Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 10 June.
“I am answering this question on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my honourable friend the Member for Torbay, Kevin Foster, who has sadly suffered a family bereavement and therefore cannot be here this morning.
Covid-19 has had a major and unprecedented impact on the asylum system. We make absolutely no apologies for doing everything in our power to provide shelter to those in need during these exceptional times.
Between March and October last year, nearly 12,000 extra people needed to be housed as a result of the pandemic, nearly 10,000 of whom ended up in hotels, at huge public expense. Every accommodation option had to be considered.
Those accommodated at Napier barracks are catered with three nutritious meals per day, with options for special dietary or religious requirements. There is a recreational building with a library. Prayer rooms are available and scheduled activities now include yoga, English conversation and art. There is a nurse on site and access to a GP. All asylum seekers housed at Napier have access to a 24/7 advice service, provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help.
Napier barracks has been happily used for many years by Army and police personnel. The Army itself has continued to use barrack accommodation around the country during the pandemic, when needed. While we are disappointed by some of the judgment, the High Court found in the Home Office’s favour in a number of areas. It rejected the claim that conditions at Napier amounted to ‘inhuman or degrading treatment.’ The judge declined to rule that dormitories or barrack accommodation could never provide ‘adequate accommodation’ for asylum seekers, and the judge rejected the claim that the expectation that residents would be back on site by 10 pm amounted to a curfew or unlawful imprisonment.
Furthermore, the judgment was based on conditions in the past, before several significant improvements. These include a stronger cleaning regime, reopening of communal areas with staggered access times, limiting the period of residency and using lateral flow tests three times a week. The overall capacity of the site has also been reduced. At all stages, the Home Office believed it was taking reasonable steps to respond to Public Health England suggestions on public health, where possible.
We have published the suitability criteria that we use for assessing who is suitable to be accommodated at Napier. If it becomes apparent that someone is resident but unsuitable, a transfer is then arranged.
Through our new plans for immigration and the upcoming sovereign borders Bill, this Government are taking action to increase the fairness and efficiency of our asylum system but also to fight illegal and unnecessary migration, such as that by small boats coming across the English Channel. I hope Members will support that Bill when it comes forward, as it is sorely needed to support reform of the system.”
The judgment found that the Napier Covid arrangements were
“contrary to the advice of PHE”,
with precautions being
“completely inadequate to prevent the spread of Covid-19”,
with people in dormitory blocks having shared facilities for up to 28 people. PHE advice was that
“dormitories are not suitable”
but that, if the Home Office proceeded, the number of beds should be limited to six with people kept in bubbles. Even that did not apply at Napier, where 200 people got Covid.
The Home Secretary told the Commons Home Affairs Committee in February that
“the use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice”
“we have been following guidance in every single way.”
That claim was demolished by the judgment and by the Commons Minister last Thursday, who said that
“Where possible we have followed”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/21; col. 1118.]
PHE guidelines, with “where possible” determined by the Home Secretary. Why did the Home Secretary tell the Home Affairs Committee that PHE guidance had been followed “in every single way”, when that was not the case?
My Lords, we believed we were taking reasonable steps to give effect to the PHE advice on the steps to be taken to make dormitory accommodation as safe as possible. It was on that basis that the Home Secretary and the Permanent Secretary appeared before the committee. We acknowledge the court’s findings that the measures were not adequate and are considering our next steps. Throughout the set-up and operation of the site, the Home Office has engaged with health officials in various organisations to ensure that it is aware of up-to-date advice. While the advice to officials from PHE was that dormitory-style accommodation was not suitable, it also set out how congregate residential settings should be used if other accommodation was not available. We have been working very constructively with PHE for more than a year now.
My Lords, the Minister just said “we believed we were taking reasonable steps”, but the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee, in answer to question 120, that
“we have been following guidance in every single way.”
Does the Minister agree that there is a significant difference between what she has just said and what the Home Secretary said to the Select Committee? Who is telling the truth?
