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Asylum Applicants: Mental Health and Wellbeing

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

I will call Gareth Bacon to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum applications and asylum seekers’ mental health and wellbeing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I did not want to bring forward this debate. Indeed, I did everything I could to avoid tabling it, and I would like to explain why. At the outset, I would like to talk about the challenging immigration situation faced by this country. Britain is one of the most tolerant and welcoming communities in the world. A recent King’s College study found, among other things, that only 5% of the population would not want immigrants as neighbours. Similarly, it was reported that, by last year, 75% of ethnic minority people living in Britain either felt very strongly or strongly British. Those are very positive statistics.

But we must also recognise the need to strike a balance between welcoming people and having reasonable immigration policies. Uncontrolled immigration and unchecked illegal immigration can have very serious consequences. That is why I believe the Home Secretary is right to be working to stop people putting their lives at risk by crossing the English channel in small boats to come to this country illegally. We must ensure that those coming to this country seeking asylum do so through legal routes.

It is right that we respond appropriately to the plight of asylum seekers escaping violent, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that systematically persecute and even execute their own people. It is our duty to take in genuine asylum seekers, just as it is our duty to remove economic migrants who have entered our country illegally. It is our duty to process asylum claims quickly and efficiently for the good of all concerned.

It cannot be denied that pressures in our asylum system have dramatically increased in recent years, to unprecedented levels. Indeed, the number of people waiting for longer than six months for an initial decision went up from around 18,000 in 2019 to 60,000 in the space of two years leading up to 2021. That is a serious matter that requires our urgent attention. In saying that, I make no criticism of Ministers, who I sincerely believe are battling to fix the system. I am afraid that in some instances, the lack of application and apparent disinterest on the part of some officials, exacerbated by the high-handed arrogance and disdain of some individuals who work closely with Ministers, have had terrible consequences on the lives of real people, in particular their mental health and wellbeing.

That brings me to a case I want to draw attention to, which caused me to table this debate. The case relates to an asylum claimant who until recently resided in my constituency of Orpington. In recent weeks, he has been moved to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who has given me full permission to continue processing this case. I will refer to this man as Mr A. He is a 31-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK on 3 November 2020. He initially claimed asylum on 7 April 2021, but by March 2022 had not received any updates at all on the progress of his application. At that point, charitable Orpington constituents started to contact me to raise Mr A’s case.

I will quote from a letter I received from a neighbour of Mr A, who has been attempting to assist him. I received this letter in January this year, after I met Mr A and my constituent at my advice surgery. I believe it summarises Mr A’s situation very clearly:

“Mr A is an asylum seeker from Syria. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 3rd November 2020 on a Chilean passport as his Grandmother was from Chile. He has never visited Chile and has no relatives living in that country. Chile has mutual diplomatic relations with Syria and if he were sent to Chile they would return him to Syria.

Mr A was detained in Syria for 5 years for protesting against the government. Whilst in detention he was beaten, tortured and shot with lead pellets, the photos of which I gave to you. He still has over 150 pellets in his body.

Mr A escaped from prison after his father borrowed money and bribed one of the guards and is therefore classed as an escaped prisoner in Syria and his life would be in danger if he were to return to that country. The debt still is outstanding and also added to Mr A’s worries as he is unable to work and doesn’t know when he is going to be able to start repaying this debt.

Mr A is married and has three stepchildren. His ultimate goal is to be granted asylum in this country and bring his family here for a safe and better life. He wants to be able to work and settle in this country which he has called home for over two years.

Mr A had his final interview with the Home Office on 26th October 2021 and should have been informed of the decision shortly thereafter. It is now January 2023 and he is still awaiting a decision. This has affected Mr A’s mental health and in August 2022 he climbed 50 feet up Tower Bridge and threatened to kill himself as he was so psychologically tired.

When I met Mr A about a year ago he had no support and was really lonely and struggling to get help from anyone. I took it upon myself to arrange deliveries from the food bank, contact the mosque for support and arrange English lessons for him, his spoken English now is much improved and he is able to communicate in a basic way.

