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Cross-Channel Migrants: Manston Facility

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

May I remind Members requesting an urgent question that if another Member is involved, they should please notify them with plenty of time so that they can come to the Chamber? This is a very important UQ, but we must always think about the constituencies affected. I call Dame Diana Johnson.

He has requested that I pull the UQ. I am not willing to do that, but he claims that he did not get the message in good time.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the situation at the Manston facility for cross-channel migrants.

The continued rise in dangerous small boat crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system. The Manston processing centre is a single, secure environment that is used to deliver the crucial first stage of the asylum assessment process in a more integrated manner than was possible in the past. It is resourced and equipped to process migrants securely while efforts are made to provide alternative accommodation as soon as possible. The basic needs of arrivals are provided for at the site, including hot food, fresh clothing, toilet facilities, sanitary packs and medical care. There is 24/7 medical provision, and a GP began work on the site on Monday. Families and vulnerable adults are prioritised for separate hotel accommodation. Full border security checks are carried out before anyone leaves the Manston site, and whenever possible those seeking asylum in the UK are also interviewed and their asylum claims registered before they leave.

As of 8 am today, there were 2,636 arrivals at Manston. We have more than 900 people working there, including trained Home Office staff, contractors and military personnel, with support from security staff. More than 170 people left the site for onward accommodation yesterday alone, and that continues today, with 15 having moved on already. This requires us to source appropriate onward accommodation to house asylum seekers for a longer period. We do not want to place them in accommodation that may leave them more vulnerable and without access to appropriate services.

Lieutenant General Stuart Skeates was seconded to the Home Office on 12 October. He will bring a wealth of experience and is now putting in place the necessary command and control structure as we move forward and ensure that the site operates in the manner that we would all expect.

As always, we urge all who are thinking about leaving a safe country and putting their lives and those of their children and loved ones in the hands of vile people smugglers to seriously reconsider. This Government will deliver a fair and effective immigration system that works in the interests of the British people.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. Let me also welcome the Minister to his place, although I am very disappointed that the Home Secretary is not here to answer this important question.

I do not recognise the description that the Minister has given to the House. The situation at the Manston facility for cross-channel migrants constitutes a major incident that is escalating in severity. Only yesterday, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration described it to the Home Affairs Committee as “a really dangerous situation” that had left him “speechless”. The number of individuals currently being detained—about 3,000—is larger than any prison population in the country, and vastly exceeds Manston’s capacity of 1,600. Detainees are being guarded by people described by the chief inspector as not appropriately trained, and he further warned of a risk of fire, infection and disorder spreading within the facility.

The Committee heard that people are being held for well over 24 hours, and some for as long as a month. As of Monday, one Syrian family had been detained for two weeks, while an Afghan family had been held there for 32 days. There is a serious question about the legality of detaining people at the facility for more than 24 hours. Will the Minister tell us how long the Government can legally detain people at a short-term holding facility? This facility was not designed for people to stay there for more than 24 hours.

Families are being housed for weeks on camp beds, with no onsite catering facilities and limited personal and clothes-washing facilities. Several cases of diphtheria and scabies have been detected. Can the Minister tell us what the timeline is for upgrading facilities so that they are safe and fit for purpose? Can he also tell us what action will be taken specifically to safeguard children who are being detained there? What conversations has he had with the Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs about staff safety and wellbeing?

The evidence we heard indicates that the situation unfolding at Manston is not some unforeseeable mishap, but the product of a malfunctioning system. Why were the warning signs of this impending crisis not acted upon earlier, when numbers started to escalate in August with 8,000 people crossing the channel? That would have avoided the current situation. What exactly did the Home Secretary do about the situation at Manston during her previous tenure?

Finally, may I ask the Minister to confirm that the Home Affairs Committee can visit Manston next week?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her kind words about my appointment. I was honoured to be appointed by the Prime Minister 48 hours ago to help my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to lead the Home Office forward, and to tackle issues, such as this, which are of the greatest concern to the British public.

