Committee (3rd Day)
Relevant documents: 7th and 9th Reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 11th Report from the Constitution Committee and 18th and 19th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 12: Accommodation for asylum-seekers etc
56: Clause 12, page 15, line 39, at end insert—
“(4A) In section 16 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Establishment of centres), after subsection 2 insert—“(2A) Accommodation provided under this section must—(a) have a capacity of no more than 100 residents, and(b) provide any non-related residents at the centre with an individual room in which to sleep, such that residents are not required to share sleeping quarters with people to whom they are not related.”” Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would amend the 2002 Act to ensure that accommodation centres are not too large and that residents are not required to share sleeping quarters with anyone they are not related to.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 57, 59 and 60 in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I also express broad support for the other amendments in this group. The amendments reflect the concerns of the British Red Cross together with many other organisations, and I am grateful to them for their help. Together, the amendments would place restrictions on who could be accommodated in the accommodation centres proposed under Clause 12 and for how long, the numbers to be accommodated in a centre and the sleeping arrangements, and would ensure that if children were ever accommodated in those centres, they would not be prevented from attending local maintained schools.
Under Clause 12, as signalled in the new plan for immigration, accommodation for asylum seekers will move from what has been the dominant dispersal model, in which asylum seekers are housed in local communities, to accommodation in reception centres, using a power provided by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. No detail has been provided, so one purpose of the amendments is to try to elicit more detail than was provided in the Commons. In particular, how many accommodation centres are planned, and where? Will they be purpose-built or will they use existing sites such as Napier barracks? What criteria will be used to decide whether such existing sites are designated as accommodation centres or contingency accommodation?
What the Government have made clear is that they will use Napier as asylum accommodation for a further five years, and that this will allow testing and piloting to inform the final design of how accommodation centres will operate. In view of the High Court judgment about the inadequacy of the accommodation provided, and having sat on an inquiry held by the APPG on immigration detention into quasi-detention centres, I find the idea that Napier could provide the model for future accommodation centres profoundly worrying.
The evidence we received—both from stakeholder organisations and from those with experience of living in Napier or in another centre, now closed—was overwhelmingly negative. Typically, such centres are in remote areas. This spells isolation and a lack of easy access to support services. It is not conducive to integration. On the contrary, it creates what HOPE not hate describes as “targets of hate”. It warns that the use of such centres is likely to lead to increased harassment of asylum seekers.
As noted in the joint evidence from Doctors of the World, the Helen Bamber Foundation, Forrest Medico-Legal Services and Freedom from Torture, the use of dormitory-style accommodation means a total lack of privacy. This can be particularly problematic for LGBTQ+ residents. It also results in serious sleep deprivation for many. The impact of this deprivation on mental health and well-being was described very powerfully in evidence to the inquiry by those with experience of Napier barracks.
The use of former military barracks can be retraumatising for those who have suffered abuse and torture. As a dozen organisations, including Doctors of the World, the Helen Bamber Foundation, the BMA and various royal colleges warned the Home Secretary in a joint letter, this makes them inappropriate for people seeking asylum. They also warned that the kind of accommodation centres envisaged represent a real public health risk and impede adequate medical care.
It was clear from our inquiry and from the experience of a range of health and refugee organisations that such accommodation is bad for mental and physical health. It undermines any sense of agency and hope. According to the Helen Bamber Foundation,
“the use of institutional accommodation of this type is extremely harmful to survivors of torture”
and its features
“have the same impact as open prisons with groups of people with little to motivate or occupy themselves becoming increasingly desperate.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Refugee Council has warned:
“Proposals to extend these forms of accommodation are ill-thought out and dangerous, and undermine the UK’s duties to support and protect those making asylum claims.”
It advised that international examples of the use of congregated settings, including in the Republic of Ireland, have shown that this kind of accommodation is completely inappropriate for housing those seeking asylum.
The amendments will not prevent the use of such accommodation centres—the power for which stems from earlier legislation, as I said—but they would go so way towards addressing their most inhumane features. Amendment 57 would, with some additions, give legislative force to what is supposed to be current policy—of not housing groups with particular vulnerabilities in such accommodation. Our inquiry, British Red Cross research and the experiences of stakeholders all indicate that, all too often, people with vulnerabilities are housed in such accommodation. It is therefore essential the safeguards are spelled out in the legislation. In the absence of such legal safeguards, what assurances can the Minister give that the use of accommodation centres will be accompanied by more robust screening and protection than exist at present?
With regard to children, in the Commons Committee, the Minister assured Members that the Government had “no intention” and “no plans” to accommodate children. Welcome as such assurances are, they are far from a cast-iron guarantee. We need to spell it out in the legislation. I do not see why the Government would resist this—if this is their intention. I invite the Minister to give an absolute assurance on the record.
Without a firm—preferably legal—guarantee, Amendment 60, which assures children’s access to local maintained education facilities, is still needed. At present, Section 36 of the 2002 Act prevents a child who is resident in an accommodation centre being admitted to a maintained school or nursery. Section 29 allows for education to take place within the centres. The prior information notice for accommodation centres, published by the Government last August, includes provision for education services. It surely cannot be in the children’s best interests to segregate them from children in the local community in this way.
Amendment 56 would limit the number of residents in any one centre to 100. The larger such centres are, the less the residents feel that their humanity is recognised and the more likely the centres are to attract hostile attention and to work against social cohesion and integration. In the Commons Committee, the Minister said that such a limit would undermine a key objective of resolving asylum cases more quickly on site. It is not clear how it would do so. Could the Minister please explain?
The other part of the amendment would ensure that residents were not required to share sleeping accommodation with anyone to whom they were not related. This reflects a recommendation made five years ago by the Home Affairs Select Committee—that room-sharing should be phased out across the asylum estate. It would help address lack of privacy and public health concerns.
The Minister was rather dismissive of this in the Commons Committee, but he did not seem to appreciate what it is like for people seeking asylum to be housed in dormitory-style accommodation, as opposed to sharing a bedroom in accommodation in the community. It is all very well saying, as he did, that torture survivors receiving treatment should not share sleeping quarters, but in practice, all too often, inadequate screening means that torture survivors and others who are vulnerable do so.
Amendment 59 would remove the power given to the Home Secretary in Clause 11 to increase the maximum period for which someone can be accommodated. At present, there is a limit of six months in most cases. The Explanatory Note gives no indication as to how the new power might be used, other than to argue that it provides flexibility. The UNHCR has expressed concern that, unless there are necessary safeguards and support services, prolonged accommodation in such centres is likely to harm well-being, increase the need for future support and delay refugee integration. The 90-day limit in the amendment reflects current practice at Napier. We know the damaging impact on mental health caused by the absence of any clear time limit. It should not be replicated in accommodation centres.
In conclusion, I will quote from residents of Napier and of Penally, which is now closed. One told the APPG inquiry:
“When I arrived, the fear completely overwhelmed me. The design of the camp was oppressive, the high fences, the sheer numbers of people, the security who … looked like they were from the military. It was terrifying and I could feel it through my whole body. It reminded me of the military camps in [my home country]. I was in complete shock for the first few days. I did not sleep at all … It reminded me of [my home country] and I could not function.”
“It would be difficult to design a system that more perfectly delivers despair and deteriorating human health and mental capacity than these asylum camps.”
A third said:
“I did not feel like a person when I was there.”
These quotes show quite clearly the experience of dehumanisation. The JCHR suggested, in one of its reports on the Bill, that such dehumanisation and distress are not inevitable in accommodation centres. It also made it clear that it was imperative that the Government learn from the poor treatment of asylum seekers housed in former military barracks. The amendments in this group give the Government the opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned from the overwhelming evidence of the damaging impact of such accommodation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly welcome my noble friend’s initiative in building and setting up reception centres of this kind. I appreciate that the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and others, are, in effect, probing amendments to find out more about the Government’s exact intentions. I fully understand that. It is perfectly reasonable.
I do not think that the noble Baroness objected to the principle of reception centres of this kind. At the moment, first of all, people are visited on local authorities, which are asked to accommodate them. Inevitably, these are not local authorities in London and the south-east, where accommodation costs are very high, but in areas such as the Midlands, the north-west and the north-east. I come from the north-west, so I know it particularly well. Here there is the largest concentration of people of this kind in council flats and so forth. They are, in effect, in competition with local people on the council waiting list, who may be rather resentful if they find they are asked to wait rather longer because of the need to accommodate people who have just come across the channel on a boat. This is not conducive to good community relations, as well as being quite unfair on people who have long been resident in this country.
Secondly, if they cannot be accommodated by local authorities—indeed, it is increasingly difficult to find appropriate council accommodation because of the shortage of housing, even in areas such as the north-east and north-west—they are sent to local hotels. I know this particularly well because I happened to spend part of my youth in Southport. Southport has a splendid main street called Lord Street. The Committee may not know it, but it was visited by Louis Napoleon, the Emperor of France, when he was in exile in this country before he became the emperor. On the basis of Lord Street, he created the Champs-Élysées in Paris. In Southport we always think of the Champs-Élysées as being the French Lord Street.
In the middle of Lord Street, which is a delightful main street beautifully planted with trees, there are several hotels which wish to have tourist trade. Some of those have been occupied—I am unsure of the present situation—by illegal immigrants. I am sure it is good business from the point of view of the local hotels, but none the less, they are not available to people who want to go to stay in Southport and have a holiday. Equally, there are people in hotels in Doncaster at the moment. These are places which may otherwise be occupied by commercial travellers and others, so it is affecting the economy of these areas as well as the difficulties of council housing.
We need an additional facility to add to the capacity to deal with these people, who are coming here as we speak—there are more and more people coming here across the channel—in an emergency way. We need extra capacity of this kind. While I understand clearly that it should be proper accommodation and that proper standards should be adhered to—no one would want people to go into vermin-infested places, it has to be appropriate—it should be used sensibly and flexibly. It is no use having accommodation of this kind if the Government cannot use it in a flexible way to cope with a temporary situation which can fluctuate from week to week. Obviously, the Government must have some flexibility in these circumstances to vary the length of time a person stays there and the sort of situation they stay in, provided, of course, that it is accommodation we would all accept as reasonable.
This is a welcome addition to the facilities which the Government have in this area. It will be welcomed very much by the people who Michael Gove was talking about yesterday—those who badly need levelling up in their areas. Some of the strains and stresses of dealing with this thing are disproportionately settled on their heads. This is a welcome thing from my noble friend, and I hope it will be approved in principle, although, I accept that it is quite reasonable for the noble Baroness to press the Government on exactly what their intentions are in some detail.
My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendments 56, 57 and 59 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I have added my name to these amendments. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Horam, that we are not talking about illegal immigrants; we are talking about asylum seekers. It is legitimate to seek asylum in this country.
In 2021—last year—a British Red Cross investigation found that unsuitable and poor facilities were having a severe effect on the well-being of asylum seekers, including children. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in asking the Minister to clarify that these accommodation centres will not be used for children in any circumstances because that is really important, and we really would like that on the record.
We know that people housed in asylum accommodation are generally not registered with a GP and face significant challenges in accessing appropriate healthcare, particularly for more complex mental and physical health conditions. People who are not registered with a GP and do not have an NHS number are also unable to access Covid-19 vaccines through the regular channels, which makes them largely dependent on outreach and walk-in clinics. I can tell noble Lords, as someone who has been very involved in the vaccine delivery, that it is a serious problem. It poses a huge challenge for timely follow-up and identification of those who need additional doses as a result of their clinical vulnerability.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned the judgment about those who were in Napier barracks. Noble Lords will know of the judgment, which was brought in June 2021, where it was made very clear that there were inadequate health and safety conditions, a failure to screen for victims of trafficking and other vulnerabilities and false imprisonment of residents. Evidence presented to the court showed that the Home Office continued to house people at the barracks against advice from Public Health England. A Covid outbreak was found by the court to be inevitable and it occured in January 2021, with nearly 200 people testing positive. Yet this is the model the Government are using.
We need to understand from the Minister and know more about how exactly this is going to operate and how we are going to ensure that anybody in an accommodation centre has their health protected and gets decent health services. We know that the risks to the health and well-being of people in these large-scale accommodation centres are clear.
If you add in the most vulnerable of people—children, women, people with disabilities, those who have been referred to the national referral mechanism and others who are vulnerable—the system will not be able to cope. The accommodation centres will apparently provide basic healthcare services, but access to medical care and infection control in current asylum accommodation settings has been notoriously poor, drawing widespread condemnation from healthcare professionals across the UK.
This amendment would mean people in vulnerable circumstances, including children, survivors of torture and those who have been subjected to human trafficking or enslavement, are not accommodated in the new accommodation centres. The Home Office recognised that most vulnerable people should not be accommodated in Napier barracks but Doctors of the World—I am extremely grateful to Doctors of the World and other organisations which have provided excellent briefings on all of this—data shows that 70% of Napier barracks residents accessing its clinical services disclosed an experience of violence in their home or transit country and 38% had applied for asylum because of an experience of violence. Of course, people who have experienced violence and associated trauma are unlikely to regard an accommodation centre that is prototyped by an ex-military camp as a place of safety, exactly as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has said. It is likely to trigger a trauma response. Talk to some of the psychiatrists who know about this and they will tell you that. It is likely to lead to the deterioration of an individual’s mental health and well-being.
Amendment 56 would mean that accommodation centres would not become overcrowded and would not place unnecessary pressure on local health services. It might also improve conditions—the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has perhaps said enough about that—because if you hear the experience of people who have been living 20 in the same room, you can almost not believe it. I t makes one stretch one’s eyes. The lack of privacy living in large, shared rooms is a major cause for concern for people’s mental well-being. By limiting the number of people accommodated at a site, this amendment would contribute to better access to mainstream health services, a better chance—not a great chance, but a better one—of social integration and possibly a chance of maintaining some sort of well-being.
There is a further point. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has referred to what is happening just across the Irish Sea in the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has, for nearly 20 years, been providing something called “direct provision” of housing for asylum seekers. I know about that because we have a holiday home in Ireland. However, because of the poor health experienced by residents, deaths within the centres and the same arguments being adduced here, the Irish Government are changing their system and have promised to phase out these so-called direct provision centres by 2024. Their new centres will be smaller, but not small enough, will be for a maximum of four months, which is not short enough, and will look out for the health and well-being and integration of the residents. If the Irish are removing these large centres, for all these reasons, should we not be thinking again, as well as protecting the most vulnerable from being housed within them, and reducing the length of stay permitted?
My Lords, I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Horam, that the stresses and strains being experienced by local economies and local people have actually been created by his Government, the Conservative Government, over the past 12 years. Their levelling-up message—I will not call it a campaign—is only to repair some of the damage they have done in the past 12 years. Please, I want no lectures about making things easier for people, because this Government have made things much harder for many millions of people.
I also express my admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who has shown incredible perseverance, persistence, bravery and toughness in keeping on about this subject. Her deep knowledge is informing the House. I really hope that we can listen to her, hear from her and learn from her; I include the Conservative Front Bench in that.
The way that asylum seekers have been detained in unsuitable accommodation in this country is a national outrage—a national disgrace. We should be deeply ashamed of it. If these conditions were not in violation of international law, then frankly we ought to be fighting for a change in international law, because no country should treat people like this.
The amendments in this group would have a two-pronged benefit, by improving the standard of accommodation and reducing the time for which people can be detained. I hope that the Minister will reflect deeply on the impact that this government detention is having on people’s lives, and accept these amendments.
