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Asylum Seekers Contingency Accommodation: Belfast

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022

I will call Claire Hanna to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention with 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of contingency accommodation for asylum seekers in Belfast.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Robert  I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue and I welcome the presence of the Minister to respond. It is fair to say that the Minister’s party and my own are probably in very different places ideologically in how we approach asylum and humanitarian issues, but I intend to focus my remarks on the implementation and impact of UK Government policy as it manifests in the area that I represent—primarily the use of hotels for long periods due to the catastrophic Home Office failures in processing asylum applications.

The growing backlog in decisions and claims is the core problem in asylum, meaning that more people are left in limbo, unable to move on and live a life. Anyone in direct contact with people in asylum accommodation knows that it is unsuitable for most, especially families and those with specific needs, on anything more than a very short-term basis. By way of context, it is of course a complicated and hard enough and dangerous world out there. Although the necessity to leave one’s home country in order to survive is beyond the lived experience of most of us in this room, we know there are myriad reasons that people are forced to make the decision to flee their home—war, famine, persecution, and increasingly the climate crisis. We are lucky to live in places where we are not faced with those kinds of decisions. Indeed, the UK receives a relatively low number of applications from the global asylum seeker population—considerably below the European average.

The number of people seeking asylum has not changed dramatically over the years, although the routes have changed and the number of arrivals in Belfast has increased. There is a current upward curve, but, overall, arrivals remain below the levels of asylum sought in the early 2000s. What has changed, though, and what has collapsed, is the Home Office’s willingness or ability to process applications properly, and that is creating bottlenecks in the use of contingency hotel accommodation. The system is broken and unfortunately there seems to be no plan to fix it. If the Government spent as much money on resourcing, processing or designing safe routes as they have on cartoonishly cruel proposals such as the Rwanda scheme and wave machines, we would be in a very different position.

I am encouraged by word of positive discussions with France to reduce unsafe channel crossings because, to date, the only success of Government policy has been to increase fear and trauma among asylum seekers and refugees. It is not reducing the number of people coming because they do not, in most cases, have the luxury of choice.

I represent south Belfast, long known as the most diverse and integrated part of Northern Ireland, and proudly home to people from all around the world. As the MP, I am often contacted by people regarding their asylum claims, and the numbers have spiked in the last year for reasons that include a post-covid backlog and being forced to apply retrospectively post arrival.

Figures from the Refugee Council indicate that the UK’s asylum backlog has almost quadrupled in the last five years, from just under 30,000 in December 2017 to 122,000 in June 2022. The comparison over 10 years is even more stark. In December 2011, the number of people awaiting an initial decision was just 12,800. Freedom of information requests reveal that of those awaiting an initial decision, one third have been waiting one to three years, with a proportion waiting more than five years, which is the situation facing specific constituents of mine. That limbo period is a mental torment for people who are unable to participate properly in society, who have little recourse to public funds, and who are unable to work or start a business. Some three quarters of applicants are ultimately accepted as legitimately seeking asylum, but they are held back unnecessarily from beginning a new life.

Selectively leaked Home Office figures urge us all to look instead at those who do not have legitimate claims—a deflection and a demonisation strategy that many of us are used to in terms of the abuse of people who require social security support. The obvious way to address those who do not qualify for asylum is to process and reject their applications, but that is not as politically lucrative as rhetoric about invasion and overwhelm.

Home Office figures, to the extent that they are available by region, indicate that the number of people arriving in Northern Ireland seeking asylum has increased significantly since January 2021, and just over 1,000 people are currently in hotel accommodation. Around 15% of hotels in Belfast are now designated as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers. In Northern Ireland, the accommodation is run by Mears, a private company, for profit.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing the debate forward, and am glad to be here to support her. Home Office figures for the past year show that 2,010 asylum seekers received local authority support in Belfast—more than double the figure for last year. There have been numerous reports that, throughout Belfast and Northern Ireland, the conditions of some—but not all—of the homes asylum seekers have been given are damp, mouldy, dirty and not fit to live in. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must focus on ensuring that the homes we already have are safe and clean, before we focus our priorities on additional accommodation for asylum seekers, whose applications are, as she says, taking months to process?

There is no doubt that the public housing stock in Northern Ireland is inadequate and has been under-resourced for many decades. The hotels and dispersal accommodation are in many cases far from adequate. The hotel accommodation that we are discussing is far from the luxury that some people would want us to believe it is. I am pleased to say that the hotels of which I am aware in Northern Ireland are themselves in decent physical order, but I understand that that is not always the case elsewhere.

The setting is often compared to prison because of the restrictions placed on residents, the overcrowding of rooms, and the disruption from fellow residents, among whom some mental ill health is inevitable given the circumstances. Children and adults share the same small spaces. In at least one hotel, offices have been converted into bedrooms. The overall atmosphere is described as chaotic and oppressive.

