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Asylum Accommodation: Novotel Ipswich

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of Novotel Ipswich as asylum accommodation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hollobone.

It is difficult for me to stress how big an issue this is in my constituency. It is something I have been aware of for some time. Before it became public, I was made aware of it as the local Member of Parliament, so that is not my complaint—I was aware of it. There is a paper trail that shows me strongly opposing the use of the Novotel for the purposes in question, and I have worked with Ipswich Borough Council on it. There are many issues on which the Labour-run council and I do not see eye to eye, but on this matter we have been on the same side.

In keeping with what many other local authorities have done, the council has, on planning grounds, secured a temporary injunction, and there will be a court hearing later today—it was meant to be yesterday. What the outcome will be I do not know. What I am saying today is less of a legal point and more of a political point on the ins and outs of whether this is the right thing to do, and I will give my views as the as the local Member of Parliament representing my constituents.

The Novotel is a town centre hotel in Ipswich. It is a good quality hotel in an incredibly important location, linking the waterfront to the Saints, which leads up to the town centre. It is an area of the town that has been at the heart of our regeneration efforts. My right hon. Friend the Minister might remember his visit to Ipswich to talk about the town deal. A significant part of the town deal is about regenerating the part of the town where the Novotel sits, and that is one of my concerns. I am already hearing stories about the way in which the building and the upkeep of it has deteriorated since it was acquired by the Home Office for this six-month period.

My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he agree that often we are talking not about budget accommodation, but about accommodating those who come over here illegally on small boat crossings in smart hotels in city and town centre locations? What sort of message does he think that sends to those living on modest incomes in the middle of a global cost of living crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. In answer to his question, I think it sends all the wrong messages. The cost to the taxpayer at a national level of putting up many illegal immigrants in hotel accommodation is huge. To say that it grates with a large number of my constituents would be an understatement. The Novotel is a nice hotel. I have been there before and my family have stayed there. I have spent time there. The issue is not in keeping with what we should be doing. My personal view is that if someone has entered this country illegally, they are not welcome and virtually all of them should be deported. But if we are going to have them staying here for a short term, it should be in basic, safe and secure accommodation, not hotels.

In addition to the Novotel with its 200 spaces in the town centre of Ipswich, there is a Best Western hotel in Copdock, which is not technically within the boundaries of Ipswich borough or my constituency, but for all intents and purposes it is within the urban area of Ipswich, so this is already causing concern for my constituents and having an impact on local public services. We are looking not just at the 200 in the Novotel, but the 150 in Copdock, so we are talking about 350 individuals who are overwhelmingly young men and who have all entered this country illegally.

Why is the Novotel the wrong location? Why is the decision to acquire the use of the Novotel for 200 individuals the wrong thing to do? Why has it united virtually everyone in the community against it? It has united the Conservative Member of Parliament, the Labour-run borough council, and the local business improvement district. It has united all sorts of people whom I do not often agree with, but we are all of one view: this is not the right location to be accommodating these individuals.

Something that I also find desperately concerning is the way in which 20 constituents of mine who worked at the hotel have been treated by Fairview Hotels (Ipswich). They were given five and a half days’ notice that their jobs were on the line, and many of them felt pressured into resigning under the vague promise that they might get their jobs back after the six-month period. I have one constituent whose daughter came home and broke down in tears because of the way she had been treated by those who manage the hotel. My responsibility is to her. My responsibility is to those 20 constituents. My responsibility is not to think about the welfare of those who have entered our country illegally, and I make no apology for that.

In terms of the economic impact of using this Novotel, a huge amount of effort is going into promoting Ipswich as a visitor destination. Ipswich is surrounded by beautiful countryside. It is the oldest town in the country—I thought it was older than Colchester anyway, but now that Colchester has city status, Ipswich is definitely the oldest town in the country. It was home to Cardinal Wolsey, and soon we will be celebrating the 550th anniversary of his birth. Only a stone’s throw away from the Novotel is Wolsey’s Gate, which was built by Cardinal Wolsey, and there is a whole operation to try to enhance the area.

What we are talking about is a 200-room, good-quality hotel in the centre of Ipswich that is lost to us and our local economy. It has been described by a business lady who runs a successful shop a stone’s throw away from the hotel as being an economic bomb that has landed on the town, and there is consensus within the business community that that is the case.

There is also the other angle: the nature of the hotel means that it is often used by successful businesses in Ipswich to host clients. If they have clients visiting or there are conferences, the Novotel is more often than not the hotel that is used, so losing those 200 beds is a further negative economic impact.

I also want to talk about community tension, which is an important point and I plan to address it directly. Ipswich is a welcoming town. It is a multicultural town and it has benefitted from that diversity. It is an integrated town. We have a history of welcoming genuine refugees—some of them are Conservative councillors, and some are from Albania—but they came here in a proper way. They came here legally, they were welcomed, and they have thrived in Ipswich. They have been welcomed in Ipswich and have made a positive contribution. The people of Ipswich are welcoming people but, quite frankly, there is a limit. When they see that people who deliberately enter our country illegally from another safe European country are being accommodated at vast expense in a good quality local hotel in an important location, which is costing local jobs and having a spill-over negative impact on the local economy, they are quite rightly furious. It is not surprising—I make no exaggeration in saying this—that at a time of cost of living strain, when many constituents are desperately concerned about getting by, I am hearing more about this than any other local issue in my postbag. I need to make the point that we are a welcoming and compassionate town.

