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Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Monday 29 June in the House of Commons.

“My thoughts and those of the Home Secretary and, I am sure, the entire House are with the victims of the appalling knife attack that happened in Glasgow on Friday afternoon. I would like to pay tribute to the brave first responders who, as always, ran towards danger to protect the public. They include Police Scotland hero David Whyte, who very sadly was seriously wounded. The suspect has been named as Badreddin Abadlla Adam, a 28-year-old asylum seeker originally from Sudan. The House will appreciate that I am able to provide only limited information on this case while the investigation is under way, but I can talk about the United Kingdom’s proud history of supporting asylum seekers.

Last year, the United Kingdom made 20,000 grants of protection or asylum, one of the highest numbers of any country in Europe. We welcomed more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, the highest number of any country in Europe. Indeed, it made up 20% of Europe’s UASC intake.

The UK has a statutory obligation to provide destitute asylum seekers with support while their case is being considered. While asylum cases are being considered, asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free accommodation. The utilities and council tax are paid for and free healthcare on the NHS is available. Free education is available for those with children, and there is a cash allowance to cover other essential living needs, which recently increased by 5%—considerably more than inflation. The package must be viewed as a whole.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we have stepped up the help available to go beyond the statutory requirements that I have just laid out. We have paused the usual practice of asking people to move on from supported accommodation when their asylum claim is decided either positively or negatively, so that they can remain in supported asylum accommodation. As a consequence of that decision, which was implemented on 27 March, around 4,000 more people are in supported accommodation than was the case at the end of March, because people are still coming into the system but nobody is moving on. We have therefore been frantically procuring additional accommodation around the country to meet that additional need. The circumstances in Glasgow are slightly different, but I suspect we will come on to the specifics of Glasgow, so I will answer those questions in due course.

Where we have procured additional hotels, we provide full-board accommodation, including laundry services, personal hygiene products and feminine hygiene products. Wrap-around services are also provided, including welfare support, healthcare and access to mental health services. Asylum seekers also have 24-hour-a-day access to assistance via Migrant Help through a freephone number.

We are working at pace to increase the available accommodation so that we can move asylum seekers from hotels into more permanent accommodation as quickly as possible, which I think we would all agree is more suitable. Efforts are currently under way to do exactly that. Over time and in due course, we will be returning to a business-as-usual approach in a phased, proportionate and careful way.

We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable asylum seekers are provided with all the support they require. As our nation has been battling coronavirus, we have continued and will continue to look after asylum seekers. We will continue to drive forward the reforms required to support those asylum seekers who are in genuine need. I commend this Statement to the House.”

This UQ has been prompted by the tragic events in Glasgow on Friday. I express our best wishes for a full recovery to those injured, not least to PC David Whyte, and our thanks to our emergency services for their professionalism and dedication.

I have two questions. First, asylum seekers are interviewed, including about vulnerabilities, at the point when their asylum claim is made. It appears that the 321 who were moved into hotels in Glasgow at the beginning of the lockdown did not have a further vulnerability risk assessment on being moved. What ongoing vulnerability assessments of asylum seekers are required, and in what circumstances? Secondly, is it correct that the limited daily allowance for asylum seekers is withdrawn when they are moved into hotel accommodation? If so, how are such asylum seekers able to pay even for items such as postage stamps, personal telephone calls or a non-prescription cough mixture, and how does that contribute to their general well-being?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to all the emergency services and in sending our best wishes to those injured, including PC David Whyte, for a swift recovery.

The noble Lord is right: people get an initial assessment. Regarding further vulnerabilities, 24-hour healthcare is available to anyone who may need it who is in this or any other type of asylum accommodation. On the lack of cash for those in hotel accommodation, it is important to point out that anyone in hotel accommodation gets all essential living needs and costs met in terms of food, toiletries, hygiene products and healthcare, so there are no additional costs that they might need to meet. People can apply for additional assistance, should they need it.