My Lords, in rising to support these amendments, to some of which I have added my name, I declare my interests in relation to both the RAMP project and Reset, as set out in the register.
Where we live and sleep is fundamental to our health, well-being and ability to live our lives fully. It should be a place we feel safe, from where we can build our lives. The majority of people who claim asylum will be granted refugee status or humanitarian protection. From day one in this country, they should therefore be treated as future citizens—a gift to us rather than a problem or inconvenience. They may well have endured persecution and trauma, but they also have skills and experience that they want to actively use to contribute to our society. This should inform the whole asylum process, including how they are accommodated.
I am deeply concerned about the planned accommodation centres for asylum seekers. The Home Secretary has said that the continued use of Napier barracks may inform the final design of how accommodation centres will operate. This does not bode well given the serious concerns raised by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and the findings of the High Court of fundamental failures by the Home Office in ensuring that the barracks were suitable accommodation for vulnerable asylum seekers.
I am now in the position, unlike anyone else in this House I think, to say that I visited Napier barracks last week with two Members from the other place: the honourable Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, and the right honourable Member for Romsey and Southampton North, Caroline Nokes—herself a former Minister for Immigration. We were accompanied by the Bishop of Dover and three members of the RAMP project team. I put on record our deep gratitude to the Minister for her support in ensuring that the visit took place, and for intervening when it looked like it might get cancelled at short notice. She worked tirelessly for us, and we thank her.
It was clear from our visit that efforts have been made to improve things in the light of the previous inspection and the court case. The conditions are far from ideal, but the deeply shocking conditions we have learnt about at Napier and Penally camps should never be repeated, and they are not currently being repeated. Good-quality asylum accommodation should be provided from the outset, not forced following inspections and legal challenge. I have a number of observations to make and questions to ask of the Minister that apply to the different areas of our four amendments.
What specific learnings from Napier, and particularly from the reforms that have happened in Napier over the last few months, will be applied to the plans for future accommodation centres? For example, will sleeping areas be limited to two people? There are some single rooms and some rooms for two people, but most people are currently accommodated in what are described as “small dormitories” for either five or seven people. These are large halls separated by wood dividers that are only a bit taller than I am. They are not an unreasonable size: in each of the divides there is a bed, a desk, a storage cupboard, a chair, a table lamp and so on. However, there is simply a sheet or curtain hanging in front of that section that divides it off and offers any kind of privacy. There is a lot of noise, therefore. Several of the occupants we talked to chose to share a room rather than live in single rooms, but they did not like living in small dormitories.
I have other questions. Will there be funding for ESOL classes, rather than relying on the local charity that comes in to deliver them? They are there on a regular basis, but not funded by the Government. Will there be adequate recreational activities? Watching football being played on the hard surface was quite entertaining at points but, when I went to the medical centre, I was told that the most frequent reason for visiting it is cuts, twists and gashes from playing football on such surfaces. It would be quite nice to have a bit of grass. Will work be done on community cohesion with the local communities? Will there be appropriate medical expertise on site? The nurse practitioner whom we met, who is on site four days a week, was very impressive. However, on the fifth there is someone who is not there regularly, and over the weekends there is no medical expertise on site; people have to ring 111. Will there be effective processes to ensure that the most vulnerable are not housed at these sites? Will the Minister confirm, as has already been asked, that no children or families will be accommodated in such centres?
I remain deeply concerned after visiting. One of these concerns is about the use of an MoD site, given the risk of retraumatising residents. On the day of our visit, there were several military helicopters passing over the site and landing next door that meant we could not hear each other speak. That was an inconvenience for us, but what memories does a military helicopter taking off or landing evoke in residents? It may be a very bad memory. Military settings are bound to evoke deep memories in some and are not appropriate.
I would not want anything I say to be taken as a criticism of the staff whom we met; they worked very hard to support the residents and had a good rapport with them. However, one still cannot avoid the overall feeling of a prison camp rather than a place of safety and welcome.
People thrive in communities. A more compassionate and effective asylum system would give people accommodation within communities that allowed for proper social integration and proper access to education and healthcare, and it would create an environment for them to engage fully with the asylum process and their own application. This would all make for people being able better to integrate in the long term.
Asylum application processing needs to be quicker and more accurate so that time spent in asylum accommodation is of a minimum. I support a minimum time, but the best way of having that is by processing applications much more effectively. The current situation, whereby people are left to deteriorate during the long process, so that once they receive their status they are shadows of their former selves, is just not acceptable. The overriding concern of the Napier residents whom we spoke to was about the progress of their asylum application and the welfare of their family, often still in their country of origin. The lack of update from the Home Office on their applications was the deepest cause of frustration and concern that we all heard.
The amendments that I speak to in Clause 12 seek to gain some clarity on the design and use of the reception centres and to respond to some of the most serious concerns that have resulted from the use of military barracks. Capacity should be limited to no more than 100 residents—there are currently 308 in Napier—and people should not be required to share sleeping quarters with those whom they are unrelated to or whom they do not choose to share with.
Groups of people who are more likely to be vulnerable should not be allowed to be housed in such centres. Organisations supporting individuals in military barracks have raised serious concerns about the efficacy of the Home Office assessments in identifying vulnerabilities. We understood from the Minister during the Committee stage of the Bill in the other place that there were no plans to place families with children. This is welcome, but please can that be confirmed.
I hope that it has assisted the Committee to hear first-hand evidence from last week. Those of us who visited will produce a report in due course. I hope that the Minister will listen to these concerns and work towards an approach to accommodation which has integration and well-being at its heart.
My Lords, one rises to talk in this debate having heard speeches from the noble Baronesses and the right reverend Prelate which are based on great experience. My experience, which is much less and can therefore be dismissed as anecdotal, causes me to raise a couple of questions which I have told the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I would raise. It is the question of the inflexibility that may be imposed if the system has too many conditions attached to it and, in particular, of the maximum number of 100 in a centre.
My anecdotal experience—I accept that it is anecdotal —is that the numbers are not the problem; what people want is proper management and not an absolute focus on numbers. As we all know, those unfortunate people arrive here traumatised, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, pointed out, and, for them, to some extent there is safety in numbers because in their previous experience they have been kept on their own. Therefore, having people around them can be helpful and not traumatising—in fact, it reduces trauma and does not compromise their humanity in the way the noble Baroness described. Of course, the smaller we make the group—the maximum—the more we run the risk of having to break up families because family groups cannot be fitted together. That seems undesirable by any measure. When the noble Baroness replies at the end of the debate on her amendment, I hope that she will be able to explain why 100 is the right number and some of the other issues that arise around this point.
My noble friend the Minister will know that I support the direction of travel of this Bill, but I am afraid that for the rest of my remarks I am going to be perhaps rather less helpful. The Committee may be aware that I chair the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. We looked at 901 regulations last year, and all human life is there. Amid 901 regulations, things pass in a bit of a blur, but one or two—a dozen, 15 or 20, over the years—stand out. I am afraid that No. 962 did that. As we heard from several earlier speakers, it concerned the special development order for Napier barracks. Noble Lords have spoken extensively about the drawbacks of that—I shall not go into them now; apart from anything else, I do not want to rain on the parade of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, because I know that he happens to have tabled a regret Motion about this matter, and no doubt he will wish to take that forward at a future date. However, consideration of that order revealed a shocking series of cases. I was pleased to hear from the right reverend Prelate that he thought that things had improved. I was pleased to hear about how he thought things could be further improved. I am not sure that we can go quite as far as he would wish—I find it quite difficult to see how we can interfere with military journeys in this country. People should be able to understand that the Army, the Air Force or the Navy are not coming for them; it is part of their training.
My point was that I just do not believe that they should be right next door to military barracks.
I accept that point, but I do not accept the point that large centres cannot work if they are properly designed and managed. That is not necessarily a reason for rejecting the possibility of there being larger reception centres, albeit that they may be built around buildings that have existed before.
When my noble friend the Minister replies, I am looking for her to say that we have no more Napier barracks hidden away somewhere, that we are moving in the direction of travel given by the right reverend Prelate and that, with that provision, we should continue to be prepared to provide centres that may be larger because they answer some of the requirements and traumas that those unfortunate people are experiencing.
My Lords, I support these amendments and pay tribute to those whose names are attached to them, because they all raise important issues. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Horam, that there was something of a Freudian slip when he suggested that we were here dealing with illegal immigrants. Perhaps the tabloid newspapers are having too much of an effect on his view of what is happening.
Surely in many instances we will not know the state of their claim when those people are accommodated in the reception centres. They will not know, and we will not know, what their status is.
It was the assumption that we were talking about illegal immigrants. The vast majority of the people coming through are asylum seekers and have good reason to be seeking asylum.
The reason I got to my feet was not really to reprimand the noble Lord, Lord Horam; it was to raise a question that came from my own experience. When it became public that we had been evacuating judges and prosecutors from Afghanistan, because they were in mortal danger, to a lily pad—a temporary location—in Greece, the number of communications I received from people and families up and down the country with additional accommodation and offering to make it available to any of those seeking refuge from persecution was extraordinary. I know that the answer will be given from the Front Bench that of course we encourage people to contact a central line and to put their names down to say that they might make such an offer, but many of those who contacted me, where I gave them that advice, told me that no one had ever contacted them. I just wonder whether the good will of the British people who could offer accommodation is really being tapped into, rather than piling people into camps such as this one.
I recommend a very interesting long essay published in the Guardian earlier this week. It contained a description of what happened during the Second World War, when we ended up creating camps for Jews who had fled from Nazi Germany, again in mortal danger. They were put into camps because the tabloid press had developed a flurry, suggesting that there was a fifth column of people who might be spies in our midst—and they ended up in camps. What came out of the descriptions that they gave was the horrible thing of being questioned about your loyalty and why you were there, which affected people’s mental health. So, when the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, speaks from a particular experience in her family about the effects of this kind of thing, please let us take it to our hearts. We should have learned from the past. I strongly support these amendments.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 61 in my name. Unlike the previous amendments that have been discussed so eloquently, this is not based on specificities in relation to the nature of the accommodation and particular people; it is a compendious description of the standard of accommodation that should be provided to a refugee, in the light of and against the background of the unsatisfactory accommodation provided to date, which, as I said, has been so eloquently elaborated upon by previous speakers.
The compendious description is in three parts, which are as follows. The accommodation
“must be provided in the United Kingdom”,
which ties in with Clause 28—I will deal with that more fully under that heading. It
“must be consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights”—
there can be no objection to that, for obvious reasons. It must also
“be such as is appropriate for the safety and welfare of that refugee having particular regard to any protected characteristic asserted by the refugee, within the meaning of Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Equality Act 2010, which is innate or immutable.”
I will say a little bit about that last particular part of this compendious description of the appropriate accommodation that should be provided. An asylum seeker who has “innate or immutable” protected characteristics may have particular vulnerabilities—we have heard quite a bit about that—which need to be taken into account in determining what would be appropriate while their particular claim is being assessed, and even if it has been rejected. In the case of LGBTQI+ and single women refugees, for example, it has been clearly established that they may well encounter bullying, sexual harassment and physical violence from other refugees coming from the same or similar countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Uganda, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Syria—or, indeed, in the case of LGBTQI+ refugees, any of the more than 70 countries where sex between two people of the same sex is illegal. There have been comprehensive analyses and accounts of this type of abuse in detention centres, and one can find them in Stonewall’s 2016 report No Safe Refuge: Experiences of LGBT Asylum Seekers in Detention, Stephen Shaw’s 2016 report to the Home Office on his Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons and the 2020 recommendations of the University of Sussex’s School of Law, Politics and Sociology on people seeking asylum in the UK on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In relation to the suggestion in the Bill that there could be offshore centres, I will describe in more detail criticisms of the state of accommodation and examples of the sort of violent and oppressive treatment that I have described—particularly the appalling events that have taken place in some of the Australian offshore centres in Papua New Guinea.
My Lords, I rise briefly to speak to these amendments and congratulate my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett on so eloquently moving the amendment. I also congratulate the other speakers who have spoken in favour.
I particularly welcome Amendment 61 of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, because, as he said, he introduces into it elements—human rights and the regard to the special provisions within the Equality Act —of which we should be proud and on which we should lead internationally. I give my wholehearted support to that because, as noble Lords have heard me say before—I make no apologies for saying it again and again—in each of these situations, I imagine what I would want as an asylum seeker or refugee. I must imagine myself in that situation. Some who read our newspapers would believe that it is a picnic and a party; it is certainly not at the moment in the United Kingdom. I believe that the signal that we are sending out with the Bill and with these amendments is that asylum seekers and those seeking refuge are not welcome.
To reiterate the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, I remember that, when I was a Member of the European Parliament many years ago, I was approached by a person whose partner was a gay man from Belarus who was seeking asylum here. His asylum process was going through and, suddenly, in the very early hours of the morning, he was arrested and detained at a detention centre. Let us make no bones about it: Clause 12(9) introduces detention centres—they are called “accommodation” centres, but asylum seekers are detained and cannot leave them at will. This is why the minimum conditions that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham outlined are a basic and bare necessity to which we should adhere. This young gay man was placed in a detention centre for a number of weeks and had to sleep in shared accommodation; we managed to get him out because his partner could afford a rather brilliant lawyer to plead the case. While he was there, he contemplated suicide on an hourly basis. This young man is now in a senior job in the United Kingdom, paying his taxes, his dues and his national insurance and abiding by the same rules and laws as everyone else. But he still lives with that scar every single day, and I do not want any other person to experience that.
Placing vulnerable people back into these situations, as outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, only increases stress and the damage to mental health. If LGBTQI people are put back into the communities from which they have fled, they face further oppression within places that should be safe, and it makes it much more difficult for them to prove their LGBTQI status to others.
Someone once said to me, “Oh, being trans is just a feeling, isn’t it?” Well, I cannot prove to anyone that I am a gay man; it is a feeling and one that I have when I look at another human being—although not every single man, interestingly enough. Therefore, we have to deal with these particular issues, not only of LGBTQI people but all of these vulnerable asylum seekers.
I will finish with this. In roughly 1600, Shakespeare co-wrote a play; it was the only play that he co-wrote and it is “Sir Thomas More”. Sir Thomas More is called to London because the citizens of London are rebelling—they had probably read the tabloids of the day—because “the strangers” had made their way from Calais via Dover to London. In a parenthesis to a speech, Thomas More comes out, and with one hand silences the crowd. In that silence, a voice shouts, “Remove them!” Thomas More replies: “You bid that they be removed, the stranger, with their children upon their back, their families at their side, their belongings at their feet. Imagine you are the stranger, with your children upon your back, your family at your side, your belongings at your feet. Imagine you are the stranger and bid that they be removed and show your mountanish inhumanity.” It is a great privilege and pleasure to support these amendments.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group and I ask the Minister to address in her response a couple of issues, particularly in relation to Amendments 57 and 61, about restricting the placing of vulnerable people in accommodation centres—military barracks. When a similar amendment to Amendment 57 was tabled in Committee in the other place, the Home Office Minister, Tom Pursglove, said it was
“unnecessary because there are no plans to place those with children in accommodation centres”.—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 21/10/21; col. 295.]
If the Home Office has no such plans, which is a welcome commitment, why will it not accept a statutory shield against placing at least children in those centres?
