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Illegal Migration Update

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 5 September.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about illegal migration.

Tackling illegal migration is one of the Government’s central priorities because it is the British public’s priority. People can see that illegal migration is one of the great injustices of our time. It harms communities in the UK, it denies the most vulnerable refugees a chance of resettlement, and it leaves behind a trail of human misery. Indeed, the perilous nature of the small boat crossings was underscored once again last month when six fatalities occurred in a tragic incident off the French coast. My thoughts are with all those affected, and I pay tribute to the first responders in both the UK and France who worked in difficult circumstances to save as many lives as possible.

That reminds us all why we need to do whatever it takes to stop the boats, which is exactly what the Government have been doing throughout the summer. We started by redoubling our efforts to smash the criminal gangs upstream, well before those gangs are in striking distance of the United Kingdom. We have agreed a new partnership with Turkey to target the supply chain of small boats, which establishes the UK as Turkey’s partner of choice in tackling the shared challenge of illegal migration. Two weeks ago I visited my counterparts in Egypt, as the Security Minister visited Iraq, to deepen our law enforcement co-operation with two more strategically important countries in that regard.

In the UK, we have been ratcheting up our activity to break the business model of the gangs. Unscrupulous employers and landlords who offer illegal migrants the ability to live and work in the UK are an integral part of the business model of the evil people-smuggling gangs. We are clamping down on them; we announced over the summer the biggest overhaul of our civil penalty regime in a decade, trebling illegal working fines and initiating a tenfold increase in right to rent fines for repeat offenders.

As we do so, more rogue employers and landlords are getting knocks on the door. Illegal working visits in the first half of this year increased by more than 50% compared with the same period last year. So far in 2023 we have more than trebled the number of right to rent civil penalties issued compared with last year, resulting in a sixfold increase in the number of penalties levied. Following the resumption of the immigration banking measures in April, banks and building societies are now closing the accounts of more than 6,000 illegal migrants.

As we surge our enforcement activity, we are driving up the returns of those with no right to remain in the United Kingdom. Last month we announced the professional enablers task force, which will increase enforcement action against lawyers and legal representatives who help migrants to abuse the immigration system. Lawyers found to be coaching migrants on how to remain in the country by fraudulent means will face a sentence of up to life imprisonment.

Since our deal with Albania in December last year, we have returned more than 3,500 immigration offenders, on weekly flights. As we have done so, we have seen a more than 90% reduction in the number of Albanians arriving illegally. So far there have been more than 12,600 returns this year, with returns in the first half of this year 75% higher than in the same period last year. Of course, those changes follow the landmark Illegal Migration Act 2023, which, coupled with our partnership with Rwanda, will deliver the truly decisive changes necessary to take away all the incentives for people to make illegal crossings from the safety of France.

As we adopt a zero-tolerance approach to illegal migration, the Government have extended a generous offer to those most in need of settlement. The latest statistics published over the summer show that, between 2015 and June 2023, 533,000 people were offered a safe and legal route into the United Kingdom. Last month the Home Office resettled the thousandth refugee through the community sponsorship scheme.

While this Government’s focus is on tackling the source of the problem, we have none the less worked to manage the symptoms of illegal migration as best as is practicable. We have made significant improvements at Manston since last year, and it continues to operate as an effective site for security, health and initial asylum checks, despite the pressure of the summer months.

We have worked to ensure that when migrants depart Manston they are now heading to cheaper and more appropriate accommodation, by rolling out room sharing and delivering our large accommodation sites. Those sites are undoubtedly in the national interest, but the Government continue to listen to the concerns of local communities and Members of this House, and throughout the summer further engagement has taken place to ensure that those sites are delivered in the most orderly way possible. We have successfully ended the use of Afghan bridging hotels, with Afghan families now able to move on with the next stage of their lives in settled accommodation, and the hotels are now returning to use by the public.

Reducing the backlog in asylum cases and establishing a more efficient and robust decision-making system is not in and of itself a strategy to stop illegal migration, but it is important for taxpayer value and we have prioritised it. We have transformed the productivity of asylum decision-making by streamlining processes, creating focused interviews and instilling true accountability for performance. As of 1 September, we have met our commitment to have 2,500 decision-makers, an increase of 174% from the same point last year. As a result, I am pleased to report to the House that we are on track to clear the legacy backlog by the end of the year, and that recently published provisional figures for July show that the overall backlog fell.

