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Home Office: ODA-funded Support

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will place a cap on the amount of ODA-funded support provided by the Home Office for refugees who have reached the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests.

ODA-eligible costs of supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK have increased significantly, including to reflect support offered to Ukrainian and Afghan citizens. The Government have provided £2.5 billion of additional ODA to mitigate impacts on wider aid budgets and will continue to strike an appropriate balance between fiscal responsibility and our development objectives.

My Lords, had the Government not broken the pledge to deliver 0.7%, the overseas aid budget would now be £17.5 billion, which is £4.75 billion more than is currently proposed. Worse, domestic support for refugees going on hotels, barges and Rwanda is taken from that reduced ODA budget. Will the Minister acknowledge that giving the Home Office a blank cheque to raid the aid budget gives no incentive for restraint, value for money or processing the backlog of asylum claims and allows it to waste even more money on unsuitable accommodation? Can the Minister be proud of that? Should what is left of the budget not be protected instead of being used to balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people?

I do not accept the points that the noble Lord has made. It is right that we provided the responses that we did to crises such as that in Ukraine but it is also important that we deliver value for money in our spending in this area. We continue to look to drive down the costs of asylum accommodation in particular. The Home Office has doubled the number of caseworkers in the last two years and continues to recruit more. It is streamlining and modernising its end-to-end process, with improved guidance and use of digital technology. We are also looking very carefully at where we accommodate people and how we can drive better value for money there too.

On where the Government choose to accommodate people, the Minister will recall that, in July, the High Court found that the Home Office’s use of hotels for unaccompanied child refugees was “systematic and unlawful”. Have the Government decided on a response to that judgment?

Does the Minister agree that the Government would be able to be much fairer to genuine refugees if they got a grip of the shortage of manpower dealing with the vast of cohort of people who are applying for asylum but will never get it, and brought to the places where those applicants live tribunals and officials who could deal with them in what might loosely be called “real time”?

My Lords, as I said in response to an earlier question, the Home Office is increasing the number of caseworkers to deal with asylum claims; it has more than doubled that over the last two years. Of course, the Illegal Migration Act will be an important part of our strategy here as it will end illegal entry as a route to asylum in the UK.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister acknowledge the difficulties that this uncertainty around ODA allocation and budgeting causes for those who are trying to deliver our programmes around the world? Not only does such uncertainty risk the success of our programmes but it can damage our international relations and, of course, it delivers bad value for money for the UK taxpayer. How are the Government working to provide more certainty here?

I acknowledge some of the points that my noble friend has made. There has been disruption to the FCDO’s ODA budget. In addition to the additional £2.5 billion that was allocated to help to manage those, the publication of the FCDO’s provisional ODA allocations for 2024-25 demonstrates our commitment to openness and transparency, and enables FCDO teams and their partners across the world to forward-plan.

The Minister referred to the Illegal Migration Act. The Home Office assumed that it would be able to score on ODA all the costs of the that Act, but it cannot. I asked for clarification of the consequences for the taxpayer of having to fill that gap for the cost of the Act from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, on 12 July. He did not reply on that day, so I wrote to him through the noble Lord, Lord Murray, on 14 July. I confirmed with his office just this afternoon that the letter had been received but I have not received a reply. I am glad that the Leader is in his place because he speaks passionately and sincerely about this House being able to do our constitutional duty and ask questions of the Government and hold them to account. The Home Office simply does not wish to reply to letters when it does not like the questions that are in them.

I will happily take the noble Lord’s point and make it to my noble friend and the government department. In addressing the point that maybe he was making, as I said, the Illegal Migration Act represents a vital step forward in the Government’s plans to tackle illegal migration. I reassure noble Lords that we will continue to report all ODA, consistent with OECD and DAC rules, and we will continue in our commitment to spending 0.5% until we can return to 0.7% when fiscal circumstances align. We keep all our ODA spending forecasts under review to deliver that, and will be closely looking at the evolution of eligible asylum spending as the Illegal Migration Act is implemented.

My Lords, we are all familiar with the Government’s decision to purchase the “Bibby Stockholm” barge and to move asylum seekers on to it even though it was not fit for habitation. Can the Minister confirm whether that purchase was made, in whole or in part, using any ODA funds? Does she consider that purchase to represent good value for money, and are any other such purchases planned?

I reassure the noble Lord that all spending is done in line with DAC rules, and I can report back to him on the specific point about that spending. However, when it comes to looking at accommodation solutions for asylum seekers, we are driven by looking at what represents good value for money for the taxpayer. Accommodating asylum seekers in hotels is absolutely not good value for money, and we will continue to look at different solutions to help to accommodate those to whom we have an obligation.

My Lords, could the Minister perhaps confirm whether, under the international rules about using ODA for asylum seekers and, above all, Ukrainians—to whom the Government’s welcome was very good—that runs for only one year? Are the Government now cutting off the mulcting of the aid budget for this purpose for those Ukrainians who have been here for more than a year?

The noble Lord is right that ODA-eligible spending runs for the first year in country. Of course, the programmes have been designed to deliver support that is appropriate to those moving to this country and where there are costs beyond that year, they are met from elsewhere in government departments’ budgets.

My Lords, the impacts of cuts in aid have been and will continue to be significant. The equality impact assessment published by the International Development Committee revealed some of the effects, particularly on women. For example, the number of maternal deaths that will be averted by the women’s integrated sexual health programme will fall by more than half. In Afghanistan, the maternal mortality rate will worsen. How will the Government look to mitigate the impact of these cuts, particularly on women and girls?

My Lords, I recognise that the reduction in ODA spending has had important consequences and we are, as I say, committed to returning to 0.7% when the fiscal situation allows. In various international development strategy documents, we have also set out how we will prioritise spending to the lowest-income households in humanitarian efforts, while aligning our programmes further with our ambitions on supporting women and girls in order to address the issues that the right reverend Prelate has set out.

My Lords, the Minister has twice cited the Illegal Migration Act in defence of government policy. Can she say which part of that Act is working?

My Lords, that Act is only in the process of being brought into force but it is an important part of our approach to reducing the pressures of illegal migration, so that we can better address the needs of legitimate asylum claims in this country.

My Lords, following the previous question, how will the Act, when it is implemented, stop the boat people?

My Lords, by ending illegal entry as a route to claim asylum in the UK, we will change incentives for those who wish to enter the UK by that route, but it is not the only action that the Government are taking. We are working closely with law enforcement in France; we have a number of other initiatives upstream that are all aimed at tackling this problem, and we have seen that small boat arrivals to the UK are down by 20% this year.