Wider than that, I am grateful to the British Red Cross, which has reminded us that there is a Home Office policy document, of which the latest update was in May 2021, called Allocation of Accommodation Policy. It has a section on “Asylum seekers considered unsuitable for Napier”, which starts with the statement:
“Women and dependent children are not suitable to be accommodated at Napier”,
before listing further cases, including potential survivors of modern slavery, people with a disability and those with complex health needs. The tablers of Amendment 57, which I support, say the list should be longer and should include those under Amendment 61. If the Home Office has these policy commitments, it is my contention that it ought to accept the amendments restricting the types of people who would be sent to these accommodation centres. I would be very pleased to hear the Minister agree and therefore accept at least Amendments 57 and 61.
My Lords, noble Lords will not be surprised if I strike a somewhat different note; none the less, it is a note that needs to be heard. I think we need to stand back before addressing this group of amendments. We cannot and should not assume that everyone who claims asylum in this country has a case and is a genuine asylum seeker. The Home Secretary said recently that of those crossing the channel, 70% were more likely to be, and were in fact, economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. A historical view, I think, gives a figure of something like 50% of asylum seekers whose cases were rejected after very careful legal procedure. So, I think we have to stand back and not simply assume that all applicants have two wings and a halo.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but, according to the Refugee Council, which did a very careful analysis of those coming over on boats—and this was an analysis, not just throwing out statistics in the way the Home Secretary did, perhaps—the great majority would be expected to receive refugee status. So, yes, of course, there are always going to be some people who are not “genuine” asylum seekers, but surely the assumption should be that they are until proved otherwise, rather than that they are not until it is proved that they are. The noble Lord seems to be assuming that they are not genuine asylum seekers and there is no evidence to support that.
I think we need to be careful not to make an assumption in either direction. I was quoting the Home Secretary in the expectation that she has information to back that up. Even without that, and the noble Baroness did not address this point, the historical record is that 50% over the last 10 years have had their cases refused. I leave it at that. My point is clear on that matter.
Does my noble friend agree that it would be helpful to the Committee if, when the Minister comes to reply, she provides two specific facts? One is about the number of people, said to be 125,000, awaiting decisions on their asylum claim; and the other is the average length of time it is now taking to expedite those decisions. This returns to the point made by the right reverend Prelate earlier about the pressure that would be taken off accommodation if those matters were attended to in a much more efficient way.
Yes, 125,000 is correct, and I think that many—most—are waiting for more than a year. But if I may continue with my point—which does not address that; what I am addressing is the way this discussion has gone—the issue of scale is an important one. I have some sympathy with the Home Office: it is having to deal with a very large problem that is extraordinarily difficult to deal with. It is clear that the situation in the channel is a shambles. It is also clear that it is going to get worse. The number who arrived last year was 30,000 just on the channel, with another 10,000 elsewhere. We could, this year, have something like 60,000 arriving and claiming asylum. That is a massive logistical task and we should have that well in mind in making recommendations to the Home Office.
It is clear that the system is already buckling under the strain. One major problem is, of course, accommodation. Provision of accommodation in four-star hotels does nobody any good: it does the Government no good, it does the cause of refugees no good and it should not be taking place. That, presumably, is why the Government are now legislating in connection with accommodation centres, but the response to that legislation is to propose eight amendments that, taken together, would make it unworkable, given the scale of applications that we can expect. For a start, if we limited it to 100 for each accommodation centre, we would have to build something like 100 centres. If we get to the higher end of what I have just been describing, it would be 200. We have to be realistic and recognise what the Home Office has to deal with. I have not always been its great friend, but I think it has a problem and we should be conscious of that.
To conclude, I advocate a rather different approach. I think we should set up accommodation centres, we should establish them and mark their boundaries, we should provide medical assistance and legal advice, but we should simply make it the case that if applicants leave that accommodation without permission, their application is refused.
Will the noble Lord give way?
No; it is very simple —too simple for the noble Baroness—but it would mean that we do not need huge amounts of security in order to keep people where we put them. I hope that Government will take powers to do something on those lines. I do not think what they are now proposing will work, and I think it would be even worse if some of the proposals we have heard today came into effect.
My Lords, I would not want this whole debate to turn on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Green. All I would say is that his suggestion that people should be kept in a form of virtual detention and penalised if they happen to leave it is surely unacceptable. I am afraid that I do not accept the thrust of his arguments anyway. If he looks at the figures, he will also find that, although more people came across the Channel by boat in the last year or so, the numbers have not increased all that much, compared with those who came on the back of lorries before. The numbers have actually gone down a bit.
That is correct. If the two are added together, it averages about 40,000 a year over the last eight or 10 years. The problem now is the publicity surrounding all this, which makes it more difficult. Also, these numbers could easily double, as the Home Office says, and then we are in a new situation, going back to the early 1960s when it ran completely out of control.
I do not want to pursue the point, because it is diverting us from the particular amendments, which I support. I say at the outset that the Minister has the advantage that, having been able to look at the Joint Committee on Human Rights reports on this, she will know exactly the quotes and arguments that we are going to use. It will be no surprise to her at all. She knows exactly what we are on about. I am certainly speaking as a member of that committee.
Before that, perhaps I could pay tribute to the Kent Refugee Action Network. During the pandemic—at its height—when the issue of Napier barracks arose, it drew our attention to what was going on. I am sorry I could not go with the right reverend Prelate on his recent visit, but at the time of the pandemic, we were not able to go on visits and I am sure the Minister was not able to, either. She gave us a version of what was going on in the barracks which frankly was disproved by the local people on the ground, who told us that the conditions were bad, and that people with Covid were mixed up in dormitories with people who did not have Covid. I am afraid the Minister at that time appeared to be misinformed as to the situation there. All these issues were raised at the time. I cannot remember how long ago it was. We had quite a long earlier debate.
I do not want to go over the ground that other noble Lords have covered. The Joint Committee on Human Rights looked at this. We have some good quotes from Bail for Immigration Detainees and from Médecins Sans Frontières. I will not quote those, but I do want to quote paragraph 91 of the JCHR report:
“It is imperative that the Government learns from the poor treatment of asylum seekers housed in former military barracks. If accommodation centres are to be used to house those awaiting asylum decisions and appeals or awaiting removal from the UK the conditions must ensure that residents are free to come and go, treated with respect, provided with adequate access to healthcare and legal advice and not prevented from mixing with the rest of society”.
I will say one other thing. At the time this issue arose, the Home Secretary said that the barracks were used by the British Army and asked why we were complaining. That was wrong in a number of respects. First, it was years previously that the Army had used the barracks. Secondly, they were not mixing up people with Covid with other people. If the conditions were not adequate now, they were not adequate for the Army then—but to use that as an excuse, and say, “It’s good enough for refugees because the Army used it 10 or 15 years earlier” seems an unacceptable argument.
I am sorry the Home Office has been put in this position. I welcome what the Kent Refugee Action Network has been doing to support refugees in Kent generally, to support refugees in the barracks and to campaign on the same arguments that are characterised by these amendments.
My Lords, it seems to me that this debate reflects what we said yesterday in our debate and what some of us tried to say on Second Reading. There is an irreconcilable conflict and quandary between our desire to receive people in the way in which we would wish them to be received and treated and the number of people who have been coming—and are likely to continue to come—and our capacity to handle them. The Home Office’s proposals attempt to increase the capacity and the quality. I totally understand the criticism of the proposals, but it seems to me that we are in no way in sight of a practical solution to this problem.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, for so comprehensively and clearly setting out the issues addressed in this group. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, for her detailed exposition of the negative impact that accommodation has on the health and well-being of asylum seekers.
We have Amendments 58, 62 and 63 in this group, which are about accommodation centres, which are—if the Government were honest about this—immigration detention centres, as the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, said. I say that because Section 30 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations about conditions to be observed by residents of an accommodation centre—including, in subsection (3)(a), the power to
“require a person not to be absent from the centre during specified hours without the permission of the Secretary of State or the manager”.
Hence my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s Amendment 62, which we strongly support, to remove such a condition.
If these are not intended to be detention centres, the Government will have no objection to this amendment—but I am not optimistic. The noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, will be heartened by the news in the Telegraph today that the Secretary of State
“is in talks with the Attorney-General about potential restrictions that could be placed on their movements”—
that is, the movements of asylum seekers housed in accommodation centres. The noble Lord will be heartened; we will be horrified.
We have already seen from the Government’s attempts to warehouse large numbers of asylum seekers in former military camps how such an approach is not “conducive to the public good”, to adopt a phrase from another part of the Bill. Noble Lords have talked about Napier barracks. In the same article in the Telegraph today, apparently the Home Office confirmed that it has acquired military barracks at Manston, in order to accommodate further asylum seekers.
The noble Lord, Lord Horam, suggested that there was no objection in practice to accommodation centres. To some extent, that is true, but having large numbers of asylum seekers in one place creates tensions with local communities and hampers asylum seekers’ attempts to integrate into their adopted country. While I am on the subject of the noble Lord, Lord Horam, can we nail the illegal immigrant issue? The noble Lord said that a lot of these asylum seekers had yet to have their claim determined. We have a principle in British law called being innocent until you are proved guilty. These people are not illegal immigrants unless and until their claim for asylum has been rejected.
So many objections to immigration generally are on the basis that immigrants do not integrate into society; that they do not attempt to learn the language, for example, or mix with those already established in the UK. Accommodation centres would prevent asylum seekers integrating and force them to isolate themselves from local communities. It is the very opposite of what we should be doing to ensure the integration that is so important to foster good community and race relations.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, we have seen the appalling conditions that asylum seekers have been forced to live in at Napier barracks, which drew universal condemnation. Amendments 56, 57 and 61 seek to provide some safeguards and protections for the most vulnerable asylum seekers. Amendment 60 would enable children housed in accommodation centres to attend local state schools, and Amendments 58 and 59 try to restrict the length of time that asylum seekers can be held in accommodation centres.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, in her Amendment 59 points out that the Home Office has said that the maximum length of time that people should be held in Napier barracks is three months. The amendment seeks to make such a limit statutory for all accommodation centres, instead of Clause 11(9), which proposes extending the maximum length of time someone can be accommodated in an accommodation centre from the current six months to potentially indefinitely. Our Amendment 58 more modestly proposes that the current extension to nine months, with the agreement of the asylum seeker and the Secretary of State, should be only for exceptional circumstances and should otherwise remain at six months, on the assumption that accommodation centres might be fit for purpose, unlike they have been to date.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee’s Amendment 63 is designed to ensure that an accommodation centre can itself be appropriately accommodated in a local area by requiring the consent of the relevant local authority before one is established in its area. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, at the same time as Ireland is abandoning a policy of accommodation centres, this Government are introducing them.
There is a problem with accommodation and housing generally in the UK. However, asylum seekers need to be accommodated in buildings that seek to avoid all the drawbacks that noble Lords have outlined and in accommodation centres that promote recovery from trauma, dignity of the individual and integration into the community—for the benefit of not just asylum seekers but society as a whole, of which most of those accommodated will eventually become members. The sort of accommodation we are talking about is along the lines described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, in his amendment. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee put it to me, accommodation centres should promote the welfare of asylum seekers.
The noble Lord mentioned that most applicants will become refugees. I have the Home Office figures here: 49% of the 450,000 asylum applications between 2004 and 2020 were withdrawn or rejected, including those that went to appeal. Those are the basic stats from the Home Office; they should surely underline the whole debate.
I am very grateful for the historic information that the noble Lord has provided. My understanding is that, as the years have gone on, the number of successful appeals has increased and the number of first-time decisions to reject application from refugees has gone down. While I do not deny that those might be the overall numbers going back to 2004, in saying that most applicants for refugee status are successful, we are basing it on the last few years—the current trend rather than the historic numbers the noble Lord refers to.
I am reminded of heavy-handed policing of football supporters in the 1980s. I remember a football fan saying to me, “If you treat us like animals, we’ll behave like animals”. Warehousing asylum seekers may be a short-term gain, but it is likely to create long-term problems.
I too express my appreciation to my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett for the determination and commitment she has shown in pursuing not only this but so many other key issues about which she rightly feels very strongly. I repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said: this clause and these amendments are about asylum seekers. In the Bill—a government document—Clause 12 is titled “Accommodation for asylum-seekers etc”. We are talking about asylum seekers, not illegal immigration, although I accept that there are those who make no distinction between the two. The other point I make at this stage is about the quite interesting exchange between my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington. I think there was rough agreement—if not I am sure I will stand corrected—that the kind of numbers coming over in the back of a lorry are very similar to those coming over in small boats across the channel.
To get the timescale on this, I say that 10 years ago it was 40,000 asylum seekers a year. That is roughly the number now—30,000 on the channel and 10,000 by other means. The difference, as I mentioned, is the potential in the channel for the numbers to go up very fast and make it even more difficult for the Home Office and local government.
The potential is, of course, a matter of speculation. I note the point the noble Lord makes, but up to now there is agreement between him and my noble friend Lord Dubs that the numbers have been roughly the same.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but my understanding is that the number of asylum claims a decade or more ago was something like double what it is now. We are talking not about similar numbers crossing the channel in boats compared to those in the past, but about half as many.
The point I wanted to make was that, when people were coming over in the back of lorries—not all that long ago—they were largely unseen and the Government were not proposing the measures in the Bill. However, when similar numbers started to come over in small boats across the channel, with pictures of them landing on our shores regularly appearing on TV, it became a big political issue for the Home Secretary and the Government, following some rather rash promises they made to their supporters. Consequently, we now see the Bill, which frankly is an attempt to save the political skins of the Home Secretary and the Government. It really has nothing to do with properly trying to solve a problem. We ought to remember what is driving it—the political future of a Home Secretary and Government who made rash promises. Because people are coming over no longer in the backs of lorries, where you do not see them regularly on television every night, but in small boats across the channel, with pictures of them on television, it has become politically very awkward.
The amendments in this group are driven, as has been said, by serious concern over the Government’s track record on accommodation for asylum seekers, not least in connection with Napier barracks, and the provision in Clause 12 for creating asylum accommodation centres. It is worth repeating that last June a court judgment ruled that the accommodation at Napier barracks was inadequate, in that it did not meet the minimum standards required by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Both the process for selecting people to be sent to Napier barracks and the process for monitoring its ongoing suitability while they were there were flawed and unlawful. From January 2021 the residents were given an order not to leave the site until they were permitted to do so. The claimants were unlawfully detained, under both common law and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The report on Napier of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons raised a number of serious concerns, including that the screening of potential residents for physical and mental health problems was “wholly inadequate”, with all of those interviewed reporting feeling depressed and one-third feeling suicidal, and that there was extremely poor communication with those accommodated at Napier. We have heard today from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that Napier has improved, but it is fair to say that he also said that it is far from being as it should be. It is a legitimate question to ask why the Home Office allowed Napier barracks to get into the position where it required a court judgement, and why we should now accept that the same thing will not happen again.
Clause 12 gives the Government powers to house different groups of asylum seekers in undefined accommodation centres. It appears that these centres would involve congregated living in hostel-type accommodation—the type of accommodation which has been shown to be unsuitable to house people, many of them traumatised, in the asylum system for long periods. As others have said, this move away from housing in the community is likely to impede integration prospects and will surely make access to needed support and services more difficult. I simply ask the Government, and I hope that we get an answer in their response: is it now their policy to move away from housing in the community for asylum seekers?
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill say that the accommodation centres for those at different stages of their asylum claim, including those with “inadmissible” asylum claims, will
“increase efficiencies within the system and increase compliance”,
but no evidence is given to support that assertion. It would be helpful if the Government could provide that evidence in their response to this debate.