We want to build a fair immigration system that enables people who come to the UK via safe and legal routes to do so, while also being robust in dealing with those who choose to come here illegally. It is not right that people smugglers are enabling people to risk their lives in dangerous channel crossings. Individuals often come from safe countries, and at the expense of people we would want to bring to this country, such as those from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

With regard to the right hon. Lady’s specific questions, I was of course concerned to read the evidence that was presented to her Committee yesterday by David Neal, the independent chief inspector. I will meet Mr Neal next week, and will listen directly to his concerns. I intend to visit Manston as soon as possible—hopefully next week.

We want to ensure that the site is maintained legally, of course. It is absolutely essential that any site that the Home Office operates is managed within the law. Mr Neal raised a number of concerns, and I will refer briefly to as many of them as possible. With regard to the conditions for individuals staying at the site, the site was designed to be temporary. Individuals who enter it are supposed to stay for only a matter of hours—perhaps 24 hours at a maximum—and as a result the facilities are temporary. People are none the less given accommodation that is heated and has air conditioning, food and medical supplies. Families are prioritised for better accommodation and for swift opportunities to leave for hotel accommodation.

I was concerned at Mr Neal’s suggestion that there had been a degree of unrest and of health considerations. I am told that, although there have been some incidents, the site is mainly stable, but I will take that up further and see for myself when I visit. There have been a very small number of cases of diphtheria. Those individuals were isolated and public health guidelines were immediately followed, and a permanent ward, with a doctor, has been created to manage that situation.

Our longer-term plan is clearly to reduce the population at Manston as quickly as is practicable. The numbers that I read out in my opening remarks show that the population of the site is reducing, but that is dependent on the numbers coming across the channel, so our longer-term aim has to be to strongly deter people from making that extremely dangerous crossing of the channel, and to use all means available to us. I hope that that aim can unite us across the House. It cannot be right for individuals to leave a safe country—our closest, safest ally: France—to risk their lives coming to the United Kingdom. In doing so, and by coming to sites such as Manston, they are putting immense pressure on the system, meaning that we are unable to fulfil our obligations to individuals who come safely and legally from Ukraine, Afghanistan and other countries, who must be the first priority of the UK Government.

The evidence that the Home Affairs Committee heard from David Neal yesterday was shocking, and it certainly presented a very different picture of Manston from what the Committee had seen when we visited this summer. I am glad to hear that the Minister is meeting David Neal next week. May I suggest that the Home Secretary sits in on that meeting? Mr Neal has not been able to meet a single Home Secretary since he was appointed, despite several requests.

The other shocking revelation yesterday, which is partly connected to the logjam at Manston, was the fact that of the 28,000 people who came across in small boats in 2021, only 4% have had their claims processed, which means there is an enormous backlog. What will the Minister do, as his highest priority, to get those applications processed much more swiftly, and to remove from this country people who do not have a claim to be here, freeing up space for those who genuinely have a claim?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question and for his long-standing interest in this issue. He is absolutely right that part of a fair and robust asylum system is that individuals who come to the UK have their claims processed as quickly as possible, and that if they are denied, they are removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity. That will be a priority for me and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We will review the backlog of cases to see how we can improve the productivity of the Home Office. I am told that 1,000 individuals are now working through those cases; it must be possible for us to reduce that backlog quickly. Other countries, such as France and Greece, are more productive and faster at processing claims, so I intend to review their processes to see what we can learn and whether we can bring those processes to bear in the UK in order to have a better system.

I welcome the Immigration Minister and congratulate him on his appointment, and I thank the Cahir of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), for securing this urgent question.

The Government’s handling of the dangerous channel crossings has been disastrous. There has been a huge proliferation of criminal gangs operating in the channel and a failure to put the requisite policing and cross-border co-operation in place. We have seen a big increase in dangerous boat crossings, putting thousands of lives at risk, which everyone should be working to stop. And there has been a collapse in asylum decision making, with 14,000 decisions a year compared with 28,000 initial decisions just six years ago.

