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Hotel Asylum Accommodation: Local Authority Consultation

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 23 November.

“On my appointment by the Prime Minister three weeks ago, I was appraised of the critical situation at the Manston processing centre. Within days, the situation escalated further with a terrorist attack at Western Jet Foil that forced the transfer of hundreds of additional migrants to Manston. I urgently visited Western Jet Foil and Manston within days of my appointment to assess the situation for myself and to speak with front-line staff, during which time it became clear to me that very urgent action was required.

Since then, the numbers at Manston have fallen from more than 4,000 to zero today. That would not have been possible without the work of dedicated officials across the Home Office—from the officials in cutters saving lives at sea, to the medical staff at Manston —and I put on record my sincere gratitude to them for the intense effort required to achieve that result.

To bring Manston to a sustainable footing and meet our legal and statutory duties to asylum seekers who would otherwise have been left destitute, we have had to procure additional contingency accommodation at extreme pace. In some instances, however, that has led to the Home Office and our providers failing to properly engage with local authorities and Members of Parliament. I have been clear that that is completely unacceptable and that it must change.

On Monday, a ‘Dear colleague’ letter in my name was sent to outline a new set of minimum requirements for that engagement, backed by additional resources. This includes an email notification to local authorities and Members of Parliament no less than 24 hours prior to arrivals; a fulsome briefing on the relevant cohort, required support and dedicated point of contact; and an offer of a meeting with the local authority as soon as possible prior to arrival.

I have since met chief executives and leaders of local authorities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, among many other meetings, to improve our engagement. We discussed their concerns and outlined the changes that we intend to make together. I have also met our providers to convey my concerns and those conveyed to me by honourable Members on both sides of the House in recent weeks, and to agree new standards of engagement and conduct from them.

These new standards will lead to a modest improvement, but I am clear that much more needs to be done, so this performance standard will be reviewed weekly with a view to improving service levels progressively as quickly as we can. In the medium term, we are committed to moving to a full dispersal accommodation model, which would be fairer and cheaper. We continue to pursue larger accommodation sites that are decent but not luxurious, because we want to make sure that those in our care are supported appropriately but that the UK is a less attractive destination for asylum shoppers and economic migrants. That is exactly what the Home Secretary and I intend to achieve.”

My Lords, with 127,026 asylum applications outstanding and only 4% of people who have arrived by small boat having had a decision, is it any wonder the system is in chaos? The Government are scrambling around looking for hotel accommodation as an emergency response without proper consultation with local authorities, sometimes giving them only 24 hours’ notice of placing asylum seekers in their area. Is that not the case? Is it not also the case that, as a consequence, there are allegations of dirty, unsafe accommodation with, in one report, 500 rape alarms being issued? Most disgracefully of all, unaccompanied children are going missing, 222 so far. Where are they and how many more are there? It seems we cannot even protect our children.

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right that, of the small-boat arrivals in 2021, 96% are still awaiting an initial decision, as the Minister in the other place said. However, we made more than 14,500 decisions in the year to June 2021, concentrating on deciding older claims, high-harm cases, cases with extreme vulnerability, and children.

The noble Lord alluded to the notification of local authorities. Clearly there has been difficulty in notifying local authorities. That has been a real focus for the department. I am unsure whether he will have seen the “Dear colleague” letter that went around the Members of the other place, notifying them that it will absolutely be the rule that they get at least 24 hours’ notice, but it is hoped to be longer than that. I would be very grateful to hear from any noble Lords who are concerned by any hotels they may be aware of where due notice has not been given to the local authority and to the Member for the relevant constituency.

As to the point about unaccompanied children going missing from hotels, any child going missing is extremely serious, which is why we work closely with local authorities and the police to operate a robust missing persons protocol to ensure that their whereabouts are known and that they are safe. We work to ensure that vulnerable children are provided with appropriate placements for their needs, and we have changed the national transfer scheme so that all local authorities with children’s services must support young people. Home Office and contractor staff identify cohorts of young people considered at greater risk of going missing and, of course, risk assessments and safety plans are undertaken on arrival in mitigation of this risk.

My Lords, the Minister knows that I have raised the health service provision for those at Manston and when they have been dispersed elsewhere. Today, I am hearing from local authorities and directors of public health locally that scabies is increasing. It is racing through the hotels where these asylum seekers have been sent. In some places, the rate is 70% because they do not have the clean clothes and linen necessary for the clothes that have mite infestation to be thoroughly washed. Worse, the Home Office and Clearsprings have refused to provide specialist creams at those hotels for asylum seekers to use. Even worse, because of the spot scheme under which those being dispersed from Manston come, the usual grant to GPs is not made available, which means there is no money locally, so asylum seekers can use only 111 or 999. Will the Minister agree to meet to discuss this as a matter of urgency? I appreciate that health is not in his brief, but there are some holes, particularly about health funding and stopping this mass infestation of scabies.

Certainly on my visit to Manston a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet the healthcare staff and visit the healthcare centre. I assure the noble Baroness that concern is paid to the health of those passing through Manston, and it is hoped that any conditions they suffer from at that time are treated, in particular with the topical creams that she suggests. I am concerned by what she said about what is happening with Clearsprings, but I am afraid that without a bit more detail, which I am sure she will provide, I cannot answer now, but I will do that. As to a meeting, certainly I am aware that she has raised this issue a number of times, and I am happy to have a meeting with her if that would assist.

My question follows on from that of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in referring to the company Clearsprings Ready Homes, which has a 10-year contract to supply hotel accommodation. A couple of weeks ago it emerged that the company’s profits were up sixfold in the past year and that three directors had shared dividends of almost £28 million. I contrast that with the asylum seekers in hotels who get £8.24 each week to buy essentials, which amounts to little more than £1 a day. Does the Minister think that money going in dividends is the best way for government money to be spent?

Obviously it is not for me to comment on the entirety of the commercial operations of Clearsprings; nor do I know the extent to which the contracts for asylum accommodation are responsible for its profit margin, so it would not be appropriate for me to answer that question.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the Home Secretary’s evidence yesterday in the other place, where she seemed to suggest that the only way that many asylum seekers could claim asylum in the UK is on arrival in the UK? In other words, the only way for genuine refugees and asylum seekers to claim asylum is to pay people smugglers to cross the channel and then claim asylum in the UK. Is the Government’s policy not feeding the business model of people smugglers rather than trying to dismantle it?

No, it is absolutely to the contrary. Safe and legal routes, such as the ones we operate in Afghanistan, and in Iraq and Jordan in the past, were designed to provide an opportunity for genuine refugees to make asylum claims to come to the UK. The idea that people can promote their own claims over those of others and cross themselves into the country in order to claim asylum is simply not a sensible way of running an asylum system. It is clearly contrary to the public interest that those able to afford to pay people smugglers are able to come here and claim asylum. That is why the safe and legal routes are the only proper way of delivering asylum sanctuary.

It is now a month since the report that there were 222 unaccounted-for children, as the noble Lord. Lord Coaker estimated. These children have come from a traumatic experience. How many, as of today, are unaccounted for in their location?

I do not have that information to hand. The positive news, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, is that there are still no people at Manston. Everyone has been transferred into hotel accommodation. As I say, those who are unaccompanied minors are cared for separately in specially provided accommodation with special support.