While the term accommodation centre is not defined—again, perhaps the Government will do so in their response —there is an implication that the Government are seeking to replicate the kind of inferior accommodation that we have seen at Napier. This more prison-like and isolated accommodation provides a very poor environment for engaging with asylum claims and is more likely to retraumatise extremely vulnerable people and hinder future integration.
As I understand it, last summer the Home Secretary visited the notorious reception centre on the Greek island of Samos, which campaigners have described as “prison-like” and “inhumane”. Is that what the Home Secretary seeks to emulate in her accommodation centres? The Government must know the answer, since I believe I am right in saying that initial submissions for the procurement of these accommodation centres were invited by the end of September last year. The contract is to be delivered in accordance with Part 2 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and it stated, as I understand it, that it is for housing up to 8,000 people for periods of up to six months. Could the Government say in their response how accountability and standards will be maintained in such asylum accommodation when there is no public access to the contracts? How did the Government decide that commercial confidentiality should take priority over the public interest in knowing about the contracts and transparency?
Since April 2020, the Home Office has been using two large-scale accommodation centres for asylum-seeking men who have arrived in the UK by boat: Napier barracks in Kent and the Penally camp in Wales, which is now closed. A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Immigration Detention noted that, although legally speaking these are not detention centres, they none the less replicate
“many of the features found in detained settings—including visible security measures, shared living quarters, reduced levels of privacy, and isolation from the wider community”.
Frankly, that seems wholly inappropriate. No doubt the Government in their response will wish to provide some reassurance on this point.
It would be helpful too if the Government could spell out what freedoms and rights will be restricted or diminished for the occupants in these accommodation centres, and what independent access will be allowed, and to whom, to these centres to ensure there is some regular accountability for conditions and standards.
My noble friend Lord Dubs has already referred to what the Joint Committee on Human Rights said, but I wish to repeat it:
“It is imperative that the Government learns from the poor treatment of asylum seekers housed in former military barracks. If accommodation centres are to be used to house those awaiting asylum decisions and appeals or awaiting removal from the UK the conditions must ensure that residents are free to come and go, treated with respect, provided with adequate access to healthcare and legal advice and not prevented from mixing with the rest of society.”
We have heard reports that the Government are planning to detain all single men crossing the channel by boat—an estimated 20,000 a year. Maybe this is the purpose for which the undefined accommodation centres provided for in Clause 12 are intended, or maybe they are intended for what national newspapers report are the 37,000 channel migrants and other asylum seekers who are housed in hotels at a cost claimed to be £1.2 million a day—a result of government policy which has resulted in a severe shortage of local authority accommodation.
As well as responding to the amendments, no doubt the Government will also say in their reply whether the accommodation centres will meet the conditions sought by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to which I have referred, and precisely who the accommodation centres are intended to house.
My Lords, I thank all the noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I will clear up two things before we start.
Noble Lords will recall that, yesterday, at Questions, I made an apology—the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was not actually in his place—having been quite insistent that I had sent a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and that everyone had received a copy of that letter. I had cleared the letter, but it had not gone out. I apologised to the whole House, in the noble Lord’s absence, and thanked him for bringing it to my attention. I understand—I will not assert it—that the letter has now gone out, so everyone in the Committee and the House will get a copy of the safe and legal routes. I am sure the noble Lord will intervene on me if it has not arrived in noble Lords’ inboxes.
The second point to clear up was on something mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, before he sat down, in the Times article. I had not seen it at the time, but I have looked at it now. It is speculation, but I will confirm two things: we detain only for the purposes of removal and to examine claims.
I want also to clarify a third thing: Manston is not going to be an accommodation centre. The plans are for it to be a short-term holding facility for a maximum of five days’ stay.
Noble Lords have pointed out that the asylum accommodation state is under huge strain—there is no doubt about that. We are currently relying heavily on the procurement of hotel rooms, which is not sustainable. Noble Lords have alluded to that in previous questions and debates. The use of accommodation centres will provide additional capacity and ensure that adequate housing is available to everyone in the asylum system who needs it. The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Green, are right, although they come from different sides of the argument: the numbers are large, with 125,360 in the system to June last year. There is no doubt that processing claims more quickly will free up the system.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the average time to process. We prioritise claims involving individuals who are either high-harm, vulnerable, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or in receipt of asylum support, and we are working on implementing an improved service standard.
Before the noble Baroness leaves that point, is she able to give an average time to process these claims? I recognise some will be in different categories.
I think I said right at the outset that I do not have a figure at this point in time. In terms of speeding up claims and decision-making, we are dealing with a sustained high level of new asylum claims, including from those who arrive in small boats who noble Lords have been talking about. That is creating an additional pressure on the asylum system, but 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. We have in place a transformation programme. We are developing existing and new technology. We are digitising casework. We are building a high-performing team, and we are investing in training and supporting staff in professional development to aid staff retention, which we so desperately need.
A key objective of setting up accommodation centres is to resolve asylum cases faster by putting casework and other services on-site. As my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots said, there is no rationale per se for restricting the number of people in each site to 100, as Amendment 56 seeks to do. It is only likely to make it much more difficult and expensive to set up the centres, meaning that fewer asylum seekers will benefit from the efficiencies that we are trying to achieve. There is also no reason that unrelated residents of accommodation centres cannot share sleeping quarters provided they are the same sex, as this is already allowed in the asylum accommodation system. I take the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the noise and probable brightness within the facilities, and I will most certainly take that comment back.
I am sorry to interrupt, but I was so struck when we took evidence about sleep deprivation from people who had been in Napier. It really got me, as someone who hates being deprived of sleep, because it clearly is such a fundamental issue for their mental health. It is not just noisy. They cannot sleep because of the noise.
The noble Baroness and I share more in common than I thought, because sleep deprivation, which I have been a bit subject to recently, is not something I find very easy at all. I am going to take those comments back and provide more commentary, on the back of the right reverend Prelate’s questions, on what we were doing and what we are doing now, if the noble Baroness will bear with me.
As I said, there is no reason that unrelated residents of accommodation centres cannot share sleeping quarters. In fact, the right reverend Prelate conceded that some people like sharing sleeping quarters with others. It is the peripheral issues that he has brought to my attention that I will take back.
It was simply in pairs. That was quite clearly stated to us. Two in a room was quite welcome, but more than that was objected to.
Okay, I thank the right reverend Prelate for being so specific. However, I do not think that, fundamentally, there is a reason that unrelated residents cannot share. This amendment clearly provides effective action to alleviate this burden and seeks to restrict the introduction of efficiencies, already mentioned, to the system.
Amendment 57 is unnecessary because there are no current plans to place those with children in accommodation centres, and all other individuals will be placed in an accommodation centre only following an individual assessment that it will be suitable for them and they will be safe.
Will the Minister at this point make a firm, absolute assurance not only that there are no current plans—I get very suspicious when I hear that, because a plan can be thought up in a few weeks’ time—but that no children will be placed in such centres?
I do not think I can go further than saying that there are no current plans because if a child was destitute and there was a place for the night, I could not say we would not put the child in an accommodation centre.
Could the Minister at least give an assurance that, except in the most exceptional circumstances, no child will be put in such a centre? I hope she can understand why saying that there are no current plans is not sufficient to satisfy us.
I understand the noble Baroness’s point. I cannot go beyond saying there are no current plans, but I can think further about the point she is making and perhaps give her more detail on it, if she will allow me to do so, but that is as far as I can go. She might be further comforted by some of the things I am going to say about vulnerability, et cetera.
My Lords, if the Minister is coming on to that, perhaps I should sit down, because I was going to stress welfare as distinct from safety.
That is what I am going to come on to, if noble Lords will accommodate me—no pun intended—for a short period of time.
Whether an accommodation centre is suitable for individuals who share the characteristics listed in the amendment will depend on a number of factors, including their personal circumstances and vulnerabilities and the facilities available at the particular site or area. This goes to the points made by both noble Baronesses.
I now turn to Amendments 58 and 59, which seek to limit stays in accommodation centres to 90 days. The amendments attempt to disapply a key part of Clause 12. One of the aims of Clause 12 is to enable wider flexibility to ensure that individuals are supported in accommodation centres for as long as that form of housing, and the other support and arrangements on-site, is appropriate for their individual circumstances. We intend to provide vital services and support co-located within accommodation centres. Reducing individuals’ access to these vital services by restricting them to a 90-day stay would not be acting in their best interests.
We do not think Amendment 60 is necessary because we are not proposing to use the power in Section 36 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, so there is no need to amend it.
Moving to Amendment 61, I would like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for his contribution to this debate. The Home Office is already required to provide accommodation to destitute asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers in a way that is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and the requirements in the Equality Act 2010. Our policies also recognise that we need to take account of the individual’s safety and welfare—to take the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—in considering the type of accommodation that is suitable for them.
There are no plans to use accommodation centres to house all asylum seekers. I slightly wondered whether there might have been some conflation with that in today’s debate. Some will be identified at the outset as unsuitable for that type of accommodation, and some will need to be moved out of the centres as new issues emerge. All individuals in the asylum support system have access to an advice service from Migrant Help, a voluntary sector organisation that we fund for this purpose, and are able to put forward reasons and evidence why they need a particular sort of accommodation.
Moving to Amendment 62, I need to be clear on this. As my noble friend Lord Horam said and my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts asked, accommodation centres are being set up to provide housing and other support for those who require it because they would otherwise be destitute. The judges mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, may not in certain circumstances need this type of accommodation; I am not making a presumption, but they may not. These are not detention centres, of course. Individuals are free to move out of the centres if they can obtain their own accommodation, for example through friends or family.
On community support—I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the Church of England generally—community sponsorship schemes have done great work in terms of reception and integration for communities. In answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about accommodation in the community, I say that there are no plans to move away from that.
The people who are supported in the centres will be expected to live at the sites as a condition of their support. They will be subject to a range of other conditions that are set out in writing, for example that they respect other residents and do not commit anti-social behaviour. That is reasonable, I think. This is already part of the normal process and applies whatever type of accommodation is provided to supported asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers.
It is also possible that other conditions may be imposed that require the individuals to be present at the site at certain times. That might be because they need to attend an interview to help determine their asylum claim or facilitate their departure from the UK if their claim has been rejected. This is important because one of the key objectives of using the centres is to speed up asylum decisions by placing casework facilities on site; that really goes to the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Green. In other circumstances, the individuals will be able to leave the centres during the day if they wish, for example to access medical services or for personal reasons.
The point was made very clearly that these centres should not be places of detention. I was waiting for some assurance that the ability to come and go would be recognised. The Minister has just said that people will be free to leave if, for instance, they need to go and do something specific. To me, that sounds very different—it may just be a trick of the language—from an assurance that these will not be places of detention subject to specific allowances to leave for specific purposes.
I repeat that these are not detention centres. There may be specific conditions—for example, if an asylum seeker needs to attend an interview about their claim, they will be required to be there—but they are not detention centres.
I am sorry to interrupt—I know that there is a lot to cover—but I want to follow on from that important point. Again, we were given an example of a specific reason. The person may just want to go for a walk. They may want to go into the local town, if they can get there. Will they be free simply to go out when they want to?
I can assist the Minister here.
We saw and talked to people who were going out into Folkestone for a walk and coming back. So if the system is modelled on Napier as it is now, they were absolutely free to come and go. I think the Minister is saying that, if a specific appointment is made, they will be required to attend it.
I know that the Committee will believe a holy man over me—so, yes, God’s representative on earth is absolutely correct.
One of many. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely correct and put it perfectly.
Where was I? I will talk about standards and all the stuff around Napier in more detail in a second but, for now, I will move on to Amendment 63. This would effectively give local authorities a veto over any proposals to set up accommodation centres in their areas. We do not think that is appropriate. We fully accept that local authorities should be consulted on such proposals and on their views about any impacts on local services. This is already provided for in the way that the Home Office arranges accommodation for destitute asylum seekers who need it. Accommodation providers are contractually required to consult local authorities on any proposals to use accommodation that has not previously been used to house supported asylum seekers. We hope that this consultation leads to agreement, but it is not realistic to assume that this will always happen. It is, however, vital that we provide housing and support to those who would otherwise be destitute. Local authorities cannot be given the option to turn these people away as an inconvenience. I am sure that the Committee would not want that.
I want to address directly the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. He asked, first, whether there would be added recreational activities and appropriate medical expertise on site. The simple answer is yes. I know that he saw such an example when he was at Napier the other day. As I have said, accommodation centres will meet all statutory and legal requirements. We expect services in and around the centres to include spaces for exercise, religious activities and appropriate healthcare provision.
The right reverend Prelate asked about community cohesion—a very appropriate question. We will work with local authorities to ensure that community cohesion aspects are addressed; I am sure that the Church will engage on that as well. He also asked whether there would be effective processes to ensure that the most vulnerable are not housed on site. Again, the answer is yes. People will be able to disclose reasons and evidence for why they should not be accommodated in a centre. I was also asked to confirm that no children would be accommodated in these centres. I refer back to my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.
The right reverend Prelate asked whether specific learnings from Napier would be applied in future. That is a totally reasonable question. Offering residents Covid vaccinations and personal cleaning kits is one of the things that we will do. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the Covid outbreak. Lateral flow tests are available on arrival and twice a week thereafter for people at the accommodation centres. There are communications on Covid in 10 different languages, and there are people and messages encouraging Covid compliance.
NGOs have also been introduced on site to provide assistance and support. There is free travel to medical appointments and a visiting dentistry service. There are weekly meetings with residents to identify and act on concerns. Sport and recreational activities have also been introduced. I took the noble Lord’s point about the hard football pitch, but then I thought that, in some parts of the country—such as where I live—having a grass pitch might preclude them from playing football for six months of the year, so it is probably appropriate, depending on the area.
The right reverend Prelate also asked whether sleeping areas would be limited to two people. I think I have covered that. There is no reason why unrelated residents of accommodation centres cannot share sleeping quarters, provided that they are of the same sex. This is already allowed for in the asylum accommodation system.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive answers. Report after report has highlighted the importance of ESOL.
I was going to come on to that, and I shall do so now. The right reverend Prelate has mentioned ESOL, which of course is used in either a work context or a life context. He mentioned that there were NGOs providing language assistance for people in accommodation centres. I am not aware of plans to introduce ESOL, but I would say that that is maybe further along the chain of the claim and therefore the granting of asylum.
I hugely support learning the English language for all aspects of these people’s lives, not least in order to integrate, for their children to get educated and for them to be able to access basic things such as healthcare if and when they are granted asylum. So I will think about that—actually, I will not just think about it but take it up with the department.
My Lords, the Minister may recall that some years ago I came to see her, with the then Minister Brandon Lewis, specifically about the teaching of English. I declare an interest in that my wife is a volunteer, working in the north-west of England on the very kinds of projects that the right reverend Prelate mentioned, teaching English. She and I agree with the Minister that having a command of the English language gives access to everything, while not having that command is a major disadvantage. So, whether or not it is ESOL, resources are required, certainly for volunteers, to ensure that they have available to them all the necessities required if you are a teacher.
I do not think there is any disagreement here. I have seen some great examples—particularly in the north-west of England, and I think the noble Lord and I talked about them at the time—of English language learning for people new to this country. I am not in disagreement in that area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who also mentioned the Shaw review, talked about children, those with vulnerabilities and, of course, our LGBT community. I stress that we will accommodate people in a centre only after an individual assessment that it will be suitable for them and that they will be safe. There are no plans currently to use the centres to house families. Beyond that, the centres will be used to accommodate only those who require support because they would otherwise be destitute. Those who obtain accommodation with friends or family will not be affected by the measures.
