPs, I met a number of food banks serving communities in south London, which are frequently contacted by residents seeking support with food for asylum seekers living in hotels. They told us that the food provided in hotels is similarly dire, yet the food banks are operating with a lack of clarity, frequently being turned away by hotels and receiving conflicting advice about whether or not they can provide support to asylum seekers living in hotels.

Asylum seekers at Barry House and in hotels often experience great difficulty in accessing items that are essential for basic human dignity, such as shoes, underwear and toiletries. NHS staff working in Barry House tell me that they come across newly arrived asylum seekers who have crossed the channel wearing only the clothes they stand up in and having lost their shoes in transit, yet the welcome packs provided under the Home Office contract contain no underwear and there is no provision for shoes to be made available.

When I have made inquiries about these problems, the Government point to section 98 support as the answer, but asylum seekers can wait weeks for section 98 support and to be issued with an ASPEN—asylum support enablement—card. Research by Refugee Action in 2018 found that some people wait more than 100 days. This system is simply not fit for purpose as a means to provide such essential items when there is an immediate need.

At the root of these problems is the Government’s failed asylum system. The Government have failed to provide safe and legal routes and have no plan to address the backlog in decision making. The system traps people in limbo. It is a shocking and disgraceful waste. I have met residents in Barry House who are teachers, plumbers, electricians, chefs—people whose skills our community and economy desperately need.

I worry all the time about a teenager who wants to become an architect. She has been in Barry House for more than two years. She is only able to access basic English lessons at college, although her English is good. Her hopes and dreams are being crushed every day that she spends still in limbo, still waiting for the Home Office to take care of her family. Every time I see her, she is visibly more demoralised.

While these vulnerable people wait, the Government’s wider deportation policy is having a terrible impact on their mental health. I have heard from a number of organisations supporting asylum seekers in my constituency about the increasing number of people they encounter who are on suicide watch in their accommodation because of the fear of being deported to Rwanda. Desperate people are coming to seek sanctuary in our country, yet our Government trap them in limbo, fail to provide for even the most basic of needs and further damage their mental health.

Therefore, I ask the Minister today whether he will take a personal interest in the plight of my constituents living at Barry House and in hotels in the surrounding area. Will he seek to establish for the content of welcome packs and the food provided proper standards which are scrutinised and enforced so that everyone seeking asylum in the UK is treated with basic dignity and respect? Can he provide clarity on whether hotels should be accepting deliveries from food banks where help is requested from the wider community? Will he set out when the Government expect to clear the backlog in asylum applications to reduce the length of time people are waiting in initial accommodation? Will he provide better support to local authorities who have large numbers of asylum seekers living in hotels to enable them to respond to the needs of vulnerable people in their area? Does he recognise the concerns that are being raised about the mental health and wellbeing of those living in initial accommodation with regard to the Government’s deportation policy, and what action is he taking in response?

The conversations I have with asylum seekers living in Barry House in my constituency leave me humbled by the experiences they have endured and their desire to settle, rebuild their lives and contribute to our community, and deeply ashamed of the way they are being treated by the Government. Our country can do so much better by those who come here seeking sanctuary in fear for their lives.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate. The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of helping the world’s most vulnerable and desperate people to seek safety and sanctuary here, as we have seen most recently through the schemes we launched in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with over 155,000 visas now having been issued to those arriving under those schemes.

We recognise we have a duty to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. As part of that, we provide support and accommodation until an individual’s claim is fully determined. Local authorities play a very important role in providing that support, including the London Borough of Southwark. My officials, and those at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, therefore work closely with local authority partners on this and a range of topics, and we are genuinely grateful for their support—in the case of Southwark over many years, including as a dispersal area.

I have previously said to the House that our asylum system is broken. That is felt most keenly in the accommodation space. The aftermath of the pandemic, combined with the unprecedented and unacceptable rise in dangerous small boat crossings, has increased demand for support. That has had a cumulative impact on the overall asylum estate. One critical impact is on the increased requirement for dispersal accommodation. We are procuring dispersal accommodation as quickly as possible, but we accept that some people are remaining in initial accommodation, such as Barry House, for a longer period than we would wish or would have expected. We have also, as was touched on, had to procure hotels. Published data as of March 2022 shows an increase in demand for asylum support of about 50% since the start of the pandemic, with accommodation now required for more than 80,000 asylum seekers while their claims are considered. That is unacceptable. For the individuals concerned it is not the best outcome, for taxpayers it is not the best outcome, and it is not the best outcome for local communities either. That is why we are committed to fixing it.

First, I will highlight the move to full dispersal. I announced in April that the Home Office would immediately move to a nationwide full dispersal model, so that asylum pressures are more equally spread across all local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, as the hon. Lady might be aware. A large number of local authorities, unlike hers, were not participating in providing dispersal accommodation, limiting our options. I used to mention the oft-quoted figure that 31 out of 32 local authority areas in Scotland were not participating, so we are moving to all local authorities—all areas—being part of the system.

We have begun procuring asylum accommodation in co-operation with local authorities in areas that have not participated before. That will help us to move from contingency accommodation, such as hotels, to less expensive but, crucially, more suitable accommodation, particularly for families. This will also see our initial accommodation estate return to being the short-stay solution that it was always designed to be, rather than being used for longer-term accommodation, to which the hon. Lady referred. We do not want that, which is why we are moving to implement full dispersal.