I move on now to the general point. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have been a consistent voice on the issue of illegal immigration since I was elected to this place. I support the Home Secretary fully in her efforts, and I support my right hon. Friend the Minister’s efforts fully. I was behind him in the main Chamber yesterday, supporting him. I was proud to do that, and he knows he has my support.

My view is that the situation would be even worse under Labour—there is no one from the party present. I find it somewhat ironic that the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), visited Ipswich last week and commented on this matter, even though about a year ago, when she was Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, she called an urgent question to oppose the use of Napier barracks for those who have entered our country illegally. All I would say is that I would much prefer the use of disused Army barracks for these individuals, rather than good quality hotels in the centre of Ipswich. I also note that the Labour candidate for Ipswich has made multiple visits to Calais. Quite what he was doing there, I do not know, but that is by the by; I will not get distracted by that.

I will finish simply by saying that I acknowledge the fact that, in tackling illegal immigration, there is no silver bullet. I am encouraged by the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Macron yesterday, and I look forward to hearing what came out of it. I have confidence in the Prime Minister on the issue. I spoke to him, and supported him. He is a great man. But, ultimately, we have to put turbochargers under the Rwanda policy. That needs to be part of it. Sections of the left deride what happened in Australia; they say that Australia’s offshore processing approach was not successful. Everything that I have seen indicates that it was successful. The fact of the matter is that Australia had a big problem with illegal immigration, it started offshore processing, and it now no longer has a big problem. I understand that Australia had two different locations and is not using one of them, and that there might be differences between Australia and ourselves, but ultimately the principle holds. I strongly encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister not just to support the concept in principle but to stress the urgency of delivering it and of doing what is required to deliver it. He has huge support on our Benches to get this done.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for coming to support me today. He is also a strong voice on this matter. We do not know what will happen in court later today with the temporary injunction; I hope that it is successful. But if it is not, we must separate it from the bigger issue of how we tackle the crossings. In the short term, we are where we are now. We must look again at the use of Novotel, take on board the view of the local business community and work with and support those 20 employees. They are my constituents, and have been treated very poorly. That is all I have to say on the matter.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Given your duties as Chair you will not be able to say so, but I know that you also feel strongly about the issue, which affects your constituents in Kettering. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for raising the matter, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for supporting him. The issue clearly concerns many Members across the House and millions of people across the country. Resolving it is a first-order priority for the Government.

The ongoing legal action means it is difficult for me to comment on the specific case of the hotel in Ipswich, but I will speak about it in more general terms, and about the wider issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. I know Ipswich well, and met my hon. Friend for the first time when he was standing for Parliament there, when we toured Ipswich and visited the harbour, where the hotel is. I have seen the good work that he is doing with the council and others on the town deal board to regenerate Ipswich and help it achieve its potential. It is concerning to hear that the actions of the Home Office might, in a small way, be damaging his and the community’s wider efforts to boost opportunities and prosperity in Ipswich.

Since we came into office, the initial task for me and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been to resolve the very urgent situation that we found in Manston in Kent, where a large number of migrants who crossed the channel illegally in small boats were being accommodated in a temporary processing facility that was meant for a smaller number of individuals. That was not within the control of the Government. It was the result of thousands of people choosing to make that perilous journey—over 40,000 this year alone, and rising. We had to ensure that the site was operating legally and decently. As a result, we had to procure further hotels and other types of accommodation across the country at some pace. I am pleased to say that that hard work is bearing fruit, and the situation at Manston has significantly improved. The number of people being accommodated there is now back down to the level for which it was designed.

That leads to the second priority, which is to stabilise the situation more broadly, and ensure that we procure hotels in a sensible, common-sense way. The case that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich raises prompts some important questions. First, when we choose hotels, other than in emergency situations such as the one we have been in with Manston, we need to ensure there is proper engagement with local Members of Parliament and local authorities, so that we choose hotels that might not be desirable but are none the less broadly suitable and can command a degree of public support. In some cases, we have seen hotels chosen that simply do not meet that barrier.

We need to ensure hotels are chosen against sensible, objective criteria. Those criteria might mean ensuring that towns such as Ipswich can continue to carry out their day-to-day business, and ensuring that tourists can be accommodated and that business and leisure travellers can find hotel accommodation in the centre. They will include ensuring that we take into account safeguarding concerns, for example by not choosing hotels that are next to children’s homes, schools or places where young people congregate. The criteria will certainly include taking into account community cohesion and the likelihood for disruption, and they should, obviously, include value for money for the taxpayer. On that point, I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend that we should be choosing decent but not luxurious accommodation. People coming here seeking refuge should be accommodated in simple but humane accommodation. He referenced the situation in Calais. The way this country accommodates asylum seekers vastly outweighs the way some neighbouring countries choose to do so, and I am afraid that creates an additional pull factor to the UK.