With regard to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, the provision has nothing to do with unaccompanied minors. The provision is about adults in the asylum system and their dependants who are accommodated by the Home Office under powers in the Immigration Acts. Unaccompanied minors are not accommodated under those powers.
On the question about accommodation centres generally not being suitable for certain individuals, I repeat again that there are no plans to accommodate asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers who are not destitute in this kind of accommodation. Those who can obtain accommodation with friends or family will remain unaffected; that goes to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Individuals will have the opportunity to disclose information and supporting evidence for why they should not be housed in accommodation centres, and I say again that we have no current plans to accommodate those with dependent children. However, it is not possible to completely rule out placing those with children in accommodation centres in future if, for example—this is a point that I made earlier—there are no available flats or houses to house them. In certain situations, this might be a better option than using hotels. In terms of educational opportunities, all children who are resident in the UK in whatever circumstances can access the state education system in the same way as British children.
I think we have gone over the question of why these are not detention centres.
On the mental health point that the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, mentioned, we have later amendments on that issue. Individuals will have access to health services, but we will discuss the issue of mental health in later groups. However, I agree with his point.
It was also particularly in relation to LGBTQI people placed in those situations.
Yes, I totally concur with the noble Lord’s point.
I turn to the judgment on Napier, mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Neuberger, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The judgment on Napier was reached on the basis of the conditions on site prior to the significant improvement works we carried out and the measures we put in place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The court did not make any findings that the accommodation centres were unsuitable for providing support to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. Indeed, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 specifically provides for this type of accommodation. The Napier site provides full-board facilities with meals and other essential items provided, as well as access to essential local services such as healthcare. I have been through the improvements that have been put in place. I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for reporting back on his visit there last week. He did not have me wandering around after him showing him the best bits; he was free to go in, report and make suggestions to me on the back of that visit.
I hope I have given a fulsome response to the Committee, for the reasons that I have outlined, about the need to ensure that we can support asylum seekers appropriately but also encourage—
The Minister is valiantly dealing seriatim with the qualms that so many of us have about accommodation centres, but I have not yet heard an answer to the fundamental question: why accommodation centres? What is the purpose of this? Why would it improve the asylum system? Is it cost savings? I hope it is not deterrence. Is it the advantages for the Executive of the concentration of cases in one particular place? If we are going to deal fairly with asylum seekers, surely the best thing to do is to speed up the process of hearing their cases and get more of the initial decisions right so that fewer go to appeal.
Surely the accommodation should be empty local authority housing. Why are 12,000 of the 16,000 August Afghans still in hotels? Is there some hold-up in the system which means that local authorities, some of which are quite keen to get some revenue from the presently empty accommodation, cannot deal with them? Is that not the answer, rather than building these concentration centres—or is there some reason that I have just completely missed that would make an accommodation centre the answer? What is the underlying rationale of the proposal?
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for asking that question. When someone arrives in this country, they go first into initial accommodation and then into dispersed accommodation. Depending on whether their claim is allowed or denied, either they are welcomed here as an asylum seeker with their claim accepted or, if their claim is rejected, they might ultimately be asked to leave. These are initial accommodation centres; this is not move-on or follow-on accommodation. I hope that helps to explain the difference.
As long as the queue is three, four or five years long, it is not really just a question of initial accommodation. This is pretty long term.
The noble Lord is absolutely right, and this goes right back to the beginning of this discussion. We need to process claims quickly, grant asylum if the claims are valid, and ask people to leave if they are not. He is absolutely right and we agree with each other on this point: people’s claims need to be done expeditiously. Without making excuses, I say that the pandemic really held back the smooth running of our asylum system, as I am sure it did in other countries. I hope the noble Lord is satisfied. For the reasons I have outlined—so that we can both support asylum seekers appropriately and encourage that throughput that he was just talking about, by freeing up spaces in the asylum spaces— I hope noble Lords do not press their amendments.
Does my noble friend agree that there must be a limit to the resources available to deal with the increasing potential scale of this problem?
There is a limit to both the resources and the geography of this country. That is why the system needs to run in a way that accommodates the most vulnerable people. People whose claims are not upheld need to leave.
My Lords, I thank Committee Members for their kind words and, more importantly, those who made strong contributions in support of these amendments. It is not appropriate to cover them all in detail, but what is important is that the case was made for decent accommodation for asylum seekers that promotes their welfare and is based on a recognition of their common humanity.
While to an extent it is true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, I am not opposed to accommodation centres in principle, I am opposed to what I think is envisaged. I am sorry if I did not make that clear. It is one thing to have small, homely centres; it is another to have things based on military barracks or their equivalent.
I will refer to what two noble Lords said before turning to the Minister. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked me a specific question about why 100 residents. To be honest, I do not know the answer. The British Red Cross suggested 100 and I have great respect for its work in this area, but the specific number is not important. What is important is that people at such a centre can feel that it is their home for a while. That point was made powerfully by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. There is a real danger that big centres—this is what HOPE not hate is afraid of—will attract the kind of hostility that residents of Napier have faced. The noble Lord made the point that it would be easier to accommodate families, but the Minister herself said that this is not the intention; these are not appropriate for families. I have not come up with an actual answer, but the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, also had the grace to acknowledge that his argument was based on anecdote that people might prefer to be in larger groups. But I have been using the evidence from both research and organisations working on the ground.
I also want to pick out what the right reverend Prelate said, partly because he made an important point at the outset about how, not in all but in many cases, we are talking about future citizens. He made a wonderful remark: he said that we should treat them as
“a gift to us rather than a problem”.
Too much of this debate has been based on the assumption that these people are problems. Please bear in mind what the right reverend Prelate said.
Does the noble Baroness agree that there should be a distinction between those who have had their cases examined and are refugees and those whose cases have not yet been examined? That is all I am asking for.
No, I am sorry; I do not, because they are all people. We should start by accepting their common humanity, and then we can see how people fare in the system. That is my working assumption and I think it is the right reverend Prelate’s too.
It was helpful that this debate was postponed, because it was originally supposed to have been while the right reverend Prelate was at Napier. In fact, I am supposed to be at Napier today with the APPG. I was struck by what he said and that there have been improvements. That is welcome and we should acknowledge it. However, he said that—I am paraphrasing—despite the improvements, he could not help getting the impression of a prison camp rather than a place of safety. We should be creating places of safety, not prison camps. That is my other working assumption.
I am very grateful to the Minister. She was on her feet responding for nearly an hour and I appreciate how she has really tried to address many of the points made. All noble Lords appreciate that. It is very difficult with so many amendments and so many questions. I am still very worried about children because, despite being pressed, the Minister said that there could be circumstances when children would be accommodated. My fear is that this would open the door, but she said that she would take this away and look at it. We will have to come back to lots of these aspects on Report, that one in particular. If the amendment about children’s education is unnecessary and there is no intention for these centres to provide education, I do not understand why the prior information notice included how they should be able to provide education facilities. I am not asking the Minister to respond now, but perhaps she could look at that.
Despite the Minister’s valiant attempts to answer them, a number of questions went unanswered. I will not push them now, but perhaps she could write one of her famous letters—and make sure that it actually gets sent. I have been asking the Library about one of them and it knew nothing about it, but I am glad it has been sent now. I am also worried about the emphasis on individual assessment, because that is supposed to happen now yet we find that many people in vulnerable circumstances end up in places like Napier. She might want to look at that and we might want to come back to it.
I am conscious that we have spent a lot of time on this and rightly so, because it is such an important issue. I am very grateful to every noble Lord who contributed and to the Minister for her engagement on the issues, even if I am left dissatisfied, because I am not sure we have moved on much further than the Commons in answering the questions asked—even though she tried very hard to do so. I suspect we will come back to at least some aspects of the accommodation centres on Report. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
Amendments 57 to 63 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
64: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Asylum seekers’ right to work
The Secretary of State must make regulations providing that adults applying for asylum in the United Kingdom may apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment if a decision at first instance has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within 3 months of the date on which it was recorded.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations enabling asylum seekers to work once they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for 3 months or more.
My Lords, this is a rare treat: a group with only two amendments. I will speak both to Amendment 64 in my name and to Amendment 65. I am reminded of the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics”, but apparently, according to the figures that I have—perhaps we need a Hansard fact-checker, like the BBC has—every year from 2012 to 2019 the majority of asylum seekers in the UK were successful.
Yes, indeed, and 49% were not.
There is agreement. In 2019, it was 65%. To prevent such a large proportion of asylum seekers working while their claim is resolved is demoralising, debilitating and expensive—increasingly so as the time taken to process applications continues to increase. The latest Home Office data shows 76% of applications taking more than six months to resolve. The Minister did not have the average figures, but I appear to have them. Figures published by the Independent suggest that more than 1,200 asylum seekers currently in the system have waited more than five years for a decision and 399 have waited more than a decade. That can result in asylum seekers becoming deskilled, leaving gaps in their work experience and long-lasting demotivation. To be willing and able to work but not be allowed to, for months or even years, must be devastating.
Our amendment, supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti, Lady Meacher and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, simply allows an asylum seeker to ask the Home Office for permission to work if their application has not been resolved after three months, instead of the current 12 months. It is intended to establish the principle that it is better for asylum seekers and for society if they are allowed to work. Amendment 65, in the name of noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, goes into more detail, requiring the Home Office to allow an asylum seeker to work without restriction after six months, rather than the current situation where asylum seekers can apply to work. Currently, however, they will only be given permission to work in the types of employment on the shortage occupation list maintained by the Home Secretary. These jobs are very limited and asylum seekers are unlikely to be qualified for them or have recent experience of them. Moreover, asylum seekers are unlikely to be attractive to potential employers while their claim for asylum is being considered. We are currently facing worker shortages in some sectors. Providing asylum seekers with work means they can start to pay their own way in society through tax and national insurance rather than relying on handouts. They are less likely to disappear if they have a job and a steady income.
In November, a cross-party group of MPs and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham wrote an open letter to the Home Secretary saying it was “nonsensical” that there were people in the UK who wanted to work but were not permitted to do so. They described allowing asylum seekers to work as common sense, fiscally responsible, and enabling those living here to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. The Lift the Ban coalition, which includes businesses, recruitment firms, trade unions and refugee organisations, estimates that removing the ban would save the economy £181 million a year. As I said in the previous group, the key to any successful immigration policy is integration, and allowing people to work is key to their integration into society. It also makes them less likely to be exploited, for example by becoming victims of modern slavery. We support Amendment 65—
—and I beg to move Amendment 64.
My Lords, I was trying to intervene on the noble Lord’s speech, and I apologise to him for doing that. As I am also going to be involved in the other business going on in Grand Committee a little later on, I might not be able to be here to hear the Minister’s reply, so I am going to have to forego the opportunity of speaking on this group of amendments. However, I wanted to register my strong support for them, not least because, in 2016, I moved an amendment on the six-month issue and this House passed it by 218 in favour to 195 against. One point that the noble Lord might also like to register is that Article 23 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically sets out the right to work. That is something that this House has an obligation to consider, but I thoroughly endorse everything that the noble Lord has said. I should mention that I am patron of Asylum Link Merseyside, which has made representations on this subject.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 65, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. She is very sorry that she is unable to be here today, not least because she feels so strongly about this issue. I hope that the three of us who are supporting signatories will act as effective understudies.
The general case has already been made very persuasively by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. The main difference, as he explained, between his amendment and this one is that our amendment proposes the right to work after six months, which is the usual time period proposed and is probably more realistic. It also ensures that that right allows an asylum seeker to take up employment on grounds no less favourable than those of a person with recognised refugee status. This means they would not be confined to the highly restrictive shortage occupation list, as they now are when they are finally allowed to work.
It has already been said that there is great support for asylum seekers’ right to work, including from business and the general public. Even the Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is open-minded on the subject. Home Office Ministers repeatedly claim to be committed to refugee integration, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. As the Migration Advisory Committee made clear, the right to work after a reasonable period—and I think six months is one—in a job not limited to the shortage occupation list, represents one of the key foundation stones of integration. The committee also challenged the pull-factor argument put forward by Ministers, an issue that we debated at some length on Tuesday, and noted that the recent
“parliamentary statement regarding analysis of the employment ban … contained no evidence on the ‘pull-factor’.
It suggested that,
“To the extent that the Home Office has robust evidence to support a link between the employment ban and a pull factor, they should of course make this evidence publicly available for scrutiny and review. That is how good policy is made.”
In the interests of good policy-making, then, will the Minister now undertake to publish that evidence, because all the evidence that I have seen, including academic studies, does not support the pull-factor argument?
As well as its implications for integration, the denial of the right to work can take a toll on mental health and feelings of self-worth. I recently attended a Zoom meeting at which members of MIN Voices, part of the Maryhill Integration Network, talked about what it meant for them. One talked about his life being frozen; another about being made to feel helpless and useless. The Government should recognise such sentiment, given the weight that they attach to paid work, especially in their social security policy.
I would like to finish by reading a statement from MIN Voices that makes the case much more powerfully than I am able to. It says:
“Remember, we are Human Beings first, and we have dignity. Asylum Seekers who came here had to leave everything behind. Security for asylum seekers is not only shelter and health but also work, the ability to contribute to their own life and other people’s. Who will give back the five years of my life I lost in the asylum claims process? Who will give me back my skills and my health? Not being able to work makes us feel less human. We are living in constant worry, feeling worthless, frustrated, in pain and fearful. Not knowing the future. Not being able to plan for the future. If we can work, it will help with integration and allow us to live in a dignified and a healthy life. If we can work, we will feel less stressed, have a sense of control over our life, have better mental and physical health, and feel at home … Being able to work is important for self-respect and dignity. If we can work, we belong to something and do not live in complete limbo. If we are not allowed to work, if we cannot even study, then what are we allowed to do? When we can work, we could pay tax, look after our families and children. Many of the problems will disappear. See us as human beings not a number.”
That is very relevant to the last debate we had, when we were constantly talking about numbers and forgetting we are talking about fellow human beings.
“See us as human beings not a number. Let us build our life and future and not waste our time and skills.”
So I hope that, like the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister will be open-minded to the growing calls for this very basic right: the right to work.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Ludford, and myself. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in her usual manner introduced it fully and spoke movingly, as did the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.
As we heard, asylum seekers wait months or even years for a decision on asylum claims, and sometimes decades. This condemns them to poverty, uncertainty and fear. It leaves them in a limbo, experiencing poverty and destitution. If they are allowed to work, this would improve family life, give them better prospects for their lives in the UK, and they would be able to rebuild their lives in the UK and eventually integrate better. It also, of course, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, makes economic sense. As we have already heard, the Migration Advisory Committee, which advises the Government on migration policy, in December 2021 recommended that the Government should look again at this policy. It also recommended giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months and not restricting them to the jobs on the shortage occupation list. Perhaps the Minister can explain why they are not paying heed to the advice of their own advisory committee?
The committee also states that the argument that this right would be a pull factor, as we have heard already, is not supported by evidence. The benefits of allowing asylum seekers to work outweigh the unfounded fears expressed by the Government. Therefore, I urge the Minister to accept this amendment, which has very wide support.