Mr A’s life whilst in Great Britain has been one of loneliness, fear of deportation and worry for his family which I find heart-breaking. I feel that we as a country have really let Mr A down and it needs to be resolved with a final positive decision of asylum as soon as possible.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a hugely important issue. Obviously, there are tens of thousands of Mr As in all sorts of temporary accommodation, and they are sometimes demonised for being in hotels. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not their choice to be there, that we need to establish whether people are asylum seekers or not, that we can do that only if we process cases quickly, and that the best way to ensure that people do not get into this awful situation and that their mental health is protected is to process them swiftly and fairly?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the point of my bringing this case to the House is to highlight the fact that Home Office officials simply are not approaching the issue with anything like sufficient urgency to sort it out. I reiterate the point I made earlier: I make no criticism of Ministers in this regard, because I do not doubt for one second that every Home Office Minister is straining every sinew to make this a reality. My criticism, such as it is, is aimed squarely at the officials, who do not seem to see these people as people; they see them as problems they will get to when they have time.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward an issue that is important to him, and congratulate him on being so assiduous. Does he not agree that our obligations—and, I believe, our moral duty—must mean that, as well as feeding and sheltering asylum seekers, we ensure they are supported to survive in this land, which is foreign to them, and are given help to assimilate, rather than being left voiceless and frightened in a hotel room with their children, wondering for weeks what is going to happen next?

I have a lot of sympathy with that point. It is critical that we process asylum claims much more quickly because while those claims are in abeyance, the asylum seekers are living in stasis. It might be that people who come to claim asylum are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants. That does not make them bad people, but it does mean that they are illegal immigrants, and they should be returned. What should not happen, as in the case of my constituent, is that they live in a state of limbo for years. That should not be acceptable in any way, shape or form.

I became aware of Mr A’s case on 14 March 2022, when a constituent made contact to request that I engage with the Home Office. Back then, my constituent had already noted Mr A’s deteriorating mental health. However, despite my office’s regular efforts to obtain updates, it was not until August 2022—five months later—that the Home Office responded, and only to say that Mr A would have to wait a further six months for an update.

I am sure the House can imagine the effect that that message had on Mr A. Indeed, only a few days after receiving that news, he climbed up Tower Bridge with the intention of attempting to kill himself. Fortunately, he was talked down. He was taken to hospital and later returned to the accommodation with which he had been provided in Biggin Hill. Given the elevated risk of harm displayed by Mr A, my office contacted the Home Office to alert it, in the hope that a sense of urgency would be felt by those in charge of processing the case. However, several more months went by without a resolution of any kind.

In January, therefore, I met with Mr A and another of my constituents, who had been helping him. During our meeting, Mr A presented me with evidence for his asylum claim. That included X-ray images of his body. Disturbingly, the images showed a large amount of metal shrapnel lodged in his torso and limbs as a result of being shot at by the Syrian regime. The evidence also included photographs of him after he had been beaten with an iron bar. Faced with this disturbing evidence and having no success at all in persuading Home Office officials to progress Mr A’s case, my office informed officials that if no progress had been made in two weeks—that is, by 3 February—I would seek a meeting with the Home Secretary to personally brief her on the situation, place the entire file in her hands and ask her to intervene. I hoped that that might lift the all-pervading sense of disinterest and inertia.

No such luck: on 31 January, I received an email from Home Office officials that gave no additional information and no indication as to when a decision would be made, and that claimed to have sent a response to Mr A on 16 January. Neither Mr A nor my other constituent who attended the meeting with me on 20 January—four days after the Home Office letter was allegedly sent—had mentioned that letter. On 1 February, my office called the Home Office hotline to request a copy of it. The response we received was that the Home Office was unable to locate the letter, and the officials stated that it had not been uploaded to the system. When they asked my staff member if he would like to request that they find the letter and send it to him, and he said he would indeed like them to do that, he was told that that would be treated as a new query and it would be sent to my office within 20 working days. You could not make this stuff up.