To deliver the new change, we are working in partnership with local authorities to develop regional plans. Between 9 May and 1 July, we held an informal consultation with local authorities and other interested parties to help to shape the design of a reformed asylum dispersal system that is fair, sustainable, innovative and responsive to changing demands and needs, and which, crucially, covers all immigration demands in a local authority area. The focus today is on asylum accommodation but we are conscious—local authorities make this point—that such things as accommodation for Afghans arriving under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, or who had arrived under Op Pitting, resettlement routes and asylum have traditionally been dealt with separately, and it makes sense to bring them together, particularly in areas such as Southwark, which has regularly played its part following requests that we have made.

Full dispersal will provide local authorities with more control and autonomy at a regional level by asking them to collectively agree an approach to dispersal in their region. We are in the process of analysing the evidence gathered through the informal consultation and I look forward to working with local authorities in the coming months following their contribution to this process. We are keen to work with them to agree how this will work and how we fairly allocate the level of accommodation that there should be in local communities, while being clear that full dispersal means that there is not an option for a local authority to walk out of the door and decide not to take part. To be fair, London authorities have worked together in this area for many years and we want to try to move that model to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Part of this is about funding, which the hon. Lady touched on. The full dispersal system will be funded by a model designed to recognise the contribution of areas that have had a long-standing track record of supporting this work, while encouraging the provision of new dispersal accommodation in both new and existing areas where dispersal is applied. Each local authority in England, Scotland and Wales that was accommodating asylum seekers under dispersal on 27 March this year will receive a £250 one-off payment per asylum seeker accommodated in their local area. To date, we have paid 101 local authorities about £14 million to implement and/or bolster services in new and existing areas.

Encouraging the use of new accommodation is part of that. Funding will be available up to 31 March next year to provide £3,500 to the local council for each new dispersal bed space occupied in new and existing dispersal areas, further alleviating pressures on the system. That funding is not ringfenced, which will allow flexibility in its use, recognising the different priorities that local communities may have about how to spend it.

To implement the full dispersal model, we are undertaking a new burdens assessment as part of the informal consultation process. That will provide an opportunity to better understand the costs associated with asylum dispersal and engage with the local government sector. I hope that gives the hon. Lady reassurance that we are looking to move away from a dependency on contingency accommodation.

Despite the challenges, we have consistently met our statutory obligations towards destitute asylum seekers. We expect clear standards from our service providers and monitor them closely to ensure that they meet those standards. When essential living needs are not provided for in hotels, a cash allowance is provided. Extra assistance is provided for those who can show that they have exceptional needs. Additional support is also available for special cases; for example, further top-ups are available for families with pregnant mothers or very young children.

All asylum seekers have access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the advice, issue reporting and eligibility service provided by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services and get information about how to obtain further support.

Turning to the specific subject of the debate, I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the issues with the Barry House site, as she did in late 2018 during a Westminster Hall debate. There have been important developments since that debate. In September 2019, the Home Office started working with our contractor, Clearsprings Ready Homes, in London and the south. That has enabled significant improvements to service delivery, accommodation provision and collaboration with local partners.

We believe that Barry House has been improved and offers a good standard of accommodation and support. It has kitchen facilities on each floor, a spacious dining room, communal spaces, and dedicated areas of privacy for breastfeeding mothers and multi-faith worship. Bedrooms also offer wet rooms and wheelchair access throughout. I heard the concerns that the hon. Lady raised, and we will of course look into them. I am happy to meet her separately, with the Home Office team, to go through them in a little more detail, particularly if there are points about individual cases that she did not want to share in a public forum. We take our responsibilities in this area seriously.

I hope the hon. Lady will have noted that some of the times of stay are not times that we are looking to be the standard but reflect the pressures in the system. Those pressures are motivating our move to things such as full dispersal. We will continue to have a close and collaborative relationship between Home Office officials and senior officials in Southwark. Again, we are grateful for the local council’s support.

On some of the wider points that were raised, we are recruiting more asylum decision makers. Traditionally, there have been about 400 to 500. We are rapidly approaching having 1,000 in post—obviously, there is a process of training and mentoring to go through—and we will look to go beyond that, because we are conscious that we need to get the number of people waiting down. As I have said at the Home Affairs Committee, too many people are waiting too long for a decision. That is not in their interests, it is not in the interests of the immigration system and, ultimately, it is not in the taxpayer’s interests. That is why we are bringing in more people and more resources, and looking at how we can make our teams more productive, learning from other European systems that are able to process decisions more quickly, partly through investment in digital transformation.

Let me conclude by expressing my gratitude to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. I am grateful to all in her community for the support that they provide to those who are accommodated among them while waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. We are reforming the asylum system to make it fairer and more effective. I suspect that the hon. Lady and I disagree about some of the moves we are making to do that, but there is no doubt that an overhaul is needed, not least to put an end to some of the lengthy delays people face while waiting for determination of their asylum claim, and to reduce the time people spend in accommodation that was only designed for them to spend a short period in before moving on to dispersed accommodation. We are committed to making this happen, and we remain committed, as ever, to meeting our statutory duties to support those who would otherwise be destitute and delivering the decisions they require in a timely way.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.