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Asylum Seekers: Accommodation and Safeguarding

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 7 November.

“We have set out on multiple occasions that the global migration crisis is placing unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Despite what they may have been told by many, migrants who travel through safe countries should not put their lives at risk by making the dangerous and illegal journey to the United Kingdom. We are steadfast in our determination to tackle those gaming the system and will use every tool at our disposal to deter illegal migration and disrupt the business model of people smugglers.

So far this year, our French colleagues have prevented over 29,000 crossings and destroyed over 1,000 boats. Furthermore, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be speaking with President Macron this week about how, together, we can achieve our shared ambition to prevent further crossings.

Some 40,000 people have crossed the channel on small boats so far this year, and the Government continue to have a statutory responsibility to provide safe and secure accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. To meet that responsibility, we have had to keep people for longer than we would have liked at our processing facility at Manston, but we have been sourcing more bed spaces with local authorities and in contingency accommodation such as hotels.

I can tell the House that, as of 8 am today, the population at the Manston facility was back below 1,600. That is a significant reduction from this point last week, with over 2,300 people having been placed in onward accommodation. I thank my Border Force officers, members of the Armed Forces, our contractors and Home Office staff, who have worked tirelessly to help achieve that reduction.

Before the high number of arrivals in September, Manston had proven to be a streamlined and efficient asylum processing centre, where biographic and biometric details are taken and assessed against our databases, asylum claims registered and the vulnerable assessed. We are determined to ensure that Manston is back to that position as soon as possible, and I am encouraged by the progress now being made. We must not be complacent. We remain absolutely focused on addressing these complex issues so that we can deliver a fair and effective asylum system that works in the interests of the British people.”

My Lords, Manston is a catastrophic failure of government policy. Was the local Conservative MP not right when he said it was “wholly avoidable”? Can the Minister explain how it was possible that the Government allowed the numbers to rise to more than 4,000? Was legal advice ignored? The numbers at Manston are now reduced, but what consultation is taking place with local authorities about the use of hotels? How are families and children to be kept safe? For example, will DBS checks be made on all staff so that we can ensure that families and children are safe and housed appropriately?

The Government need to get a grip. They need a proper plan and they need to sort out the administration, which is in chaos, as we saw again today, with asylum applications having risen by more than 305% in the last five years and excessive lengths of time before any decision is made. If the Government cannot sort out the administration, they will not sort out any problem. Instead of firefighting, the Government need to get a grip.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. The Government have got a grip; the Labour Party has no plan. I am glad to report to the House that the numbers at Manston have fallen since this Answer was given in the House of Commons. There are now some 1,147 people held at Manston, as at 8 am today, and the numbers are continuing to decline. Every effort is being made by Home Office staff to rectify the position that has occurred. I am incredibly grateful for all the hard work they have done in very difficult circumstances.

My Lords, the Minister in the other place said the crisis at Manston was due to an “unprecedented strain” on the immigration system and that the Government inherited a broken immigration system. My understanding is that in 2002 the UK received more than 80,000 asylum claims and in 2021 it was fewer than 50,000, so the situation is not unprecedented. In 2011, the backlog of asylum claims was 11,000, and it is now 118,000. In 2014, 85% of initial decisions were made within six months, but the figure is now 5%. The system was not broken then but it is now. Will the noble Lord ask the Minister in the other place to correct the record?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. No error was made by Mr Jenrick when he addressed the other place. He was correct to say that the conditions facing the border staff at Manston are unprecedented. We have never had this number of unlawful crossings of the channel. The situation has not been faced before. As the noble Lord rightly observes, there is a problem with the processing of asylum claims. Every effort is being made to accelerate the pace at which asylum claims are resolved. It is clear that there is a backlog, and work is being carried out at pace to develop a method by which that backlog can be reduced.

My Lords, I am not a member of Labour but I resent that snipe from the Dispatch Box. It is not appropriate here. We are not a student debating society; we are not even the Commons. We respect each other so, please, no more snipes like that.

Secondly, back in July a report said that detention was already often for much longer than 24 hours and that there was overcrowding. Why did the Government not act then? They clearly did not.

The height of the numbers at Manston was on 30 October. The Government acted as rapidly as they could from that date to reduce the numbers held. They reflected the conditions and the numbers crossing, which therefore led to an increase in the numbers held for processing at Manston. Clearly, the Government’s intention is to return Manston wholly to a processing facility not performing any accommodation function.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that however difficult this all is, these are people? Many are people in considerable difficulties. Therefore, for them to have to wait the length of time they are now waiting is, frankly, unacceptable. Also, does he agree that the language used should be the language of compassion, not of attack? Will he undertake to say to the Home Secretary that we want to hear voices showing that she understands that these are people and we ought to care about them?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. The principal mission for the Home Office in respect of these people is to treat all who come to our country with care and compassion, to seek to understand why they have come and then to treat their asylum claims accordingly. I could not agree more with my noble friend.

My Lords, in the light of the sage counsel from the Minister’s noble friend, if the Minister were an asylum seeker in a detention facility, perhaps from a war-torn part of the world, how would he feel to hear the Home Secretary arriving not by a discreet route but via a military helicopter?

I think the noble Baroness refers to the use of the Chinook by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The use of that helicopter was so that she could see the operations in the channel; it was not for any purpose of sending some sort of message to those residing at Manston. Clearly, it was reasonable given the time available and the items that had to be viewed by the Home Secretary. It is very important that my right honourable friend has every opportunity to see the whole system, so that she understands and can bring forward solutions.

How will His Majesty’s Government ensure that Manston will now remain a 24-hour facility only, in a way that can be scaled up if necessary, and that no children are detained there at all—or, at least, are not detained with adults who they do not know?

I assure the right reverend Prelate that the Home Office takes very seriously its responsibility towards unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It seeks to place them into separate accommodation as early as can be achieved. As I say, the welfare of children is among its first priorities.

My Lords, despite what the Minister has just said, there is growing concern among civil society groups about what is happening to children caught up in this asylum mess. Can the Minister say exactly what safeguarding mechanisms are in place to protect these children, and to ensure that no child is wrongly classified and treated as an adult?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Clearly, every person who arrives at Manston and says that their age is below 18 is the subject of an age assessment—that is, a neutral evaluation of that status. If they are believed to be children then they are treated, as I say, as a key priority for the Home Office and housed in special hotels, which are secure and provide the necessary support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

My Lords, we now know that the far-right attack committed by firebombing a migration centre in Dover was done by a man inspired by far-right extremism. Can my noble friend assure this House that conversations are taking place within the Home Office, and government generally, advising colleagues that sensationalist language from political leaders leads to real consequences and that they should refrain from using it?

Clearly, I agree with the noble Baroness that sensationalist language should be avoided. I am afraid that, at this stage, I cannot comment further on the firebomb attack, which is obviously still the subject of investigation by the police.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the hotels and the special situation that unaccompanied minors are being kept in. But the fact is that they are being kept in these hotels with security guards outside for many months, with very little support. A report last month made it clear that they get no education, informal or formal, while they are in those hotels. Is the Minister satisfied with that?

The noble Baroness’s question was predicated on the fact that nobody in the hotels was allowed to leave but that is not the case. Forgive me if I misunderstood her question. As I say, significant steps are clearly taken to afford facilities for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I undertake to write to the noble Baroness to inform her about the education opportunities. I am afraid I do not have that information immediately to hand.