Later that day, I informed my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), who is a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Office, of my intention to seek a meeting with the Home Secretary. He chased my request diligently, and three weeks later, on the morning of 22 February, he informed me that he had made progress on securing the meeting and asked me for Mr A’s date of birth and case reference number, which I passed to him a short while later. At 6 pm, he informed me that he had secured a meeting with the Home Secretary in her office in the House, scheduled for 6.45 pm that evening.

When I turned up for the meeting, I was brusquely turned away by a Home Office special adviser called Jake Ryan, who refused to allow me in. When my hon. Friend told him that that was unacceptable, the special adviser swore in his face. The high-handed arrogance of this unelected political appointee was staggering. I gather that my hon. Friend escalated the situation to higher authorities because at last there was movement on Mr A’s case. When I finally attended a meeting with the Home Secretary on 1 March, she informed me that officials had determined Mr A’s case. He would be granted 30 months to remain in the country and his application for asylum was refused on account of him being a Chilean national. The House will recall that I had been informed that, while Mr A had a Chilean grandmother, he is not a Chilean national, has no living Chilean relatives and, indeed, has never visited Chile.

Giving Mr A limited leave to remain means that he cannot regularise his life here or bring his family. Furthermore, giving him limited leave to remain, after which he will presumably be returned to Syria or sent to Chile, which apparently has a returns arrangement with Syria, is terrible news for Mr A because it significantly increases the likelihood of him being returned to a country where there is a direct threat to his life. The fact that the special adviser refused to allow me to see the Home Secretary on 1 March is extraordinarily frustrating, because had he not done so, I would have been able to alert her to those facts and it is possible that a different outcome to Mr A’s case would have been achieved.

In the meeting on 1 March, I asked the Home Secretary for the case to be looked at again by officials, and she assured me that it would be. Two weeks later, on 15 March, I received formal notification from the Home Office of the decision it had taken. The relevant sections of the letter read:

“On 3rd November 2020, Mr A submitted a claim for asylum; I apologise for the delay in progressing this case and any distress this may have caused.”

For the avoidance of doubt, that letter was written in March 2023. The delay referred to amounted to two years and four months. The letter continued:

“Mr A had a series of significant safeguarding issues (suicide attempts); We take the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers very seriously. We discussed Mr A’s case with officials and there were a number of delays due to the sensitivities and complexities of the case.”

The claim that Home Office officials take these issues seriously is one that I treat with a great deal of scepticism, certainly in the context of this particular case. Again, for the avoidance of doubt, it was the disinterest and protracted institutional inertia of Home Office officials that caused the safeguarding issues that they referred to.

The letter then stated:

“Mr A’s application was fully considered and the asylum and Humanitarian Protection aspect of the claim has been refused as Mr A does not have any individual protection needs in Chile.

However, we will be granting Mr A a period of leave of 30 months on the basis of his private life as, given his vulnerabilities, there would be insurmountable obstacles to him establishing himself in Chile.”

So on the one hand the Home Office accepts that Mr A would be unable to establish himself in Chile, but on the other it is refusing him asylum here, thereby condemning him to suffer another two and a half years of the purgatory.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of hard work and dedication that he has put in for what is now my constituent; it is absolutely right that he continues to deal with this case.

I am deeply concerned about the information that my hon. Friend has set out to the House. We have an excellent Minister here; I hope that she is listening carefully to what he is informing the House about, that she will go back to the Department later today, and that firm and immediate action will be taken on this matter for my constituent.

I agree with my hon. Friend.

For Mr A, two and a half more years of loneliness, worry and fears for his family, as well as fear of deportation back to a country where his life is under threat, has inevitably had further detrimental impacts on his mental health. On 13 April this year, I received a further email from the constituent who attended the advice surgery with Mr A in January. She wrote:

“All of the above matters are causing Mr A great frustration and his mental health has seriously deteriorated. We have an appointment with the mental health team at the hospital in May but I personally am extremely concerned that he may harm himself if these matters are not resolved soon. Anything that you can do would be greatly appreciated. I personally cannot understand why our immigration system seems to be so complicated.”

