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National Asylum Support Service

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that those accommodated by the National Asylum Support Service are able to follow social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, we have worked closely with Public Health England to ensure that asylum accommodation providers follow relevant guidance and are supporting asylum seekers to social distance within the accommodation estate. All supported asylum seekers receive translated guidance and increased contact management. In hostel-based accommodation, measures taken include segregation of symptomatic service users, sequencing of mealtimes, two-metre marking to ensure social distancing and increased cleaning and hygiene regimes.

I thank the Minister for that response, but what she has said is just not consistent in any way with the experience of charities working with these people on a daily basis. Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and the Scottish Refugee Council have described the situation in detention centres as life threatening. People are being forced to share kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and sometimes even beds with complete strangers. This goes against everything the Government are advising. Will the Minister agree to meet me and some of these charities so that she can see for herself exactly what the situation is on the ground?

We are working with accommodation providers and NGOs—and in the detention estate, as the noble Baroness outlines—to ensure that they are providing services to vulnerable asylum seekers. Our providers have identified vulnerable service users and are providing them with additional support, including supplying food parcels where needed. We have also procured 4,000 single hotel rooms to assist with initial asylum seekers at this time.

My Lords, I thank the Lord Speaker for calling me and the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, for asking this Question. Is it not essential that all those dealing with asylum seekers constantly remember that these people—women, children and men—have been through terrible experiences, too often involving torture, which in many instances have left them scarred? Is it not therefore essential that, in all that we do, we take as warm and supportive an attitude as possible and that we avoid a minimalist, regimented regime? Should the good Samaritan not constantly be our example?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Some of these people will have had the most terrible experiences. Nobody whose asylum application is complete will be asked to leave the country. As I said, we are procuring 4,000 hotel rooms. People in both our asylum estate and our detention estate are treated as any other member of the public would be, whether they are vulnerable, as the noble Lord outlined, or not.

My Lords, it is not easy to provide a safe distancing policy in our overcrowded penal institutions. Once the state detains inmates, it assumes full responsibility for their safety and welfare. What effort has been made to ensure that people are released from detention centres to places of safety in the community? Will the Minister ensure that there is a moratorium on deportation until it is safe to deport people?

As I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, at this point in time nobody whose case has been concluded and who is due to leave will be asked to leave. That will be the position up to June and possibly beyond. The noble Lord is absolutely right: the asylum estate has as many obligations in terms of social distancing as any other place in the UK. I do not think that deportations are happening at the moment either.

My Lords, my question refers to the wider issue of migrants arriving in the UK. Last month, four boats carrying up to 57 migrants were intercepted by HM Coastguard and the Border Force in the English Channel. Can my noble friend reassure us that our coastguard and Border Force officers are adequately provided with PPE when dealing with such eventualities, and that any such migrants will be given health checks and monitored for signs of Covid-19?

My noble friend is absolutely right that migrants arriving in the UK should be assessed. Certainly, if they are being put into accommodation, we want to ensure that they are not Covid-positive. If anyone moved into initial accommodation —possibly a hostel-type arrangement—is symptomatic, they are moved into hotel-type accommodation so that they can segregate and isolate. I join calls every day with our Border Force colleagues, and I understand that their PPE requirements are adequate.

My Lords, what advice and information on Covid-19 is available in languages other than English, in what format and in which languages? How is it made accessible to people needing help from the National Asylum Support Service, including through the use of registered public service interpreters?

My Lords, all asylum seekers currently accommodated in asylum support properties can receive advice on asylum support and associated Covid-19 guidance and signposting through our advice, issue reporting and eligibility provider, Migrant Help. They can contact Migrant Help 24 hours a day on a freephone number if they need assistance or guidance. The AIRE service provides all the current process, policy and health guidelines, as well as immediate access to service providers for escalation. The translated public health guidance is available in 12 languages, with instructions to service users.

My Lords, the daily asylum support rate of £5.39 is insufficient to meet health and hygiene needs. Will the Minister therefore undertake to press for an emergency uplift in line with UC as a matter of urgency?

The noble Baroness might be pleased to know that we are currently reviewing the level of allowance, taking Covid-19 factors into consideration. However, I cannot promise uplifts to UC levels.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Doocey outlined the shocking plight of refugees, who are forced to make the impossible choice between enduring dangerously unsanitary conditions here or the dangers of returning home to the source of their persecution. I was very pleased to hear the Minister talk about the 4,000 hotel rooms that have been made available; we know that hotel chains have been very generous in their offer of rooms. How many refugees are currently staying in hotel accommodation? How many are left living in other types of accommodation, and what are the plans to ensure that they have safe, sanitary conditions in which to sit out the pandemic?

There are basically three types of accommodation: the initial, hostel-type accommodation facilities for people arriving here; hotel accommodation facilities, as the noble Baroness mentioned and as I pointed out earlier; and dispersed accommodation, which is where the significant majority of our service users reside. The latter consists of houses or homes of multiple occupancy, which obviously accommodate smaller numbers. I cannot give her the figures on hotel accommodation, but I can certainly write to or email her with these.

The Refugee Council has persistently campaigned for better access to healthcare for asylum seekers, noting that a lack of confidence in communicating in English and confusion over the support available act as huge obstacles. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that all asylum seekers have access to healthcare, and specifically testing, during the Covid-19 pandemic? Secondly, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, asked the Minister for a meeting. Did the Minister agree to that?

I did not confirm that, but I am very happy to have a virtual meeting with the noble Baroness. On healthcare, as I said earlier, all asylum accommodation providers continue to provide translated public health guidance, which is available in 12 languages, and instructions to service users. Nobody, whether an asylum seeker or not, need worry that healthcare will not be available to them.