My Lords, it is an absolute pleasure to follow both my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett—who is hard working to the point perhaps of being a Stakhanovite—and also the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. I have added my name to Amendment 64 from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, but I support the thrust of both of these amendments. I think this is a total no-brainer—forgive me, I really do. I have always thought this. I have been working around this area all my adult life and I have never understood the logic of Governments of both persuasions, over the years, prohibiting this category of humanity from working, at the same time as trying to get other categories to “jolly well get on and work”, not be dependent on the state and not be dependent on benefits: “Don’t be scroungers—just get out and work”. It seems so illogical to have this strange bifurcation.
Briefly, I think this is a no-brainer, essentially for four reasons. Obviously, a bleeding heart like me would say that it is good for these people. It is good for a human being to be able to make a contribution. Coming into this place, day after day, we see many noble Lords who, let us be honest, are past the average retirement age, and many who are well able to live off their own means without the need for the daily allowance or anything such as that—and still they come. They make their contributions, and you can see how good it is for them, frankly.
I will not embarrass my noble friend Lord Dubs, but he is extraordinary: like a man of 25. Forgive me, but I do think there is something so special about being able to come to work and make your contribution. Not everyone will make their contribution in the legislature, but people make their contribution in places of work up and down this country. It is innate in the human condition that people are better off and will live a healthier life—both in terms of physical health and emotional health—if they are able to work in some way. It is good for your dignity and your mental health. That is the first argument: it is really good for these people, who have had a terrible time. It is a good thing for them to be doing.
Secondly, it is really good for the community. I have had the privilege of working with many refugees and asylum seekers over the years. Some of them are very highly skilled people. In their countries of origin, some of them were doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers. Even the ones who were not could be contributing in all sorts of areas of our service economy at a time when we are told by Ministers, including a few hours ago at Questions, that employers are crying out for skilled and unskilled labour. So it is really good for the community and the economy. It would be good for the Exchequer, because these people would be paying their own way, would not be dependent on state provision, and would be paying tax.
That is great, but in the end, for me, the strongest argument of all, perhaps, is how good it would be for cohesion, and how good it would be for the discourse around refugees and asylum seekers that has been toxified for years, because of this othering and this fear, stoked by certain people, with their numbers and their fearmongering and so on. It would be so good for the public discourse around these human beings, and the contribution they could make, if they were not just living in the community—as opposed to in a military barracks on the edge of town for everybody to be afraid of—but working side-by-side with British citizens.
Given that I think this is such a great idea and such a no-brainer, what is the problem? Well, it is, of course, that argument that my noble friend referred to and that we have heard mentioned many times already in this Committee: the so-called pull factor. I find that phrase pretty hideous because, if you take the bare logic of it to its conclusion, you are literally, as I suggested the other day, talking about creating a hostile environment in order to discourage people from doing what is their right under the refugee convention and seeking asylum. So I do not like the logic; I do not like the argument. Like others we have heard from, I have not seen the evidence for it. I do not think, when people are deciding to escape or deciding where to go, they are going to do it on the basis of whether they would be able to work, as opposed to being provided for by the state, before their claim is settled.
Actually, I would rather think of this policy as a push factor. The push is not on the refugees and the asylum seekers but on the Home Office, frankly, to jolly well get on and make these decisions, make them well so that they will not be subject to successful appeal, and make them swiftly. Both of these amendments are about the Secretary of State regulating people applying for permission after a period of time.
We can debate whether it should be three months or six months; it should be a relatively short period of time, but long enough for an initial sound and swift decision on an asylum claim. It is a push factor that I am looking for on my former colleagues in the Home Office. I say that with no disrespect to them; it is a tough old department. I left it over 20 years ago—I was not removed; it was a voluntary departure—and know that it is a tough place to work that is, if noble Lords will forgive me for saying so, made harder when Ministers, of whatever persuasion, are tough on the people who work there. It is Ministers who set the tone of that department, and nobody can treat people humanely at work if they do not feel that they are being respected and treated humanely themselves.
Finally, I mentioned the other day in Committee that neither party has the monopoly on advice or virtue when it comes to refugee and asylum policy. That is the negative side of things. To be more positive, as I want to be in this debate on this imaginative group of amendments, the prizing of work is something that we find in all major political traditions in this country. Sometimes the veneration of work is too idealistic, because of course some work is back-breaking and boring and so on. None the less, it is a very Conservative, and perfectly Liberal and Labour, idea to say that people should have a right—perhaps even a duty—to work. So why can we not tap into that tradition in this part of the Bill? If the Minister could embrace this, she might be singularly responsible for making one of the most imaginative and positive leaps forward in asylum policy and discourse in this country’s history.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, except that she dropped me into a group that I have never considered myself to be part of: that of post retirement. As to whether or not it is a pleasure to be working here, obviously it is an honour, and clearly it is better to be able to shout across the Chamber than at the television or radio. Is it good for my blood pressure? Probably not.
However, it is a pleasure to have signed the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and other eminent noble Lords in this Chamber. For me, banning people from working is just one of the many ways that the Government dehumanise and punish asylum seekers. I honestly cannot see the logic behind it. Why would we not want them to work? Why would we not want them to play a role in society? Why would we not want to engage them and get them out of the probably dreadful accommodation that they are living in? Where is the logic in not letting them work? It will leave them destitute, which is not healthy for them or for us—though I suppose it is slightly better than sending them back to face persecution in their home country.
This Government are not brave enough. They pander to the right-wing parts of their own party and the country, and constantly use nationalist rhetoric to divide and rule. The Conservative Members of the House of Lords are better than that—and some of them do argue against what the Government say. On this occasion, this side of the Chamber is absolutely right: asylum seekers should be allowed to work.
My Lords, the case for asylum seekers being able to work after a few months is compelling. I am sorry that we have not heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, but I perfectly understand why she is not able to be here. Amendment 65 was admirably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.
In the debate on Clause 11, several noble Lords invoked public opinion, saying that it was wary of immigration. I suggest that obliging asylum seekers to be idle, existing in some cases on taxpayer support, is a surefire way to prejudice public opinion against them, especially those apparently fit young men who have been demonised recently. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a provision of the right to work, and I thank him for reminding us of that.
The noble Baroness made a very important point about public opinion. I draw her attention to a study by British Future which found that 71% of the public support the right to work after six months.
The noble Lord has taken the wind out of my sails; I was going to quote that statistic, though I must admit I did not know it came from there. I got it from the splendid Lift the Ban organisation.
If the majority of people who seek asylum are ultimately found to be entitled to stay here as refugees, after either an initial decision or an appeal, how demoralising and frustrating for them to then be excluded from employment, and be unable to help support their families or to deploy and develop their skills, possibly for several years, or even a decade, as we have heard, while knowing that the host society may regard them as freeloading layabouts. It is of course a waste of a resource.
This is not just a leftie, Liberal cause. Not only was Amendment 65 led by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, from the Benches opposite, but everyone has already spoken about the Migration Advisory Committee report, and I assume it is not going to be accused of being some leftie, Liberal outfit. As has been said, the MAC has told the Home Secretary that there is clear evidence of harm being caused by the job ban, particularly in the context of a rising number of claimants waiting for more than six months for determination of their claim. The Government argue that the ability to work would be a pull factor, but the MAC says that Ministers have failed to provide clear evidence to support this contention, and that it would instead be good policy to assist asylum seekers to “integrate well into society” by letting them work while their cases are decided. I will not delay: I was going to give the same quote that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, did—I jumped the gun and cited it the other day—about the Home Office needing to provide robust evidence because that is how good policy is made.
Amendment 65 has the advantage of requiring permission to work to be granted after a wait of six months. That is stronger than the drafting of Amendment 64, which empowers someone to apply. Ideally, I would like an Amendment 64.5, allowing someone to work after three months but with the drafting of Amendment 65 on requiring permission to be given. The second element in Amendment 65 is that it would not limit the type of work that asylum seekers could undertake, unlike the current policy of restricting them and then, after 12 months—which is too long—using the shortage occupation list. That list is narrow, and many asylum seekers would not have relevant experience or qualifications.
As other noble Lords have said, it is extremely odd—indeed illogical—that the Government want to keep asylum seekers in enforced welfare dependency while, as shown by this morning’s Answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, to the Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, defending imposing benefits sanctions after four weeks on unemployed jobseekers who failed to take a job. Why then not allow asylum seekers to work? Most of us would support people trying to get a job, although there can be argument about the policy of the Government.
On Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Horam, and others impressed on us the need to take account of public opinion. To repeat, the ban on work makes asylum seekers the potential butt of ignorant jibes that they are lazy scroungers. Some 71% of the public support the right to work after six months. The right to work is a win-win policy. It would save the taxpayer £200 million a year. It would help remedy a labour shortage. I had in my notes that it is a no-brainer, so I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I very much hope that the Government will respond positively.
My Lords, I support Amendment 64, to which I have added my name. I also strongly support Amendment 65.
The right to work—and the lack of it—for asylum seekers has concerned me for a very long time. I am rather relieved finally to be able to say so. I strongly support the comments already made in excellent speeches by other noble Lords. I shall try to avoid duplication.
First, the current law forces people to try to live on £39.62 a week. We all know that this is completely impossible. Utility bills, council tax, food, transport—you name it—cannot be paid for on this sort of money. These people are forced into something that they would never dream of doing in any other circumstances. It also prevents them from earning and paying taxes. Why would the Government force able-bodied workers to be unemployed and draw benefits at a vast cost to the taxpayer? Actually, the cost is not vast; these are trifling amounts of money, but it is a cost to the taxpayer. The cost to the community is considerable. As others have said, in many cases, these effects last for a very long time.
The Government say that they have undertaken a review of the policy. I believe they have not published the results, nor given any estimate of cost. Can the Minister inform the House whether their review considered the number of normally law-abiding asylum seekers who have been driven to crime by this policy? This is the worst possible thing a Government can do. All the asylum seekers want to do is to earn, pay taxes and lead a good life. Instead, they feel that they have to do something they have never done in their lives before and never dreamed that they would do: commit crimes. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the estimated cost in the review, and whether that includes the cost of courts, prisons and police in dealing with the crimes that these people absolutely do not want to commit.
Believe it or not, 40 years ago I wrote a book about the consequences of a similar sort of policy—a rule which deprived single people of benefits after four weeks. My research showed that the rule caused a dramatic increase in crime among that population. Government officials asked for a copy of my manuscript before I published the book. The policy was immediately scrapped. It did not help the sales of my book but, nevertheless, it was worth doing. I feel that this policy has to be scrapped for exactly the same reason. Noble Lords have pointed out all sorts of other reasons, but there cannot be a government policy which drives people into crime. Continuing it cannot be justified.
My second question concerns the basic cost to the Exchequer. The voluntary sector has come up with a figure of £194 million a year. I believe this is a massive underestimate. I am quite sure the cost is far more than that when all the unintended consequences are considered—if you want to put it that way.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others have already dealt with the pull factor. We have the evidence. Asylum seekers who are desperate to get away from persecution, rape and other ghastly things—you name it—do not even think about the detail of what there will be when they arrive at the other end. It is just a European country. If I may say so, the pull factor is rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. If it made any sense, it would be the only possible justification for this policy. I implore the Minister to go back to colleagues and see what she can do.
My Lords, it is quite daunting to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I very much hope that she will not be driven to writing a book about this, although if she did, maybe we would see some change.
I shall speak to Amendment 65 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, with the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Ludford and Lady Prashar. As has been discussed, this aims, quite rightly, to introduce the right to work for asylum seekers who have been in the UK for more than six months.
My noble friend the Minister will know the gist of my argument from my comments on Tuesday. I am grateful for her forbearance then. Suffice it to say, I believe that this amendment is a matter of complete common sense. It is exactly the sort of policy that should underpin global Britain’s new immigration system.
This is a moment when we have to decide who we are as a nation. We want an immigration system that takes back control—one where the British people can see that we are trying to manage our borders and are actually doing so. They can also see that we have compassion for those in need when we, as a nation, have so much already.
This is not a niche opinion. I note that all wings of the Conservative and Labour Parties, the Liberal Democrats, other Cross-Benchers and the Deputy Prime Minister support the extension of the right to work for asylum seekers.
The arguments for this right to work are overwhelming. I will restate a couple of them. I hope that it will be helpful to hear them from these Benches. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, the latest figures show that 125,000 people are waiting for asylum decisions. Every study shows that the net benefit to the state would be in the tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds a year in increased tax take if this measure were enacted.
The UK economy is recovering after Covid. A lot of jobs have been created but this has, in turn, created labour shortages. It makes no sense whatever for asylum seekers who can drive HGVs or serve in the NHS to be forced to sit around doing nothing for over a year while they await a decision from the Home Office. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made that point very powerfully.
Secondly, there is very persuasive evidence that the right to work has a large, positive impact on the integration of asylum seekers who successfully settle. As other noble Lords have already mentioned, the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee recently underlined that shorter waiting times have a large, positive impact on long-term employment outcomes for asylum seekers.
As noble Lords have noted, these measures have overwhelming public support. I will mention one niche statistic. According to recent polling, 73% of red wall voters questioned support a right to work. As others have mentioned, business leaders back the easing of the ban on the right to work.
There is a basic human dignity argument for this policy. I believe that every individual should be able to support themselves and their family. I would go further and say that, as Conservatives, we believe that every family has a personal responsibility to do so where they can. I have often made the argument that work is the best route out of poverty. The aim and intention of this amendment are to do precisely that: let people support themselves and create their own pathway from poverty to prosperity while they wait for the decision.
The lack of the right to work leaves people vulnerable to exploitation, declining mental health, poverty and modern slavery. If the human dignity arguments do not seal the deal, the amendment could also be viewed as purely pragmatic. Reforms to the asylum system proposed through the Nationality and Borders Bill will take time to come into full effect. In the interim, while asylum cases are being processed, the asylum system continues to be under considerable strain. By offering asylum seekers the right to work, the Government would take pressure off themselves.
I anticipate that the Minister and other colleagues might be inclined to respond to this amendment using the pull factors argument, and I know others have addressed it. However, let me address those points from these Benches. First, it is push factors such as war and famine which drive refugees to these shores, not pull factors. If there are any pull factors, they are those which encourage people to come to the UK: our language, culture, rule of law, democracy, historic ties through the Commonwealth, family connections, and liberty, not the welfare payments.
It is worth noting that the UK is currently an outlier in enforcing a 12-month wait period for work and then placing long restrictions on which employment can be taken up. No other nation across Europe, USA, Australia or Canada has such stringent requirements. It is worth asking why they have not considered the right to work to be a pull factor. This view is totally backed by the experts. The Migration Advisory Committee underlined that there is no evidence in academic research that people decide to claim asylum based on these kinds of factors. The Home Office commissioned a study, which others have mentioned, that also shows that there is little evidence of this.
All of this is to say that I believe the Government could quite legitimately, without nervousness and in line with their poverty strategy for families working their way out of poverty, adopt this amendment that allows asylum seekers to work after six months of being in the UK.
My Lords, we have heard eight speakers on one side of this debate, and I think a word is in order from the other side. We are back to the same point: should we or should we not assume that all those who come here to seek asylum are genuine? It is, to me, no answer to reply that we are all human. Of course we are, but so are the population of this country and the constituents of those who were MPs.
In the medium and longer term, any asylum system has to have the support of the public. That could be brought into doubt if they saw increasing numbers of mainly young men arriving in this country, as others have mentioned, in a very visible fashion. As for public opinion, that will depend very much on the outcome of the next months and years. If that is a bad outcome from the point of view of numbers—numbers who are not perhaps genuine—that will decide itself.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, and it may be that he was going on to acknowledge this, but the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I think the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, quoted actual public opinion surveys which showed big majorities in favour of the right to work for asylum seekers.