Since I met the Home Secretary on 1 March, my office has been chasing Home Office officials, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West has been asking for updates on my behalf, but absolutely nothing has been forthcoming. We seem to be back in the cycle of disinterest and total inertia. In the meantime, Mr A continues to spiral downwards.

Dame Maria, I realise that I have talked at length about a single case, but that is precisely to highlight the wider implications of the approach of officials to processing asylum applications—an approach that is simply not delivering acceptable outcomes. The consequence is deeply damaging to people such as Mr A. I realise that Ministers cannot fix the system overnight, and I have absolutely no doubt that they are straining every sinew to improve the situation. However, they can make a significant difference in cases such as this. Small steps can lead to long strides.

I know my hon. Friend the Minister to be a woman of high integrity and compassion, so I thank her for listening to me and call on her to do the right thing in cases such as this one. Please take them back to the Home Office and fix them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) for raising this important case. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is supporting him in this endeavour and is now also involved in the case.

As would be expected, the Home Office is aware of Mr A’s case, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington continues to receive regular updates. I am not able to comment on the details of this case, because of convention; I am sure that the House will understand that. However, I can of course ensure a suitable meeting with the Minister for Immigration, in whose place I stand today; I am pleased to respond in his absence.

We are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, and that those who need protection are granted it as soon as possible, so that they can start to integrate and to rebuild their life. Of course, that includes those involved in cases that are granted on appeal. Asylum casework teams are dealing with high levels of new applications, including those from small boat arrivals, and we have been clear about the pressures that the situation in the channel has created. It is a significant and complex challenge, but we are doing everything in our power to balance the overall needs of the system and to ensure that cases are appropriately prioritised.

Colleagues will recall that in December, the Prime Minister pledged to clear the backlog of initial asylum legacy claims, which are claims made before 28 June 2022. We are taking immediate action to speed up asylum processing, while maintaining the integrity of the system. For example, we are simplifying the guidance, reducing interview length and streamlining processes. Streamlining the process will play an important role in our achieving our aims. The streamlined asylum policy guidance was published on 23 February; on the same day, questionnaires began to be sent to legacy claimants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen at their most recently recorded correspondence address. Those countries were included in the streamlined asylum process on the basis of their high grant rate, which is 95% or higher, and the fact that over 100 grants in the year ending September 2022 were grants of protection status—refugee status or humanitarian protection.

We are making good progress. According to provisional data, between the end of November 2022 and the end of May 2023, the legacy backlog was reduced by 17,000 cases. During April, streamlined asylum processing was further rolled out to legacy claims from nationals of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. That means that where a positive decision can be taken, the claimant will have not a substantive interview, but a preliminary interview meeting.

The Minister mentioned people with legacy claims from Libya and Eritrea. Under the Government’s new proposals, there is no safe route for those people to get here at all, even though, as she said, over 90% of claimants turn out to have a claim. Would she think again about ensuring that we do not dismiss people as bogus asylum seekers before we have even considered their claims?

I beg to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Of course there are safe routes. By international agreement, we take people from Syria, and we do fulfil our international obligations. [Interruption.] May I continue? Streamlined asylum processing for accompanied and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will enable cases to be progressed more quickly, and enable us to clear the backlog of outstanding initial asylum decisions.

We are also working hard to significantly increase the number of asylum decision makers above intake levels, so that we can reduce the time taken to reach decisions and the number of claimants awaiting decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington who called for this debate, and I am grateful to him for doing so, was quite right to raise this issue: speed is of the essence, and we need to reduce the time taken to reach decision significantly. That is why finance and effort is being put into increasing the numbers of those who determine claims.

We have recruitment strategies in place that will help to increase staffing, and to maintain it at the level required for better management of the asylum intake. As was mentioned, the sheer weight of numbers is significant; we will need to improve management of the system if we are to make the changes that my hon. Friend is desperate to see, not only for his constituent but for others in similar positions. We have already doubled the number of decision makers over the last two years, and we are continuing to increase them further. A large recruitment campaign is under way; it will take the expected headcount of decision makers to 2,500 by September this year, which will make a significant difference.