Reports say it is now taking, on average, 480 days to make an initial decision, which plays into the hands of people traffickers and people smugglers. We have also had reports of hundreds of children going missing, soaring backlogs, huge hotel bills and security and fingerprinting failures, as well as the devastating reports of what is happening at Manston, including the chief inspector saying Manston is dangerous and describing an Afghan family who have been in a marquee for 32 days. This follows damning independent reports on the Government’s handling of this, including their rhetorical and expensive gimmicks that do not actually solve the problem.

The Minister’s response sounded complacent, so can he confirm that the Home Secretary was previously given options to ease the situation at Manston and refused to act? Will he now accept that these expensive gimmick policies, such as spending £140 million on a Rwanda policy that is unworkable and unethical, and that the Home Secretary herself has said is failing, is the wrong approach and that he should instead put that money into boosting the National Crime Agency and tackling the criminal gangs? And when will the backlog be cleared? This is too important for the kind of chaos we have had for the last few years.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for welcoming me to my position and for her questions. I do not detect any plan from the Labour party for how it would tackle this issue. We intend to bear down on illegal immigration and ensure that those who come to the UK illegally on small boats are processed as swiftly as possible and, if their asylum claims are rejected, removed from the United Kingdom. That is what we need to do to have a robust but fair immigration system.

Of course any individual who comes to the UK must be treated compassionately and humanely while they are under our care, which is why I will be making inquiries and visiting Manston to ensure the site is operating appropriately. The backlog is a serious concern, which is why we now have 1,000 members of the Home Office team working on these cases, and I want to ensure it is done as swiftly as possible.

We will also ensure that Border Force continues to robustly police the channel, to ensure we deter people from making the dangerous crossing. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, the new Prime Minister and I are particularly concerned to ensure that we take the opportunity of his premiership to build a productive and constructive relationship with our friends in France to see whether there are further measures we can take together to bear down on the issue.

In particular, we will see how we can tackle the growing issue of Albanians coming to the United Kingdom, which is a priority for the Home Secretary. Up to a quarter of people making the crossing to the UK this year, and at times 80% of them, come from Albania, which is a safe country. Those individuals have crossed through multiple safe countries to come to the UK, which is not acceptable. We need to ensure that we deter these individuals as swiftly as possible.

The fact that we have the Manston processing centre shows the shocking failure of this country to protect our borders, especially the English channel. We are telling people that it is time to tighten our belts, yet we are spending £2 billion a year on housing these illegal immigrants, including 10,000 Albanian men. We talk about the Rwanda scheme, but I am struggling to look my constituents in the eye when they tell me that thousands of young men are coming across every single week. When are we going to sort it out?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. It is disgraceful that this country is spending hundreds of millions of pounds on accommodating people in hotels, and we need to resolve that. To do that, we have to tackle the issue on multiple fronts: diplomatically, with our friends and neighbours; with robust enforcement in the channel; and by ensuring that those individuals who do come here are processed as swiftly as possible and are returned where they do not meet the standard to be granted asylum. That is exactly the approach that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I will be setting out, building on the statement that the new Prime Minister made in the summer in his 10-point plan for immigration.

The Prison Officers Association’s Andy Baxter has described this as:

“A humanitarian crisis on British soil”.

As we have heard, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, told MPs that he was left “speechless” by what he saw and advised that we are now past the point where we can describe Manston as being a safe facility. This Home Secretary had better start to listen and the Minister needs to listen, rather than reading out briefings that announce the provision of toilet facilities. He needs to understand what people actually need. How on earth have we ended up with people sleeping on cardboard, in tents, and with outbreaks of diphtheria and norovirus? We are constantly debating these conditions here. Why do we keep coming back to this? How many times are we going to be standing here repeating the question: where was the forward thinking? The Home Office is not coping, but instead of spending that £120 million on her “dream” flight to Rwanda had the Home Secretary spent it on caseworkers, perhaps we would not have these disgraceful logjams.