Deterrence needs to be suffused throughout our entire approach. We can be decent and humane, but we also need to apply hard-headed common sense. Once we have stabilised the present situation, and applied those criteria and better engagement methods, the third strand of our strategy is to exit from hotels altogether. Accommodating thousands of individuals in hotels costs the UK over £2 billion a year. In a time of fiscal constraints, that is an unconscionable sum of money and we need to ensure we move away from that as swiftly as we can.

The strategy that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are establishing to do that has a number of fronts. One will be ensuring fairer dispersal across the country, so that cities and larger towns do not bear a disproportionate impact of the asylum seeker issue. Secondly, it will involve looking for other sites, away from hotels, that provide better value for money for the taxpayer, which might mean more simple forms of accommodation; we hope to say more on that soon. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we will accelerate the processing of asylum claims altogether, so that those individuals whose claims are rejected can be removed from the country swiftly and those whose claims are upheld can start working, create a new life in the UK and make an economic and broader contribution to the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. There are a great number of Members on our Benches who think that the very act of coming here illegally should prohibit people from making an application at all. Frankly, those people have already broken the law of the land by entering illegally. There is also an issue with the definition of “refugee” and I understand our rates of granting refugee status are much higher than those of comparable European countries. Will he expand further on any work that may be done by Government to make a narrower definition of what a refugee actually is? My concern is that some people are being given refugee status who may not be refugees, if we stick to the sense of the word.

My hon. Friend raises two important points. First, we are very concerned that a large number of individuals, certainly all those coming across in small boats, have transited through multiple safe countries before choosing to make the crossing to the UK. We do not want to be a country that attracts asylum shoppers. We want people to be seeking asylum in the first safe country that they enter. That may necessitate further changes to the law. We want to have a legal framework that is broadly based on individuals who are fleeing genuine persecution, such as war or serious human rights abuses, finding refuge in the UK through safe and legal routes, such as the highly effective resettlement schemes that we have established in recent years for, for example, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong. My hon. Friend was right to say that his constituents in Ipswich, like millions of people across the country, broadly support that approach and have played an important role in recent months, for example by taking in refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. We do not want people to be encouraged by people smugglers to cross the channel illegally and then find refuge in the UK.

The second point that my hon. Friend raises, which is equally perceptive, is that the UK’s asylum system grants asylum to a higher proportion of applicants than those of some comparable countries, such as France and Germany. The Home Secretary and I are looking at that issue in some detail to see whether we can make changes to the way we manage the process and the criteria we adopt, not so that we become a country that is unwelcoming or ungenerous—that is not the British way—but so that we do not create an additional pull factor to the UK over and above other countries that are signatories to exactly the same conventions and treaties to which the UK is party.

To be perfectly honest, I am quite keen for us to be unwelcoming towards those who have illegally entered our country. What is the difference between breaking our immigration law and breaking any other domestic law? From what I see, if someone breaks a law in the country, they get punished. Surely breaking our immigration law is breaking our law, and the people who do so should be treated as such.

I do not want to get into a detailed conversation about our exact treaty obligations and the legal framework, but the issue is that any individual can claim asylum regardless of the means by which they came to the UK, regardless of whether they have transited through safe countries, and even regardless of whether they came from a safe country in the first place. That balance is not currently right, so we need to look carefully at how we can change it.

The most striking issue is the individuals coming from demonstrably safe countries. Today, about 30% of the individuals crossing the channel have come from Albania. That is a first-order priority for the Home Secretary and I to address, because it cannot be right that the UK provides safety and support for those individuals—mostly young men who are healthy and sufficiently prosperous to pay people traffickers, and who come from a country as safe as Albania. We need to change that. We have already returned 1,000 Albanians under the return agreement signed by the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). The present Home Secretary and I want to take that significantly further.

The longer-term trajectory obviously has to be moving away from tackling merely the symptoms of the problem—the processing of applications and the accommodation of individuals in expensive hotels—to tackling the root cause itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich is correct that a significant element of that will be to make further legal changes to our framework. Another element will be ensuring that deterrence is suffused through our approach so that we do not become a magnet for illegal migrants. We need the UK to be a country that supports those in genuine need, but we must not create a framework that is significantly more attractive than those of our EU neighbours.

That will also require work on the diplomatic front. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just returned from Sharm el-Sheikh, where he had further positive conversations with President Macron and other world leaders who are dealing with the symptoms of a global migration crisis. It will require tougher action by the security services to address the criminal gangs and gain greater intelligence on their work overseas. It will include tougher action at home on employers who illegally employ migrants who do not have the right to work here.

On all those fronts, the Home Secretary and I are absolutely committed to tackling this issue. I know it is extremely important to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, who is one of the leading voices in Parliament on it, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. They are both simply representing the strong views of their constituents, who, like millions of people across the country, want secure borders and a fair and robust immigration and asylum system. That is exactly what the Home Secretary and I intend to deliver.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.