Asylum Operations continues to mitigate the effects of the high attrition rates. That can hinder productivity, as experienced decision makers are used to upskill new colleagues. Although we are increasing the number of decision makers and expect the number of decisions to increase, it can take up to 12 months for a decision maker to become fully proficient in their work. We are putting a place a range of interventions—for example, we are looking at job design, reward and management capability—to reduce churn and increase the rate of productivity.

We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously. At every stage in the process, our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and shared with health partners. To facilitate that, the Home Office and its contractors work closely with the NHS, local authorities and non-governmental organisations to ensure that people can access the healthcare and support that they need. Asylum seekers have access to health and social services from the point of their arrival in the UK. All asylum seekers, regardless of the type of accommodation that they are in, have the same access to free NHS services as British citizens and other permanent residents. The Home Office operates a safeguarding hub to support vulnerable individuals in quickly accessing the healthcare services.

I am particularly interested in the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington raised about the delays he has experienced, which are in no small part due to the dramatic rise in cases. We have the highest number of applications for two decades; that is why he is quite right to support the Government on reforming the system. I remind hon. Members that there were 75,492 asylum applications, relating in total to 91,047 people, in the UK in the year ending March 2023. That is a third more applications than in the year ending March 2022, and the highest number for 20 years or so. It is also higher than at the peak of the European migration crisis; the figure was 36,446 in the year ending June 2016.

Many of the top nationalities applying for asylum in the UK in the year ending March 2023 are also the most common nationalities of those arriving in small boats. Those nationalities include Albanians, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians. The significant increase in dangerous journeys across the channel is placing unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, rather than risking their life and paying people smugglers to take them on the dangerous journey across the channel.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the UK has a proud history of supporting refugees. Since 2015, we have offered a place to just under half a million men, women and children seeking safety, including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees. Our focus will remain on directly helping people who are from regions of conflict or instability. The best way to help the most vulnerable people, which of course includes Syrians, is to bring them into the country through safe and legal routes. That will bypass the evil criminal gangs and protect vulnerable people, including children.

The Government are committed to reform. The Illegal Migration Bill is essential to ensure that we can better marshal appropriate applications, and to ensure that people who should not be seeking asylum do not jump the queue by paying money to an illegal smuggler.

Let me turn to the issue of wellbeing. My hon. Friend mentioned that his constituent, who was based in Orpington and is now based in the Dartford area, is suffering from ill health and mental illness, in part as a result, it is said, of his treatment abroad, but also of his living and waiting here. The Government take the safety and wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously. We are working closely with health partners, accommodation providers in the UK and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services, and those who deal with asylum seekers at any point of the process, including first responders, are under a duty to assist in ensuring that safety and wellbeing.

Significant effort goes into ensuring that people have the appropriate health and wellbeing services. We provide funding, via a therapeutic support grant, to Barnardo’s, so that it can operate its Boloh helpline. That service provides mental health and wellbeing support to adult asylum seekers; it aims to prevent the escalation of any mental ill-health among those navigating the asylum system, and to facilitate joined-up working in the community, on mental health provision in general. My hon. Friend mentioned that he has concerns on this issue in relation to his case, and I am sure that he will continue to raise it. The service offers UK-wide virtual therapeutic support, practical support from helpline advisers and intensive one-to-one treatment where needed. There is extensive work with a team of psychotherapists who speak 15 languages, and extra help will be brought in where it is needed.

In closing, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington for securing the debate. He works extremely hard on this issue and will continue to do so, and I am sure that he will hold the Home Office to account. I reassure him—as much as I can; I am standing in for the Immigration Minister—that I will seek to secure a meeting for him with that Minister, so that he can assist him in representing an important former constituent. This is an important topic that we take seriously, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay. Where there has been historical delay, we are doing our best to reduce it. We are mindful of our responsibilities to those in our care, and are ensuring that their needs are met. That will remain an integral part of our approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.