My Lords, 5% of very little is almost nothing. I refer of course to the recent increase of 26p per day in the allowance for necessities for asylum seekers who are not in hotel accommodation. Even if the Government will not increase the allowance, why can it not be paid fortnightly or, even better, monthly? That would allow for more efficient shopping, would cost no more and perhaps would save on administration and even allow a smidgen more dignity to asylum seekers.

My Lords, the Government are looking into the frequency with which the allowance is paid. The increase is quite a bit above inflation, even though it may not seem like much. The assessment of the amount of money needed to purchase sufficient food is based on data from the ONS, looking specifically at expenditure on essential living items by people in the lower 10% of income groups, and is supplemented by market research.

My Lords, many children of asylum seekers have been severely disadvantaged during lockdown because their parents do not have and cannot afford the broadband or wi-fi connection, or the equipment needed, to access online schooling. The daily living allowance of a little over £37 barely covers essential needs. Does the Minister agree that for asylum seekers’ children, online education is also essential right now, and will she agree to look at an immediate and backdated uprating to reflect that?

I totally agree with the noble Baroness that children have been disadvantaged in their education during Covid, whether they are the children of asylum seekers or not. All hotels provide wi-fi, and I am almost certain that online learning can be provided. Of course, it is essential when people arrive here that they have a good grasp of English before they can learn anything at all. It is one of the things that is most important to people’s assimilation into this country.

My Lords, vulnerability assessments are so important. There are questions about when they happen and the need for them to be ongoing and serious. There is also a question about how. Is the Minister satisfied that the vulnerability assessments are sufficiently tuned to the experiences and needs of asylum seekers in their extremity, and take into consideration the whole person and the impact of the ongoing experience of lockdown?

My Lords, the health service generally, whether in Scotland or here, has had to find new ways of working through the pandemic, so assessments probably happen remotely, as they do for the general population. He is right to ask whether they take into account the specific needs of people who perhaps have fled war-torn countries to seek asylum and refuge here. This pandemic has seen the very best of our NHS. I am fully confident that when assessments happen, NHS doctors and nurses are well trained to take into account the vulnerabilities and traumas that these people may have faced.

My Lords, in her reply last week to my Written Question on the asylum process, the Minister said:

“Individual applications are referred to Ministers where they are identified as potentially sensitive”.

Unfortunately, she was unable to give me any information on how often this happens. Does she agree that in determining an asylum application, the authorities must always consider potential risks to national security, which may require balancing the risk to the asylum seeker with that to the UK, and may mean that asylum seekers must be detained in custody? Of the 10 serious terrorist attacks since March 2017, some have been associated with an asylum seeker. Is she prepared to review the cases where asylum and permanent UK residence have been granted, and where the seeker has been convicted of terrorist offences in other jurisdictions?

My noble friend makes some valid points. He is absolutely right that we need to balance the claim of the asylum seeker with any danger that they might pose and also the genuine nature of the claim. My honourable friend Chris Philp, a Minister in the House of Commons, said yesterday there how important it was to weed out the genuine from the—shall we say?—non-genuine asylum seeker. I am sure that the services do analysis like that all the time, examining the type of behaviour experienced after someone is granted asylum, their vulnerability and the things that might cause it.

My Lords, following directly from those last points, I say that indefinite detention of asylum seekers is generally acknowledged to be one of the most stress-inducing and unjust disposals. The Home Office was forced in January to release 350 of the 1,225 asylum seekers held in detention, but how many of those remaining have now been reviewed, as was promised? Will the Government cut down the maximum period to 28 days, as was recommended by the parliamentary committee?

My Lords, it is unlawful to detain someone indefinitely, and the danger in seeking 28 days is that it encourages behaviour such as running down the clock with various appeals. It is important that people do not spend months and months in detention and that their claims are seen to swiftly and expeditiously. Certainly, that is what is best for the asylum seeker and for the system itself.

Sitting suspended.