Finally, Manston is supposed to be a short-term holding facility; people are not supposed to be there for more than 48 hours. Surely that means that people are now being detained illegally in these conditions, so will he tell us: how many people have been detained for more than 48 hours? how many claims for unlawful detention is he expecting and at what cost?

We do not want these individuals to make the channel crossing in the first place. They are coming from a safe country and most have travelled through multiple safe countries before making the crossing. They have chosen to make a highly dangerous crossing. When they arrive, we should, of course, treat them humanely. That is exactly what we intend to do, but the Manston site is only meant to be there as a temporary facility to handle people in the instant of their arrival, before they are transferred to other accommodation. We could and will put on more hotel accommodation, but that cannot be our long-term solution. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that we just spend millions of pounds more on hotels and that we build more five-star hotels in which to put people who have crossed the channel? No, that is not the answer. The answer is to try to deter people from crossing the channel, and then to process their claims as quickly as possible and send back those who should not be in the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has asked me to say that he would have been here but he is at a meeting in Manston as we speak. In order to improve his mood, I am sure he would welcome a telephone call later on from the Minister. My constituents may be extremely concerned about the sheer volume of small boat crossings, but they are also compassionate people and they will welcome the Minister’s comments this morning about improving wellbeing. However, all of this is putting extreme pressure on the resources in Kent, including on the lifeboat crews, the health services and of course Kent police. So will the Minister outline what is being done to support the police and other resources across the country, in dealing both with the landings and with the security at Manston?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that and I will be speaking to her friend and neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). I know that the Home Secretary is meeting him later today to speak to him as well. I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern and that of Members of Parliament throughout Kent; this intolerable situation is placing great strain on members of the public and on the emergency services and local authorities within the area. I know that only too well from my previous experience as Local Government Secretary. The Department is determined to support those local authorities as best as we can. Yesterday, I met the leadership of Border Force to discuss the resources we have in the area and I will be visiting Dover next week.

Between 2015 and 2020, the proportion of asylum seekers whose applications were decided by the Home Office within the six-month target plummeted from 80% to 17%, and the consequence is misery and mental health issues for asylum seekers, and pressure on local accommodation and local communities. All I can say to them is, “The Home Office is broken”. When will it work?

There is a range of reasons why the processing of asylum claims is taking longer than we would like, but it is a priority of mine, as the new Minister in the Department. I have already met the relevant officials, and we will be looking at ways in which we can improve their productivity as swiftly as possible. As I said in response to an earlier question, we do now have the right number of staff processing the claims. A thousand people are working on this. That is a good number of individuals tackling the issue so I hope that we can make swift progress.

What is the target date for ending this farce? Will my right hon. Friend explain to us that in Manston the conditions, although far from ideal, are a heck of a sight better than the conditions in squatter camps in Calais or on those overcrowded, dangerous boats crossing the channel? So some of the people at Manston should probably be counting their blessings.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that these individuals have chosen to make an extremely dangerous and perilous crossing. We have greeted them, and we are ensuring that they are treated humanely for a very short period of time while they make their initial asylum claim, if that is what they intend to do, and then they are taken to other and better accommodation. We have given them the food, the medical care and the clothing that they need, as befits a welcoming country, but this is not the long-term solution to the problem. We do not want to be receiving tens of thousands of individuals in small boats across the channel, and that is why we are taking all the steps we can to deter people from making this dangerous crossing in the first place.

On Monday the latest Prime Minister said that he would restore integrity, professionalism and accountability to government. How is the Home Secretary’s failure to come here and answer a very serious question in her area of responsibility for the second day running consistent with that pledge?

Cornwall is a long way from Kent, but almost every day I receive emails from constituents who are concerned and often angry about the sheer number of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers arriving on our shores. As well as the very real concerns about the situation at Manston, is not the real question here that we urgently need to find a way of stopping people crossing the channel? Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the solution is the measures contained in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022? Does he agree that we will take no lessons from the Opposition parties on this, who voted against that very Bill?