Behind the statistics is one of my constituents, Mustafa, who, since arriving in Northern Ireland in January this year, has been living in one room with his wife, Linda, and their three boys, who are aged five, six and 13. They spend most of their days in their room. They eat at set mealtimes, and are unable to choose what to eat. They are unable to have the simple family pleasure of shared mealtimes. They all have to go to bed at the same time, or lie in silence. Their movements outside the hotel are restricted by time and distance limits. That is as close to imprisonment as is possible without actually being incarcerated.

The experiences of individuals and children in contingency accommodation falls significantly short in key respects, which include the right to education, the right to play, the right to privacy, the right to family life, the right to health, freedom of assembly, effective participation in society, and respect for and opportunity to develop one’s own culture. Families in the hotels do not have access to shared spaces for play, socialising or self-organisation. Many of the hotels lack proper outdoor space, and those in city centre hotels do not have access to play parks or other stimulating environments—Belfast city centre does not do well enough on green space. Children who do not have a place in school are particularly restricted in terms of age-appropriate activities. Many of those in contingency accommodation are from the continent of Africa, and they experience a much more restrictive and less supportive asylum process than new arrivals from Ukraine, for whom the situation is absolutely no picnic.

Mustafa and his family’s situation is reflected hundreds of times over. One of the issues raised regularly with me is the atmosphere of fear and restriction in hotels. Indeed, when I visited a hotel a few weeks ago for a meeting with a constituent to discuss only their asylum application—no comment had been made to me about the accommodation—I was treated to an extremely frosty reception by a member of staff. I was told in no uncertain terms to leave the hotel, despite having been signed in and granted access by very courteous security guards. As we say in Belfast, I am big and ugly enough to look after myself and to deal with people, but I am genuinely concerned about the atmosphere that that creates for people who are fearful of getting on the wrong side of the system that will decide their future. Complaints processes are long and unwieldy, and it feels impossible for asylum seekers to effect positive change from within the system.

Ultimately, processing backlogs mean a lack of control or agency for people, in any area of their lives, for interminable periods of time. They elongate and exacerbate the worst experience of their lives. My caseworkers and I tried to seek updates about the growing backlog of applicants, and were increasingly met with silence or oblique responses from the Home Office. Each new arrival essentially has to reinvent the wheel and chart their own course in terms of accessing information about public services and their basic financial entitlements. Financial restrictions mean that families cannot avail themselves of social or cultural activities and they cannot buy specific toiletries, clothes or other things for their children. The ban on the right to work for asylum seekers drives more people into destitution; it does nothing to help them integrate or to stand on their own feet, as people want. It makes little sense at a time when we know the UK’s economy is being limited by skills and labour shortages.

I fully support campaigning by organisations, such as Participation and the Practice of Rights, for the right to work for asylum seekers who have been waiting for more than six months. I deeply regret that a well-supported and crafted cross-party amendment to the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 did not advance the issue.

A report from the Children’s Law Centre in Northern Ireland earlier this year found that around 135 school-age children placed in accommodation had not been provided with school places. School places, when they are sorted, are temporary because of the temporary nature of accommodation, meaning that the children are unable to settle properly. I must commend a number of local schools that have really stepped up and truly wrapped their arms around those children and their families. Notably, in Belfast, Fane Street Primary School and Holy Rosary Primary have done so in a way that is genuinely inspiring and reassuring about the society we live in.

While the original sin in the asylum system is processing failures, the issues I have outlined also demonstrate fundamental failure by the Northern Ireland Executive, as was until last month, who are inadequately co-ordinating services that asylum seekers are entitled to in Northern Ireland. We are still without a proper refugee integration strategy, and efforts to address the needs of asylum seekers are piecemeal and largely reliant on voluntary and community organisations to lead and step into the breach.

The asylum seekers I speak to have their already restricted opportunities to leave their accommodation hampered by the worry that they might miss a call about their accommodation or another public service. That means they are cut off from the small number of services that are put in place for them. I wrote to the various Departments at different points this year, asking that Ministers—who were very much in post at the time—commit to engaging across Departments. I am afraid that I got fairly vague platitudes about working with the wider public and voluntary sectors. I am yet to see much evidence.

It does not have to be that way. Northern Ireland and the UK have a track record of successful co-ordination in welcoming asylum seekers. In 2015, Northern Ireland welcomed 1,800 Syrians under the Syrian vulnerable person relocation scheme. Through that scheme, families received support from a consortium of voluntary and statutory organisations, along with overwhelming support from the population in Northern Ireland. The scheme treated people with dignity and compassion; it ensured that they had access to the right to work, to public services, to paperwork and to the right to family reunion. That shows that we do have the capacity and compassion to welcome and integrate asylum seekers.