As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, we believed that we were taking reasonable steps to give effect to the PHE advice on the steps to make accommodation as safe as possible. The advice that PHE set out was that self-contained accommodation should be used where available but, if not, how non-self-contained accommodation should be used. I have to say that we acted in an unprecedented health pandemic to ensure that asylum seekers were not left destitute. We took steps, in response to advice from health authorities, and have continued to make improvements throughout. In its letter to the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, the PHE set out that we have been working with it on Covid matters since spring last year.
My Lords, we have heard that the High Court found in the Home Office’s favour in a number of areas, not least in rejecting the claim that conditions at Napier amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. Surely Napier barracks is nothing less than a distraction from the real issue of the French authorities failing dismally in their duty to protect seaborne migrants by preventing them leaving the safety of French shores. Given the enormous contribution that the British taxpayer is making towards this effort in France, can the Minister give an explanation that I can take back to the many people who are, frankly, baffled by the inadequacies of French law enforcement in preventing migrants crossing the channel?
I fully concur with my noble friend that any journey across the channel is perilous and, as we have seen on many occasions, leads to people who take those journeys dying or ending up in the sea. The only people who benefit from those journeys are the criminals who facilitate them. We continue to work with the French to ensure that people do not take those journeys from the French coast. To that extent, we hope that things will improve.
I declare my interest as a trustee of the Refugee Council. Asylum seekers in Napier barracks, who came via continental Europe, are now being told by the Home Office that before their cases can even be considered, they must spend six months in limbo—six months before they join the queue, lengthening steadily since 2015 and, by March, a record and scandalous 40,000 strong, of those awaiting an initial decision on their claim, not allowed to work and subsisting on £5 a day. Will the Minister answer two questions? First, will she explain how the new limbo is consistent with our refugee convention obligations, given that there is no convention rule requiring applications in a safe transit country? Secondly, will she tell us how sending these people back to continental Europe could be contrived, given that we have left the Dublin convention and have no replacement bilateral agreements in place?
The key phrase used by the noble Lord is “continental Europe”. These people are coming from safe countries; Europe is a safe set of states. We believe that the inadmissibility rules are consistent with the refugee convention. They have not been dreamt up by us recently, but are long standing. We are currently in discussions with other countries on sending people back who should not have applied for asylum, coming from a safe country.
My Lords, this has been a sorry tale, which, more than anything else, has exposed that the Government either did not know or were avoiding telling Parliament what was happening. Part of the next phase is the opening of a detention centre—I think that is what it is being called—in Medomsley, County Durham. The site is beautiful, but has a very sorry history from when it was a detention centre and then the Hassockfield youth offending facility. There are still outstanding cases of alleged abuse relating to Medomsley. It is a very strange place to put people from very different cultures with probably very different language needs from those in the local community. How will the Government ensure that the system, which already looks fairly broken, does not become even more broken by there being insufficient people with language or cultural knowledge to work there, and ensure that we fulfil our international obligations, as we ought to?
My Lords, any accommodation, be it detention or reception accommodation, will be scoped and checked to make sure that it meets service standards. I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes about that particular detention centre because the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham brought it to my attention. We are currently scoping through various options for detention, but if someone has no legal right to be here and we cannot effect their removal, we unfortunately have to place them in detention, but the detention estate has declined somewhat over the last few years.
My Lords, if the High Court considers that Napier barracks cannot provide acceptable accommodation for asylum seekers under current conditions, does my noble friend agree that the court’s judgment is considered extraordinary and absurd by a large majority of the public? Does she not further agree that the judgment strengthens the case to identify suitable offshore centres to house asylum seekers, which might eventually damage the illusion of nirvana—as the people smugglers portray life after illegal entry into the UK?
The judgment found explicitly that the conditions of the barracks were not inhumane or degrading, as has been reported, but I concur with my noble friend that anyone who has no right to be here, whether through criminality or a failed asylum judgment, should be removed from this country. The Government are looking at various ways in which that can be effected.