Absolutely. Fundamentally, the Opposition parties want to see uncontrolled immigration. We disagree with that and it is entirely out of step with the British public. We want to see those people who wish to come here do so safely and legally, and we want to see the best and the brightest around the world find a home in the United Kingdom. But it must be controlled immigration, and we must have a robust response to those who come here illegally.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) is right to remind us that during consideration of the Nationality and Borders Bill we were told repeatedly that the provisions of the Bill, which is now an Act, were necessary to stop the flow of small boats across the channel. The Act was brought into force in June. What has happened to the number of boats making the crossing since then?

The number of people crossing the channel remains unacceptably high, and that is why it needs to be a priority for me and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his post. I expect him to be both tough and compassionate in dealing with immigration. Many of my constituents go to France on holiday because it is safe, and a nice place to go, and they are perplexed at these people coming in, who are creating profits for criminal gangs. We need to crack down on this particular area. My right hon. Friend mentioned that he was going down to Kent, and I welcome that. Is he going to go and see his French counterpart soon for further discussions about how we can stop this terrible trade?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, which gets to the nub of the question. These individuals are leaving a safe country, and they are leaving France, of all safe countries. We must do more to deter them from making the dangerous crossing. I will be going to France to meet my opposite number and other elected officials, both in Pas de Calais and in the French Government. An opportunity is afforded to us by the arrival of the new Prime Minister to improve relationships and see what further action we might be able to take together.

As chair of the all-party group on immigration detention, I have heard many stories over the years of inadequate facilities for people who have come from very desperate circumstances, but the circumstances at Manston really do cause great concern. Can the Minister tell me how many children are currently housed at the facility, and what he is doing to ensure that there are no children or families held there, because it seems entirely inappropriate for anybody, least of all children?

A small number of children are held at the facility. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we do prioritise families, so that families are, as swiftly as possible, allowed to leave the facility and taken to more suitable hotel accommodation. The same approach applies to vulnerable adults.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the Chamber this morning to answer the urgent question. The situation at Manston is obviously unsustainable and, according to reports, unacceptable. Can he go into more detail about what we are doing to speed up the application process, so that we can relieve the pressure on Manston?

The Home Secretary and her predecessors have been putting in place a number of measures over the course of the summer, including hiring more individuals to process the claims at the Home Office. As I said earlier, we now have a team of 1,000, which seems to be the right number given the scale of the backlog. We are working through how they can process those claims as quickly as possible. We do process claims in slower order in the UK than some other comparable countries, and there is reason to believe that we can make the process more productive than it is today.

Manston is a disaster for migrants who find themselves there, and it is a black mark against the bureaucratic competence of the Home Office. The processing regime more generally is a disaster for standards of humanity. More broadly, the dynamic that saw the Royal Navy dragged into this space to compensate for failures of Border Force—principally, a lack of resource—is deeply unwelcome for defence. Against all that, can the Minister advise what this information rule-breaking, retread Home Secretary will do to fix the problem?

I welcome the appointment of the Minister to this important and difficult role and everything that he said about making sure that the facilities at Manston are appropriate and legal. Surely, at the heart of this problem, is the sharp increase in illegal immigrants from Albania. Will he say more about whether we have adequate resources in Tirana to look at the validity of asylum claims, which— given that there is not a civil war or general unrest in Albania—may not be very strong anyway, to ensure that we can return as many of them as fast as possible? Is the agreement that is already in place for Albanians to serve prison sentences in Albania working as effectively as he would hope?

That is a very important question and one to which I will be giving a lot of thought in the coming days. As I said earlier, around a quarter of those individuals who have crossed the short strait this year alone have come from Albania. On some boats, 80% of the individuals are coming from Albania. As my hon. Friend said, Albania is quite clearly a safe country, and those individuals have crossed through multiple other safe countries before arriving in the United Kingdom. Some reports suggest that as much as 1% or even 2% of the adult male population of Albania either have attempted to leave the country in this manner, or are contemplating doing so.