In conclusion, I acknowledge that these are complex and, in many cases, expensive challenges. The Government have many competing priorities, and I reiterate that no one is suggesting that the UK takes all asylum seekers—we absolutely do not do that. While it is obvious that the contingency accommodation that we are contracting is inadequate, the underlying cause of those issues, and where the blame lies, is firmly at the feet of the Home Office. Hotel accommodation, even if it was well appointed and integrated with public services, is restrictive for normal family life. The Home Office has created and perpetuated the crisis through its hostile environment policy, which is penny wise and pound foolish. It has been through sheer, and fairly basic, incompetence.

It would suit the Home Office better to put in place rational, fair and humane ways to deal with backlog of claims, to provide safe and legal routes—including being able to apply from outside the UK—and to resource and expedite the integration of those granted asylum into society. That would allow them to work, fully participate and contribute positively to the economy, as other aspects of inward migration very clearly do.

The Syrian scheme, which the Government have been running for some time, has been an absolute success for us in Newtownards. I know we took only six families, but they integrated quickly and all the local community and church groups came together to make that happen. The families have excelled and are working. They are fully able to use the language and have integrated into society, so does the hon. Lady agree that there are examples of what can be done, and done well?

I thank the hon. Member for pointing that out. We have demonstrated that that is possible under the Northern Executive and a Conservative Government.

We want to see an end to the use of hotels for anything other than short-term stays, certainly for children and pregnant women. We need urgent improvement in living standards and atmosphere in Mears accommodation, and we need effective data sharing, co-ordination and co-operation between the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Departments and Northern Ireland public bodies in order to ensure access to services and support. To the limited extent that the UK is meeting its legal obligations and playing a constructive role in the world, we need to do it properly. We have shown we can do that, I believe the population wants us to do that, and we know the need is there, whether we want to do it or not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) for securing this debate, which is the first that we have had the pleasure to take part in together. It raises some important issues that I hope I can address over the course of my remarks.

As a country, we face a significant challenge in all parts of the United Kingdom. The confluence of record numbers of migrants crossing the channel in small boats, with the schemes that the hon. Lady set out, such as the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the Syrian resettlement scheme and the Afghan resettlement scheme, has meant that over the course of a two or three-year period a very large number of individuals have arrived in the UK and now need our support in contingency accommodation.

In some cases, those with the right to remain here for a longer period, or indefinitely, also need support in order to have a full and fulfilling life in the United Kingdom. That has put immense pressure on our asylum system and on local government and devolved Administrations throughout the United Kingdom. That is the challenge that the Home Secretary and I are now grappling with.

Northern Ireland is not a full dispersal area for asylum seekers, as the hon. Lady will know. That means that the asylum seekers who are accommodated in Northern Ireland are almost exclusively, if not exclusively, those who have presented themselves and claimed asylum in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of those will have crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland in order to make their asylum application, which makes this a different situation to those found in the rest of the UK. Comparatively, that also means fewer individuals are claiming asylum and being accommodated in Northern Ireland than in some other parts of the UK. That does not mean that the issue is not serious or that the pressures on accommodating them in accordance with our statutory obligations are not significant.

We are taking a broad approach, on many different fronts. First, on the diplomatic front, we are working with partners, such as France and the Republic of Ireland, to try to discourage individuals from crossing the channel or the border, to break up the people smuggling gangs, which are particularly active on the continent and in the channel, and to create a system in which deterrence is a golden thread running through it and diffused throughout it, so that we are significantly less attractive as a destination for asylum seekers, particularly economic migrants, than our EU neighbours.

I appreciate the Minister setting out the context for the pressure on public services, but I draw attention to the years of inadequate investment in those public services and I dispute some of his figures about those arriving in Northern Ireland. Does he understand my point that, notwithstanding the challenges of providing accommodation and food needs, the core failure is in processing? The number of staff to process asylum seekers was higher in the past, and that is primarily where the Home Office is failing.

I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is not that I disagree with the fact that the backlog of cases has grown too large and now needs to be tackled, which I will come to in a moment, but these are the symptoms of the problem. The cause of the problem is record numbers of people choosing to come into the United Kingdom illegally and the consequence of that is the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve, which is that those illegal migrants, the economic migrants in particular, are putting immense pressure on our system in all parts of the UK and making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for us to treat people who are genuinely fleeing persecution, war and human rights abuses in the manner that we would all wish to do as a big-hearted and welcoming country.

The hon. Lady is correct to say that the number of individuals waiting for their asylum cases to be processed is unacceptably high. That has risen over the course of the last three years for a range of reasons, some of which are related to a drop in productivity during the pandemic. We now need to change that. My role and that of the Home Secretary is to ensure we raise productivity in all the Home Office’s offices, including those personnel based in Northern Ireland, and ensure that we return to at least the levels of productivity we had prior to the pandemic.