Yes, I heard that opinion poll mentioned a couple of times. I would actually like to see the question and the context in what it was put. Any opinion poll needs to be looked at very carefully, but it may well be the case—I do not know, I have not looked at this particular one—if you ask the public that question today, they will say “Okay, sounds sensible”. What I am saying is that, if we set the asylum system in such a manner that the numbers will increase significantly month after month and year after year, that will change. So we need to be careful about what we do with this amendment at this point.
We know that the system is already under considerable pressure; we have talked about that. We know that the present conditions on work are very tight, as other noble Lords have mentioned. They are deliberately tight. The case must have been undecided for 12 months —there are far too many of those now—and the job must be on the official shortage occupation list, which is barely relevant to the qualifications of most asylum seekers.
My argument is that it would be a serious mistake to abolish both these requirements as the amendment proposes. It would make for a very clear incentive to spin out the claims process—not that they need to at the moment, but in the longer term—to get permission to work in any capacity. With the current delays in the system, additional numbers would get permission, thus adding to the pull factors at the channel.
It would also be a further incentive to destroy documentation, which nearly all of them do, both to delay the process and also perhaps to conceal the fact that some of them are not from countries where they are at serious risk. It is important to note that a significant proportion of asylum seekers have been found not to be genuine. It depends what year we look at. We have had this discussion, but certainly there is clear evidence from the past that roughly half were refused.
I know that the noble Lord is concerned about asylum seekers who turn out not to be recognised. No doubt he is even more concerned about the smaller proportion of them who may be wicked people in some way. Does he acknowledge that wicked people who are convicted of crimes in this country, even those who go to prison, are allowed to work? Does he consider that a pull factor or an incentive to commit serious crime?
I do not see the relevance of that question.
Let me conclude, if I may. As we discussed earlier in this debate, the Government’s asylum workload has tripled from 40,000 cases in 2012 to 120,000 cases in 2021. Furthermore, nearly half of all cases awaiting an initial decision have been waiting for 12 months or more. In the present situation, they would in any case get permission to work. However, it is vital for these delays to be tackled. On that point, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I are agreed. It makes no sense to me to adjust the immigration system to encourage delay. This Bill contains some useful measures designed to speed up the asylum process, and they should be supported.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 64 and 65. Before I specifically speak to them, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Green, that at some point in this Bill we are going to have to have a debate in this Chamber about the idea that this is a debate between those on the side of the public and those of us who are some kind of middle-class liberal elite who do not care about the opinions of the public—who believe that we need a draconian system to try to deal with this—because that is not what this debate is about. It is a caricature of the Government’s position and of those of us who oppose what the Government are doing.
We are saying that many of the policies being put forward by this Government to deal with the problem as they see it simply will not work. They go too far sometimes and compromise some of the principles every Member of this House would agree on. That is the clash. At some point we will have a debate about this, although perhaps there are other groups of amendments where it is more appropriate. I say again, there will have to be debate between those who—to be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Green—think they represent public opinion on this, and people like me who think he has got it wrong.
As part of the middle-class liberal intelligentsia—maybe not the intelligentsia, but the elite—let me say that I very much support that. Let me say why. As we stand here now, debating this, there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have applied for asylum in this country who have been waiting for a decision for more than a year. There are so many statistics sometimes you drown in them and are not sure which are actually right, so I will quote the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as it is slightly different to my own statistics. It says:
“approximately 65% of asylum applicants awaiting initial decisions had been waiting more than six months and that the average time to make an initial decision is now more than a year”.
That means tens of thousands of asylum seekers are waiting to have their application determined.
It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about the Home Office’s assessment of how long this is. Are there thousands of people waiting two years? When I was a Member of Parliament, people would sometimes come to me whose asylum claim had been neither agreed nor disagreed. They had actually disappeared and were there, and had been there for years and years. Now nobody wants that system. It’s ridiculous; of course nobody wants a situation that works like that. The reason I labour this point is that it goes back to the debates on the last group. The key to this issue is speeding up the process. We cannot have a situation where people are languishing for months and years before a decision is made. To be fair, the Minister believes that what the Government are proposing will speed up the process. I hope that they are right, but I do not think that they are. This is what bedevils the asylum system; it is not fair to the country, the public or the asylum applicants themselves. That is the basis of it.
Then you are left with the question of how you deal with this problem and what you do about it. At the moment, the Government’s position is that you have to wait a year before you can apply to work and then, if you do, you can work in specific occupations and jobs. I go back to the point made by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti—supported I think by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. The problem then becomes the denial of the opportunity for asylum seekers to work unless they have been here for a year. The community cohesion impact of that is enormous. What happens is that people then look at it and say, “What are they doing?” Noble Lords know the things that people say. “They’re not working. They’re not doing anything. They’re living on benefits. It’s about time they got out and did something”. Yet that is exactly what they want to do. Then some of them go out and work illegally, and they undercut the wages of legal workers or are employed in various occupations that we know about. So the whole system is undermined. To be fair, the last Labour Government did it. We introduced it, actually. I say to the Minister that, working in the Home Office, if she ever comes to this side, she will find quoted back to her things that she agreed to. So I accept that, right at the beginning of 2002, I think, we introduced this legislation for the same reason: we were worried about it being a pull factor.
But, if you look at it, where is the evidence? It clearly has not been, because it has not stopped asylum taking place—in fact, it has gone up. I will be fair and honest about it. My noble friend Lord Blunkett has done it once or twice in here, to his credit. Sometimes you introduce a policy with the best intentions—but what do you do if it does not work? Carry on? Do you just blindly say, “Well, it hasn’t worked but we’re going to carry on with it”? In supporting these amendments, we are saying to the Government that we have a policy that undermines community cohesion and does not work.
We then have the ludicrous situation where we have a Statement made by the Minister in the other place where he will not even publish the evidence for why the Government will continue with the current policy. He just refuses to publish it. So the Home Office has a review and does not publish the evidence. Then its own advisory committee says, “You’re wrong—you should do, and the policy is wrong anyway”. So the Government then turn around and say, “That’s ridiculous. We don’t agree with you”. They do not say why—other than that it is the pull factor. But then they do not publish the evidence that says that it is the pull factor.
It is not only that. I looked to see whether there was anybody else and found out that the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner said:
“As the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I am aware of the harm caused to survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking unable to access training and work opportunities while they face delays in asylum status decisions.”
So the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner is wrong as well.
So, to answer this, I say that the Minister does not want to penalise asylum seekers, but this is ridiculous. We have public policy that is not working and is undermining community cohesion and a government response that simply says, “We don’t agree with all the people who disagree with us but we’re not going to tell you what the evidence is to support that, because it’s the pull factor”—
I am a bit puzzled. Although the precise numbers vary from year to year, it is quite clear that substantial numbers—30%, 40% or 50%, depending on which year you take—turn out not to have a case for asylum in this country. Surely that should be a factor. Surely the way forward is, as the noble Lord proposed when he first spoke, to speed this situation up so that we can get the answers within the six months, which would be much better for everybody. Surely that should be the centre of their policy.
Can I intervene on an intervention? What is wrong if those people are allowed to work? If it is then determined that they have no right to stay, they would then have to leave—but, in the meantime, they are supporting themselves, perhaps using their skills and contributing tax. If they are then found not to have a legal claim to stay, so be it. I cannot see what the harm is in the meantime.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Green, that, at the end of the day, of course you want to speed the system up. No one does not want to speed up the asylum application process—to say that would be ridiculous, because of course everyone does. What I am saying is that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has just said, at the same time, for the purposes of community cohesion and all the other things that we have heard, allowing asylum seekers to work while their application is being processed is actually a sensible thing to do. But the Government will not publish the evidence for why that is a pull factor, when the policy has been in place since 2001 or 2002 or whatever and has not made any significant difference at all. So all sorts of people and organisations support the right to work, which seems a sensible and reasonable thing to do.
I will finish by saying one simple policy to the Minister. I like to see people off benefits; I do not want to see people languishing on benefits. I thought that was a Conservative Government policy. One of the ways of doing that is allowing people to work: it aids community cohesion and is good for the individuals concerned. I simply do not understand why the Government are turning their face against what is a sensible policy initiative that would do a lot for community cohesion.
My Lords, I again thank noble Lords who have spoken on these two amendments. The fact that there were only two amendments in this group did not make the debate any less fulsome.
I will say at the outset that the conclusion on right to work was made primarily on the grounds not of the pull factor but of the integrity of the labour market, and an impact assessment will be published on this in due course. But the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is absolutely right that the policy has been in place since 2002. He says that things have not changed in that time in terms of people still wanting to come to this country, but I think that the global situation to draw people to this country probably has changed since 2002. I do not say that in a mischievous way at all—the world has changed and, therefore, people are more likely to want to come to this country, particularly when the economy is so good.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, talked about polls, but I will not go into the merits and demerits of them: they are what they are and, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, it depends on the question that you ask. But the biggest poll that we have had in recent years was of course the 2019 general election, and that point about taking back control of our borders was at the heart of it.
Our current policy allows asylum seekers to work in the UK if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months, through no fault of their own. However, as the noble Lords, Lord Green and Lord Alton, were absolutely right to say, the best way to deal with people’s claims being outstanding for 12 months is to speed the process up in its entirety.
Those permitted to work may apply for jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is based on expert advice from the MAC. Our right to work policy does not operate in isolation. We must ensure that it supports our objectives elsewhere in the immigration system and that it does not offer people the opportunity to undercut our position on our economic migration policy or our manifesto commitments by simply lodging an asylum claim—which would also increase intake and reduce our ability to focus resource on the most vulnerable. That is why the policy is designed in the way that it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, made the point that asylum support is impossible to live on, and that people on asylum support have to pay council tax and utility bills. I say to her that the Home Office pays those bills for destitute asylum seekers—just to correct the record.
If the policy were amended as proposed, it would enable people to access the very same jobs for which we require a visa application process. It would offer people a clear means of circumventing our visa routes by making asylum claims. Not only is such behaviour reprehensible but it detracts from our ability to support the most vulnerable. To relax the policy would be totally to undermine everything that the British people voted for in 2019. On my noble friend Lord Bethell’s point on labour shortages, we have offered time-limited visas to nearly 5,000 HGV drivers in the food supply chain, to 5,500 poultry workers and to 800 butchers to ease the supply chain pressures during exceptional circumstances this year. It was a temporary emergency measure, and it recognised the extraordinary circumstances facing the UK food supply chain. The Government continue to support those industries in solving this issue in the long term by making those roles more attractive to UK workers with better pay and working conditions.
Where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route, either through the new points-based immigration system or the refugee family reunion rules. We have been clear that asylum seekers who wish to come to the UK must do so through safe and legal routes, the details of which all noble Lords should now have. Otherwise, they must claim in the first safe country, and that is the fastest route to safety.
We cannot discount the risk of encouraging even more channel crossings by relaxing our asylum seeker right to work policy. With the tragic events of recent months, we cannot have a policy which in any way increases those risks. I do not agree that there is no evidence for pull factors to the UK, but I acknowledge that the picture is complex and further research is certainly required in this area. The push factors do not explain secondary movements to this country. A 2016 paper from the Overseas Development Institute on the role of asylum policy in migrant decision-making concluded that essential services and the economy are crucial in this respect. I would like to quote one particularly instructive section:
“Many of those we interviewed expressed a desire to find work in the places they had ended up in, and talked about that as one of the things that drew them there originally … nearly half of those we spoke to cited aspects of public policy at destination, such as education and labour markets, as motivations that shaped the migration decision-making process.”
I am not suggesting that labour markets are the only factor in what is, without doubt, a very complex process, but I do not think it is controversial to hold that migrants will naturally make calculations about how to maximise their and their families’ life chances after they have fled their home country, and that this will lead to consideration of which country offers the best chances in this respect. In short, there is a reason why, according to UNHCR figures, Germany has seen more than 2.5 million people claim asylum between 2011 and 2020—that amounts to about 3% of its population. Poland, however, a geographically comparable country next door to Germany, has seen around 82,000 claimants—0.2% of its population—in the same period. Evidence from countries that provide a right to work shows that they continue to provide accommodation—this goes to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and my noble friend Lord Bethell—and weekly support rates, so it is not necessarily true that asylum seekers would be independent. Moreover, and I am sure that noble Lords know this, asylum seekers are perfectly entitled to volunteer, and quite often do, in the communities in which they live.
None of this is to suggest that those people are not in need of protection; it suggests that many people flee their home countries and then choose their final destination based on particular criteria rather than claiming asylum in the first safe country. We cannot therefore discount the risk of even more channel crossings on that point.
In light of the above, I remain of the view that this is not a policy amendment that we can possibly support. We must focus our resources on fixing the broken asylum system—as noble Lords have acknowledged—reducing pull factors, speeding up asylum claims and ensuring that our policies do not encourage people to undercut the resident labour market or our economic migration visa routes. I hope on that basis that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
I support these amendments, because they are good economics and good social policy, but if the Government resist them and insist that those people may not work, we are under a duty to make sure that sufficient subsistence money is paid to them to keep them alive. We pay them about £40 a week. Could the Minister get by on £40 a week? I know that I could not. It is £39.63 today; it is going to go up to the princely sum of £40.85 a week, an increase of 17p a day. My elementary maths makes that an increase of just about 3%; inflation is running at about 5.5% to 6%. Why have we increased it by such a small sum?
My Lords, it is based on a calculation. I shall not try to bluster my way through what that calculation is, but I shall get the details to the noble Lord. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, people who are destitute will have things like council tax and utility bills paid for them by the Home Office.
I hate to say it, but I have just checked my phone and there is no evidence there of that letter having arrived.
My Lords, we often say that we will not provide a running commentary, but I will provide a running commentary on said letter. When we break for the Statement at 3.30 pm, I shall look to the Box as to the whereabouts of the letter —which I did clear some time ago.
My Lords, we have the famous Dubs letter; I do not know why others have not—maybe it was sent to selected recipients.
I thank all noble Lords from all sides of the Committee for their support for these amendments—with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, whose case seemed to be that public opinion polls in the future might turn on their head from where they are now, with 70% of the public supporting asylum seekers being able to work, and that might be a minority rather than a majority.
I am losing patience with the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington. When he intervened on my opening remarks he accepted that, from 2012 to 2019, the majority of asylum seekers were successful in their applications and that, in 2019, 65% were successful. But in his speech, he maintained that the majority of asylum seekers’ claims were not accepted. It is getting difficult.
The Minister talked about an impact assessment in due course on the effects on the labour market of this change. What is the Migration Advisory Committee for if it is not to advise the Government on the likely impact of changes in migration policy? The MAC recommends that asylum seekers are allowed to work. The Minister claimed that if the amendments were accepted, it would go against what people voted for in 2019. Is she really saying that in 2019 people voted not to allow asylum seekers to work, particularly in the light of the evidence of opinion polls showing 70% support for the contrary?
The Minister seemed to claim that allowing asylum seekers to work was a pull factor, but then said it was complicated and more research was needed. If there is evidence that allowing asylum seekers to work is a pull factor, what is it? She talked about other countries making the UK appear more attractive to asylum seekers, yet we have already heard that the UK is an outlier in terms of most other European countries allowing asylum seekers to work. How does that happen? She also said that European countries that allow asylum seekers to work still provide them with accommodation. Asylum seekers could pay for the accommodation that they are provided with if they were allowed to work.