Tackling illegal migration is not easy; more people are on the move, and more are mobile, than ever before. Countries around the world are struggling to control it. But our 10-point plan is one of the most comprehensive strategies to tackle this problem in Europe, and that is showing. As of today, arrivals are down by 20% compared with last year, and for the month of August the reduction was more than a third. That is against the reasonable worst-case scenario of 85,000 arrivals that we were presented with when taking office last year.

In contrast, irregular migration into the EU has significantly increased, with Italy alone seeing a doubling in small boat arrivals. In Italy, a 100% increase; in the UK, a 20% decrease. Our plan is working. There is of course much more to do, but it is clear that we are making progress. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, even as we discuss yesterday’s illegal migrants Bill update, new information emerges which requires the update to be updated, as we read in today’s papers of various claims and counter- claims. First, can the Minister explain to us where the Home Office will find the additional £2 billion a year, because it will no longer be allowed to use the foreign aid budget to pay for migrants in hotels? This is a result of the illegal migrants Act. Is this report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact accurate? Why has it never been mentioned? Did the Minister know about it, because when he was asked about it earlier by another noble Lord, he did not know anything about it. So can he update us on whether this should have been mentioned, or whether the reports of that additional £2 billion are wrong?

This Saturday we saw the year’s record numbers for a day, with 870 people crossing the channel. So far this year, 21,000 people have crossed the channel in small boats. Can the Minister tell us how many of those were children and what the estimate is of the numbers waiting in France for the opportunity? If the weather improves, does the Minister expect that that number will continue to grow?

As we watch the Government move from crisis to crisis on migration, can the Government update us on plans to house migrants? Is it the case that the Army base in the Prime Minister’s constituency is still to be used, and not dropped, as a possible option, as Sir Edward Leigh MP said yesterday in the other place? When will the “Bibby Stockholm” barge be fully utilised? Has all the legionella in the water supply now been dealt with? What happened with “Bibby Stockholm”, and when did Ministers become aware of the problems? What plans does the Home Office have for more barges or, as I read in the papers over the Summer Recess, for marquees?

The Prime Minister keeps declaring victory in respect of small boats, yet the “small boats week” designed to highlight success was a catastrophic failure that merely highlighted that fact. Is it not the case that the asylum backlog is still at record levels? Migrants continue to cross the channel in huge numbers, the provision of detention facilities outside hotels is a mess, and costs continue to rise. Can the Minister also update us on how many failed asylum seekers under existing laws are awaiting deportation?

We have continually called for proper returns agreements, particularly with France; safe routes; stronger police action nationally and internationally; dealing with the problems at source; and speedier decision-making. This Government remain in denial, while passing ever more laws, some of which undermine our international reputation. Can the Minister also tell me whether he agrees—and, if not, why not—with the deputy chair of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson MP, who said that his party had failed on immigration and that it had allowed the situation to get, to quote him, “out of control”?

We all believe that the small boat problem needs resolving—it needs dealing with—but greater competence and sensible policy would make a real difference, rather than always seeking tomorrow’s headlines. Is it not about time that the Government got a grip on this problem and, as a start, were actually competent in implementing the policies they put before us, rather than the incompetence we see day after day and week after week?

My Lords, I will not repeat the questions which have already been asked, except to emphasise the issue about the ODA money and the question of where on earth they will find funding for this to be changed.

This Statement is, basically, very thin gruel, because it opens the door to more problems than the problems we had already raised. I will question two of those big problems which are additional to the ones which have already been asked. The first is about the number of claim withdrawals. There has been a big increase in withdrawals of asylum claims, particularly from countries which have a very high grant rate for asylum claims. The previous rules on treating asylum claims as withdrawn provide three reasons that an asylum claim will be treated as implicitly withdrawn. The new version of the rules, since we completed the debate before the Recess, now adds two more grounds: failure to maintain contact with the Home Office or to provide up to date contact details, and failure to attend reporting events unless due to circumstances outside the applicant’s control. The Government say that the rule changes are to improve clarity regarding the withdrawal of asylum applications. It is difficult to see how adding yet further grounds will do anything other than increase the number of people who have genuine asylum claims thrown out.