We have already done a pilot of that approach at our Leeds office, which has seen a significant increase in the speed of processing. We are rolling that out now across the whole of the country. This is not a matter of resources or the number of decision makers. The part of the Home Office that handles this now has greater resources than prior to the pandemic and we have more than 1,000 individuals making the decisions, with that number rapidly rising to a target of 1,500. The issue, I am afraid, is one of leadership and productivity and that is what we are now setting out to address.

Coming to the specific issue of the accommodation that the hon. Lady raises, I want to make a few points that provide background and which I hope are helpful. First, having reviewed the accommodation throughout Northern Ireland in preparation for the debate, it is true to say that it is heavily centred on Belfast and in particular on the hon. Lady’s constituency. Across the UK, one of our objectives is to move to fairer and more equitable distribution so that individual cities or towns are not facing a disproportionate impact. There needs to be an effort to encourage more parts of Northern Ireland to accommodate asylum seekers.

Of course, I will make the point that almost the only way for people to arrive is illegally, due to the absence of safe and legal routes. Can the Home Office publish the data about arrival? Can the Minister also outline the efforts made to engage with other councils and areas in south Belfast and more widely than Belfast? He characterises it as a disproportionate pressure, but the Syrian scheme showed that there is willingness to take on and there is capacity. However, that has to be led by the Home Office, which controls dispersal and the resources that come with it.

I can only speak to the time that I have been in position, which is only around a month. We have engaged with local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to explain the challenges that are being faced and encourage them to play their fair part in the solution. Yesterday, I held a call with the leaders and chief executives of all local authorities throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. In the absence of the Executive, my officials are actively engaging with civil servants and with local leaders and partners to encourage other parts of Northern Ireland to play a greater role.

We have instituted mandatory dispersal, by which we are encouraging children and adults to be accommodated by all local authorities throughout the United Kingdom. We have put in place a financial package to encourage local authorities to do that. That amounts to £3,500 per asylum-seeking adult and a more substantial package for unaccompanied children, with which there is a particular problem. Indeed, we are looking for state and private foster carers and children’s homes to find places for those vulnerable young people so we can get them out of hotels as swiftly as possible. If there is anything the hon. Lady and her colleagues can do to encourage local partners throughout Northern Ireland to step up and find other contingency accommodation—particularly dispersal accommodation, which is the ultimate solution to the hotels—that would be very much appreciated. The Department is understandably hamstrung by the lack of an Executive to deal with directly in the way we would wish.

The medium-term strategy to exit hotels, beyond reducing the backlog and bearing down on the number of individuals coming to the UK illegally, is to move to a model whereby we use hotels judiciously in exceptional circumstances; find a greater pool of dispersal accommodation in all parts of the United Kingdom, working with local authorities and relevant public bodies; and find more sustainable, somewhat larger, sites, such as disused student accommodation, where we can provide suitable accommodation for asylum seekers that is decent but not luxurious and provides good value for money for the taxpayer. We will provide good engagement prior to arrival so that the wraparound services that the hon. Lady mentioned in respect of health and education are constantly improved, as appropriate.

The hon. Lady and several colleagues from both sides of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom have raised engagement with me in my short tenure in the Department. At times, there has been limited engagement by the Home Office prior to choosing hotels and bringing in asylum seekers, and we need to change that. We have now instituted basic performance standards whereby the Home Office and its partners will engage with relevant local bodies at least 24 hours before individuals are sited in that hotel or other contingency accommodation. We will involve all the relevant agencies that are needed to ensure that those individuals’ arrival and stay are as successful as possible.

That is a first step, and we want to progressively improve that in the weeks and months to come to the point where local authorities and relevant public bodies are included in the decision-making process at the earliest opportunity. The Home Office—Whitehall—is clearly not best placed to choose the right contingency accommodation in particular cities and towns across the country, such as Belfast, and I believe we can improve that.

I have also met the suppliers this week, including Mears, to discuss how they can improve their engagement with Members of Parliament and local representatives. They have committed to step up their engagement and ensure that for every building that is occupied, such as a hotel, they provide a named point of contact so that the hon. Lady and her local partners can have proper engagement in an ongoing fashion with the people running the building. That would enable her to raise concerns as swiftly as possible with the relevant people so that, where appropriate, improvements can be made.

I hope that has provided some context to the Home Office’s approach. I appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns and I take them seriously, even if we have a different attitude to the broader question of asylum. We want to ensure that we meet our statutory obligations to provide decent accommodation to all those who are in our care for as long as they are in the United Kingdom. I am very happy to work with her, her local partners and residents of Belfast to improve the situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.