The Minister’s explanations are not acceptable and we will return to this issue on Report. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 64 withdrawn.
Amendment 65 not moved.
66: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Prescribed period under section 94(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
(1) The Asylum Support Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/704) are amended as follows.(2) In regulation 2(2) (interpretation) for “28” substitute “56”.(3) Subject to subsection (4), this section does not prevent the Secretary of State from exercising the powers conferred by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to prescribe by regulations a different period for the purposes of section 94(3) (day on which a claim for asylum is determined) of that Act.(4) The Secretary of State may not prescribe a period less than 56 days where regulation 2(2A) of the Asylum Support Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/704) applies.”Member’s explanatory statement
When an individual is granted refugee status, their eligibility for Home Office financial support and accommodation currently ends after a further 28 days. This amendment would extend that period to 56 days or allow the Secretary of State to set a longer period.
My Lords, Amendment 66 is also in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, whom I thank. I speak at the risk of being called a Stakhanovite by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti.
The aim of the amendment is to extend from 28 to 56 days what is called the moving-on period, which sets a deadline by which those recognised as refugees are required to move on from asylum support to mainstream social security support and housing. As I said the other day, it feels like Groundhog Day, because I think it was six years ago that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I first raised the difficulties created by the moving-on period during the passage of what became the Immigration Act 2016. I have lost count of how many times I have raised it since but have certainly had at least one meeting with the Minister about it. I pay tribute to the British Red Cross for continuing to press the issue with us.
The case for the change rests on the fact that it is extremely difficult for newly recognised refugees to make the transition to mainstream support in 28 days. Not only do they have to sort out all sorts of complex administrative issues that would try any of us at the best of times, and not only does research by the BRC and others show that it is virtually impossible to achieve within 28 days, but there is also a basic incompatibility between a moving-on period of 28 days and the 56 days that local authorities usually have to support those at risk of homelessness and the 35 days it takes from application to receipt of a first universal credit payment. In case the Minister has been briefed to respond to this issue, I point out that an advance payment that has to be repaid out of basic benefit is not an inviting prospect for someone already on the breadline.
The upshot is that the end of the moving-on period creates a cliff edge and if someone falls off the cliff because they cannot make the transition in time, they can find themselves destitute and/or homeless. What should have been a time of joy for those who receive refugee status can turn into a time of misery and purgatory. It can also impede their integration, as we have already talked about. According to a cost-benefit analysis conducted for BRC by CASE at the London School of Economics, this contributes to an overall financial cost of the policy—a cost partly borne by local authorities, the NHS and other public bodies, but a cost nevertheless. To the Government’s credit, they effectively suspended the policy during the height of the pandemic with, it would seem, positive results. What evaluation has the Home Office made of the impact of that suspension and what lessons if any has it taken from it?
In Committee in the Commons, the Minister there referred to the administrative steps the Government have taken to speed up the transition to mainstream support and appeared to suggest that they had effectively minimised the problems. Among those steps, he seemed to be referring to an evaluation of the Post Grant Appointment Service established jointly by the Home Office and DWP. But this found that fewer than three in five refugees were successfully contacted by the service, which is now four to five years’ old. The service has been replaced by Migrant Help which, to my knowledge, has not been evaluated and, according to the BRC, does not really work. For all the welcome administrative improvements, there is still a problem, largely stemming from the basic incompatibility between the moving-on period and the rules governing UC and homelessness support, which I mentioned earlier. If the problem had been sorted, the British Red Cross would not need to be coming back to us yet again to try to solve it.
To the extent that he acknowledged that there is still a problem, the Minister in the Commons suggested that refugees could apply for an integration loan. But this requires a bank account, which will probably take more than 28 days to set up, and such a loan is unlikely to be sufficient to secure accommodation in any case. His final argument was a variant on the bed-blocking argument: if refugees spent longer in asylum accommodation, there would be less space for those entering the asylum system. This argument ignores the extent to which other statutory services are having to pick up the tab. Rather than blame the victim, I think we all agree that the Home Office should do more to speed up asylum decision-making, as argued strongly in the recent JCHR report on the Bill. Indeed, the UNHCR and others have offered to advise the Government on how to do that.
I am not totally clear what impact the current Bill will have on the numbers who have to negotiate the moving-on period. Have the Government made an estimate of likely overall numbers and of the proportion of those who are condemned to group 2 refugee status if the Bill is passed in its current form? As regards the current situation, has the Home Office made an assessment the proportion of newly recognised refugees who receive a UC payment and accommodation within the 28-day period allowed, leaving aside the period when the policy was effectively suspended?
This is a very modest amendment and I find it depressing that the Home Office continues to resist it, but hope springs eternal, so I beg to move.
My Lords, I am glad to have my name to this amendment. I am aware—to use the rather odd language of this House—that lunch-hour business is to come, although neither “lunch” nor “hour” is accurate. I could just use the first line of my notes, which reads “Lister—double tick.” I will say only a very little more. Joining up 28 days, 35 days and 56 days does not take a genius—and even if it did, it has been proven by experience that it does not actually work.
I am looking to see whether there is anything the noble Baroness has not said. In terms of integration for the individual, the family and the community, underlying this amendment is not just support for the individual but the importance of self-sufficiency—this is quite similar to the previous debate—as a component of integration, and not being dependent on the state. Integration and contribution to community and society go hand in hand.
I have one further point. The Minister mentioned the charity Migrant Help in a previous group. As I understand it, it can give advice; that is not the same as providing dosh—the funds that are needed. That seemed to be the implication in that debate. However, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on her persistence. I am glad to continue to be one of her terriers.
Am I a terrier as well? I think of myself as a larger animal, but a terrier will do. There is almost nothing left to be said. I am delighted to have my name on this amendment. The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, have said virtually everything, but I would like to say a couple of things.
In spite of our rather uncertain economic situation—if anyone from the opposing side wants to say that it is all terribly healthy, a Radio 4 programme more or less corrected that conceit yesterday; we have a slightly unhealthy economic situation, and it is not as good as people in the Government claim—we are still a rich country. We ought to show a little more generosity to people who have lost virtually everything, not to mention the fact that we have often caused the instability that forced them to leave their homes. Whether it is Afghanistan, Syria or other countries, when we have sold weapons, invaded or, as I have said before, used fossil fuels to the extent that we continue to do, we have destabilised many countries throughout the world. We have a moral obligation to behave better and take in refugees. This amendment is worthy of acceptance.
My Lords, however undesirable accommodation centres may be, being thrown out on to the street as the first acknowledgement by the state that it has accepted your claim to be a refugee is not acceptable. The current limit of a 28-day transition has proved in practice not long enough for all refugees to avoid homelessness and destitution. Amnesty and Migrant Voice point to the fact that it takes time to find alternative accommodation, open a bank account and find a job, particularly if refugees have been prevented from working while their applications are considered, which in itself makes it more difficult for them to find work.
The limit is therefore more likely to result in refugees having to rely, at least initially, on benefits, which take time to apply for and to come on stream. It also takes time to readjust from the trauma and anxiety caused by the war or persecution from which they have fled or by the often hazardous journey to the UK and the uncertainty of whether they will be granted asylum.
Twenty-eight days is simply not long enough. This amendment extends that transitional period to 56 days, with the Secretary of State being given discretion to extend it further. We strongly support it. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, who looked aghast when I said I was losing patience with the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that the noble Lord and I have had words offstage and we are all good.
As the noble Lord has mentioned me by name, I feel duty-bound to respond. It is far from my responsibility to feel in any way concerned for the noble Lord, Lord Green, but I am pleased that he and the noble Lord have been able to come to some kind of resolution.
The reason I looked aghast was because I feel—I have listened to a lot of these debates over the last few days—that whenever anybody raises any opinion which is not widely held by those moving amendments or supporting them, there is a tone and reaction which I do not think becoming of your Lordships’ House. We have to be as courteous and considerate to those with whom we disagree on this topic as to those with whom we agree.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right, except that those who interject constantly with tiny, mean little points also ought to respect the House and perhaps be courteous to everybody else. It goes both ways.
Coming from where I have, it seems incredibly courteous to me. We have Ministers who try to answer questions, which is refreshing. However, I take the point—the noble Baroness is absolutely right in what she said.
This is an important little amendment, which I support, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Hamwee and Lady Jones. It is not a party-political or ideological issue but a question of administration and removing a totally avoidable obstacle for people granted asylum in the UK. The British Red Cross is campaigning for it. The 28-day move-on period is simply not long enough to put basic arrangements in place. It leaves people facing avoidable poverty, and we should be able to do better. I remind the Committee that we are talking about people who have been granted asylum, not those waiting for their decision.
I believe we can go on a couple of minutes past 3.30 pm, but I will not detain the Committee for very long. The Minister, Tom Pursglove MP, gave a couple of answers in the other place that I did not quite understand. He did not disagree that there was a problem, saying:
“We are aware of reports that some refugees do not access universal credit or other benefits, or adequate housing, within 28 days.”
He went on to say that extending the period to 56 days, as the amendment suggests, would not fix the problem but he did not say why. He said there was a problem, but that extending the period would not do anything about it. Can the Minister elaborate on why the Government believe there is a problem but that extending the time limit would not make any difference? He also gave no response to the points raised on cost savings to local authorities and the benefits to the public purse of extending the time limit, lessening homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation. He gave no answer to any of those questions.
Finally, Mr Pursglove said that
“we must also consider the strong countervailing factors that make increasing that period difficult”—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 4/11/21; cols. 666-67.]
but he did not say what they were. He just stated it. Knowing our Minister as I do, and knowing that she does try to answer questions, I say that it is not really acceptable to make a statement as a point of fact without some evidence to support it. The Minister in the other place accepted that there was a problem with 28 days but did not say why extending it would not solve this. He just said, “Yes, there is a problem”, almost as a shrug of the shoulders. This important little amendment seeks to help those who have been granted asylum deal with their transition into the life we all want them to have.
My Lords, again, I thank noble Lords who have made points. I will attempt to assist the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on the extension. First, I will say that I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is in his place—I hope noble Lords will indulge me; because different amendments are bleeding into different groups, I know noble Lords will not mind. The basic approach to the asylum support calculation is based on the essential needs of the claimant—but I will get him more detail and perhaps more of a breakdown if that is what he would like.
I also say before we start that I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell: I disagree with many points that people make, but I hope I always approach the House with courtesy. I know the Committee generally does not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, but I must admire his tenacity in coming to this place, week in and week out, and making points that a lot of people do not agree with—I feel like that sometimes. That is a light-hearted point, rather than a point for debate.
My Lords, perhaps I could just explain to both noble Baronesses that it was facts that were in dispute, not opinions. I actually agree with a lot of what the Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, says about immigration as a whole, and I would not want that misconstrued.
That is not in dispute; I was just echoing the point made by my noble friend Lady Stowell about respect, because I think it is always a good thing to be promoting.
I too listened to “More or Less” yesterday—the programme that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, referred to—and I think the conclusion was that it depended on how you looked at it. So everyone was right and everyone was wrong, all at the same time; I think that was the conclusion. But I very much enjoyed listening to that calculation.
Anyway, before I cause any more controversy, I will start by saying that it is very clear that individuals leaving asylum support following a positive immigration decision receive the assistance that they need to obtain other housing and apply for other benefits, such as universal credit, that they are entitled to. We do not think it is sensible to increase the length of time they remain eligible for asylum support from 28 to 56 days, and I will explain why.
The asylum accommodation estate is under huge strain and demand for normal asylum dispersal accommodation —that is to say, flats and houses obtained from the private rental market—is exceeding supply. The only way to meet this demand has been to use hotels, and there are currently around 26,000 people accommodated in them. A programme of work is under way to drive down the use of hotels by obtaining more dispersal accommodation and introducing accommodation centres. This clause would impede this work—I hope that answers the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about “Why not 56 days?” In simple terms, the longer that successful asylum seekers remain in asylum accommodation, the fewer beds will be available for those entering the asylum system, including those temporarily accommodated in hotels at great expense to the taxpayer.
We are aware of reports that some refugees do not access UC, as it is called, or other benefits or adequate housing within 28 days. The reasons for this are complex, but the problem is not solved by increasing the 28-day move-on period, for reasons I have explained, and that is why our focus has been on implementing practical changes with the aim of securing better outcomes for refugees within the 28-day move-on period. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, talked about some of the things that have been done during the pandemic that have actually improved the situation. These include ensuring that the 28-day period does not start until refugees have been issued with a biometric residence permit, the document that they need to prove that they can take employment and apply for universal credit, and that the national insurance number is printed on the permit, which speeds up the process of deciding a UC application.
We also fund Migrant Help which, as noble Lords will know, is a voluntary sector organisation that contacts refugees at the start of the 28-day period and offers that practical, move-on assistance, including advice on how to claim UC. I think this is a big change from the last time the noble Baroness and I spoke on the subject. We offer advice on the importance of an early claim; on other types of support that might be available; on booking an early appointment at their nearest DWP jobcentre, if needed; and on how to contact their local authority for assistance in funding alternative housing. We did evaluate the success of the pilot scheme that booked an early appointment with the local jobcentre for those who wanted one. The evaluation showed that all applicants for UC in the survey received their first payment on time—that is, 35 days from the date of their application—and that those who asked for an earlier advance payment received one, although I take her point about the advance payment. This assistance is now offered to all refugees leaving asylum support and is provided by Migrant Help, which again, as the noble Baroness knows, is a voluntary organisation funded by the Home Office.
Asylum accommodation providers are under a contractual duty to notify the local authority of the potential need to provide housing where a person in their accommodation is granted refugee status. Refugees can also apply for integration loans which can be used, for example, to pay a rent deposit or for an essential domestic item or work equipment, or for training.
We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, and I can reassure the Committee that this Government are committed to ensuring that all refugees are able to take positive steps towards integrating and realising their potential. We keep the move-on period under review, but we must consider the strong countervailing factors that make increasing it very difficult at this stage. For the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank everyone who spoke in support of the amendment, and I thank the Minister. I did ask some questions that she did not answer. I will not push them now, but I would be grateful if she could write to me, particularly about the potential implications of the Bill for the numbers affected—but I am conscious that we all want our lunch so I will not press her to reply now.
I said that hope springs eternal, but hope constantly gets dashed, does it not? It is the same old arguments. I was aware that there had been improvements since I last raised this with the Minister, so I asked the British Red Cross to brief me on what those improvements were and what the effects had been—and, yes, they have had some effect. But there are still problems, otherwise the British Red Cross would not be asking us to put this amendment. So why does the Home Office think that everything is hunky-dory? I take the point about accommodation, although, as I pointed out, if you leave newly recognised refugees without accommodation there are knock-on costs for other statutory services. But that point is not valid for UC. So even if one accepted the point about accommodation —which I do not—why cannot newly recognised asylum seekers receive asylum support for longer before they get UC?
It is not complex; it is quite simple. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, just do the maths. It is simple arithmetic: there is not enough time. I actually think it is a territorial issue about who is paying. I ask the noble Baroness—I am sorry, I need my lunch and I am sure the Minister does too—the Minister to take this back to her department and the DWP and look again at the basic incompatibility with universal credit. If nothing else, I think there is a strong case for continuing financial support for longer than 28 days to ensure that people can claim UC. I will leave it at that, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 66 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 4.20 pm.