Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 16 December.
“This Government are taking action to fix the asylum system so that it is firm and fair—firm where the system is being abused, but fair to those who need protection. And we have been clear: we will use every means at our disposal to make the use of small boats to cross the channel unviable.
Last week we laid changes to the Immigration Rules that are vital to curb irregular migration, which is often facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs. Channel crossings are not only highly dangerous but unnecessary, because France and other European countries are safe. Asylum should be claimed there. These changes will mean that individuals who could and should have claimed asylum previously in a safe country may not have their asylum claims determined in the UK where we are able to safely return them. The changes also enable us to consider the return of these individuals to any safe country besides the safe country where they could have claimed asylum. Individuals will also not be able to make asylum claims at sea.
At the end of the transition period, the UK is no longer bound by the Dublin regulation. These new measures will enable us, by agreement, to replace Dublin with more flexible returns arrangements. This will have a deterrent effect, by sending a clear message to anyone thinking of coming to the UK dangerously from a safe country that they should not risk their lives by doing so. This deterrent effect will also destroy the business model of the ruthless criminal gangs.
Such returns would, of course, reduce numbers in accommodation. I want to be clear that we are not turning our back on those who need our help after fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. We stand by our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant treaties. We will continue to welcome people to the UK through safe and legal routes, assisting the most vulnerable, providing accommodation and meeting essential living needs.
As I have set out, we are taking a number of steps to tackle irregular, dangerous migration. But addressing the problem really requires a complete overhaul, and in the first half of next year we will bring forward a Bill to fix the immigration and asylum system once and for all. This country will be fair to those who need protection, but firm where the system is being abused.”
In their Statement, the Government said that they will bring forward a Bill
“to fix the immigration and asylum system once and for all.”
What will an immigration and asylum system that has been fixed “once and for all” by this Government look like, and how will it differ fundamentally from the present system? Secondly, are there at least minimum standards that must be, and are, met at all times for the accommodation in which a total of 60,000 asylum seekers—some three-quarters of the size of our prison population—are housed? If so, do those minimum standards include at all times for all those housed the provision of electricity, heating, hot water and mains running water?
I thank the noble Lord for his question, which pertinently asked what a firm but fair asylum system would look like. The whole premise of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s ambition for the future immigration system is to give refuge to those who need it—some of the most vulnerable people in the world—and to seriously clamp down on some of the criminals who facilitate some of the dangerous crossings across our waters. The accommodation will meet minimum standards: there is no question of a diminution in standards for anybody who finds themselves in our accommodation.
My Lords, the Home Office relies on the UNHCR in connection with its resettlement programme. The Minister will know that the UNHCR is concerned about asylum seekers being left in limbo, so why did the Home Office not consult the UNHCR and others about the changes and issues such as exactly how people will be assisted to access support?
The changes to the Immigration Rules are small and technical, and some of them are clearly almost an extension of Dublin in terms of the safe country rules. On asylum seekers being left “in limbo”, if by “limbo” the noble Baroness means destitute or in any way left to fend for themselves, I say that no one will be left destitute: everyone will be treated with dignity and respect.
My Lords, surely one way of reducing the need for supported accommodation is to enable asylum seekers to support themselves? Can my noble friend give any indication of when the review into the potential reduction of time before paid work is allowed will report?
My Lords, I usually associate Red Cross food parcels with our prisoners of war in World War II; however, I once witnessed them being handed out to destitute asylum seekers in Manchester. Can the Minister please assure the House that no asylum seeker supported under the changed rules faces similar destitution?
My Lords, in the light of the recent ruling by the High Court of Justice in London against the Secretary of State, what steps have Her Majesty’s Government taken to review the way in which the Home Office houses asylum seekers with disabilities in order to comply with the judgment of the High Court? The delays in providing accommodation in the cases before the court range from 45 days to nine months.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, under the Dublin III regulations, which come to an end at the end of this month, no child can be returned to the country they came from because that would not be in their best interests. What is to be the position from 1 January?
My Lords, any cases which are live—as we term them—before 31 December will be dealt with in the ensuing period. As I have said to the noble Lord before, there will be a statement on my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s ambition for a firm and fair immigration system for the future within three months of Royal Assent to the immigration Bill.
My Lords, in preparation for this question, I contacted the Refugee Council to hear its concerns about the changes. It sent a few questions and I will ask the Minister two of them. First, why was this major and fundamental change announced with zero consultation with stakeholders, including local authorities and the asylum sector? Secondly, the change is due to come in on 1 January, but the accompanying guidance on its implementation has still not been published. Given that this is just over two weeks away, and happening over Christmas, when will the guidance be published?
The noble Baroness described the changes as “major and fundamental”. They are neither major nor fundamental; they are technical changes. I made a commitment to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, during the passage of the immigration Bill, that published guidance would necessarily be updated to ensure that it was clear and transparent by 31 December. The guidance will be published by the end of the year but, given the timescales involved, it has not been possible to consult on this ahead of publication.
Does the Minister recognise the challenging fact that the flow of economic migrants will continue until the standard of living of the country they are trying to reach is no longer sufficiently above that of the country they have left to make the risks and costs of the journey worthwhile? Does she further agree that the prospects of such a potential dilution of quality of life in the UK would not be tolerated by the electorate, whatever Government was in office?
My noble friend’s question is a global one: why would people make these dangerous journeys, facilitated by criminals and risking their own lives, if they were not fleeing such substandard, and in many cases frightening, conditions back home? It is a terribly sad state that so many migrants are willing to make that journey. It is only in helping people, both upstream and in the reception that we give to genuine asylum seekers, that we can hope to address in some way the terrible things that people are facing.
My Lords, why are we being so hard on asylum seekers in this season of good will? Does the Minister agree that we and other great powers, partly responsible for destroying the homes and livelihoods of innocents fleeing conflict in the Middle East, have a moral responsibility to provide shelter and a livelihood for those we have helped to displace?
I cannot say that I agree with the noble Lord that we are acting so harshly. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is trying to give refuge to those who genuinely need our asylum, but to crack down on some of the huge level of criminal activity that leads people to risk unsafe journeys, and thus their lives.