This is a serious issue on which we need to get a grip, and there are a number of fronts on which we are doing that. We are considering whether there is a bespoke route for Albanians to have their cases heard quickly and to be removed from the country if they are not found to be successful—returned to Albania. We are also looking diplomatically at how we can work with the Government in Albania and in coalition with like-minded countries such as France to reach an agreement with Albania. I would be happy to update my hon. Friend as soon as we make further progress.

I thank the Minister for his answers and wish him well in his new role; I am sure he will do well with it. With the turmoil of winter about to arrive, my real fear is the loss of life that will take place among those who cross illegally in unfit boats. The need to prevent the crossings before they begin is stronger than ever, and I know he also understands that. What more can we do with our French allies to take more proactive steps at those ports and launching locations? Will he task our allies with taking those enhanced steps that are very much needed?

I intend to have the most constructive approach possible with our friends in France to try to address the issue together. Our progress will always be limited if we cannot have a good relationship across the channel. A number of steps have been taken in recent weeks and months; in fact, the French authorities deter up to half the crossings attempted from French beaches, but clearly that is not enough, because far too many people still make that perilous journey. It will be an early priority for me and the Home Secretary to speak to our counterparts in France and see what further steps we can take.

I too congratulate the Minister on his new role. Does he agree that to stop totally inappropriate facilities such as the Skylark Hotel on the border of my constituency suddenly being considered for housing asylum seekers, we must not only crack down on those evil people-smuggling gangs and dangerous boat crossings, but speed up the application process at the Manston facility?

I agree with everything my hon. Friend says. It is quite wrong that the British taxpayer is paying for hotels to such a degree. We need to reduce our reliance on those hotels as quickly as possible and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I will do exactly that.

In my short time as a parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office, working on illegal and legal immigration, I saw the dedicated work of the staff there. Will my right hon. Friend thank the staff, who are under huge pressure in trying to process visas, immigrants and asylum seekers? More importantly, is not the long-term process about stopping illegal immigration while providing more legal immigration, as we have done through Ukraine, Hong Kong, Syria and Afghanistan? Is that not the solution?

It certainly is. We want the UK to be a home for those in genuine need of refuge. I am proud of the work we have done in recent years: the scheme for Hong Kong nationals to come to the UK, the work we have done with the Ukrainians—I have been honoured to have a Ukrainian family stay with my family this year—and the work we are doing to ensure that those who supported the British armed forces in Afghanistan can come and find safe refuge here in the UK. We are a welcoming country and that should continue, but we must crack down on those who are coming here illegally. It is wrong and it means that our system is overwhelmed and unable to provide the support that those who should be here deserve.

Many of my constituents are concerned about illegal immigration and the Government are right to tackle it. Will the Minister confirm again, however, that by tackling illegal immigration we ensure that the UK Government have the capacity and facilities available to ensure that vulnerable people coming here in need of help from other places in the world have that support?

The real issue we have faced in the past two years is that because of the scale of illegal immigration, including through small boats, we have not been able to provide the kind of welcome that we would have wished for those coming from, for example, Afghanistan or Ukraine, because hotel capacity has been limited and social housing capacity has been extremely tight. We need to bear down on illegal immigration, not only because it is the right thing to do, but so that we can provide a humane and compassionate welcome for those who deserve to be here in the UK.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to make this point of order. I want to apologise to the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). My understanding was that the facility at Manston was in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay). He was the person I emailed last night, and he thanked me for doing so. I am very sorry for that confusion, and I will of course contact the right hon. Member for North Thanet directly as well.

Thank you for that.

The next business is business questions. The Leader of the House has informed me that she is unable to be present until around 12 noon. Given that there is no Deputy Leader of the House, I have to suspend the House until her return. I will arrange for the Division bell to be rung shortly before the House resumes, and for a message to be placed on the Annunciator.

Sitting suspended.