The claims that I want to talk more about are those where, according to the rules, the circumstances in which an asylum claim will be treated as explicitly withdrawn have now widened. Before, the only circumstances in which a claim would be treated as explicitly withdrawn were where an applicant signed a specified form. Now, an applicant may also

“otherwise explicitly declare a desire to withdraw their claim”.

Can the Minister clarify what the “otherwise” circumstances are? These are new circumstances, but nowhere are they explained. How can he be sure that these people do not require protection, and what happens to them once their application has been withdrawn?

I will now follow on from the question I asked the Minister earlier today about the moving on process from Home Office accommodation. He indicated today that the process would be very swift, and he did not demur from the seven days I mentioned. That was down from the 28 days that currently exists; seven days now seems to be the new norm. We understand the urgent need to move people out of hotels and into more appropriate, community-based accommodation, but the way to achieve that is not by evicting them into homelessness—in effect, dumping them on the front door of the local authority, many without the biometric certificate which is the essential ticket to getting universal credit and the gateway to a home.

So my questions are these. What, if any, communication exists between the Home Office and local authorities of the names and details of those who are to be released and when? At what point, following the letter telling the recipient they have leave to remain, do recipients receive their biometric certificate, without which they cannot really proceed anywhere? Is there any standard of service in the Home Office on any time gap between the letter arriving saying that they have leave to remain and the biometric certificate being delivered? The Minister spoke today of the need to protect the service provision, but the actions taken by the Government focus entirely on the numbers issue, not on seeking a sensible solution to those coming through and out of the system. I fear that we are in for many more debates on the chaos left by a system that is driven by numbers and not by people.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their questions. It is apparent that I would refute the allegation from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that, in any sense, the illegal migration update did not reveal a sensible and competent approach.

I will remind the House of the six points contained in the Statement. The first was the agreement we have recently struck with Turkey to take action with the Turkish authorities to disrupt gang activity and to prosecute those who would seek to smuggle people across the channel. The second point was the reiteration of the department’s approach to lawyers who would seek to undermine the efficacy of the asylum system by coaching or by, in effect, enabling fraudulent use of asylum and other routes; we have created the Professional Enablers Taskforce to prevent such an abuse of the system. The third was the massive increases in civil penalties for illegal working and for renting to those who are not entitled to do so.

Fourthly, on the very satisfactory statistics in relation to returns, I need not remind the House that 3,500 Albanians have been returned in recent times—a 90% reduction in the numbers arriving on small boats. Fifthly, my right honourable friend the Immigration Minister reminded the House of Commons that the target of 2,500 asylum decision-makers has now been met. Finally, there has been a 20% reduction in small boat crossings, compared to this time last year. This must be viewed in the context of circumstances where small boat arrivals in Italy have gone up by 100%.

In the context of all those points, it is notable that none of the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, or the noble Lord, Lord German, focused on these points. That is because neither the Liberal Party nor the Labour Party has any answer to the problem posed by small boats.

I turn now to address some of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. First, on the article in the Times about the report of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the Government are looking at that report and considering its outcome. It may be that the outcome is not something with which His Majesty’s Government agree, but in any event I can reassure the noble Lord that funding for asylum support will remain.

On the noble Lord’s question about Catterick garrison. I can confirm that work is ongoing to bring forward accommodation there as part of wider efforts to relieve pressure on the asylum system.

On the noble Lord’s question about the “Bibby Stockholm”, as my right honourable friend made clear in the other place, we are confident that we will be able to return asylum seekers to such accommodation within a fairly short period. Final checks are being conducted.

As to the work with France, I can reassure the noble Lord that our agreements with France have yielded a great deal of success. Our French deal has prevented some 33,000 illegal crossings in 2022—40% more than in 2021. In the first eight months of 2023, around 15,000 of these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossing attempts have been prevented. This is on top of the agreements with Albania which have had the effect I have already outlined. We have a similar agreement with Turkey to tackle and disrupt the small boats supply chain. This includes the creation of a Turkish national police centre of excellence, based in Turkey, to tackle organised immigration crime.

This must all be viewed in the context of the operationalisation of the Illegal Migration Act, which will demonstrate the effect of the provisions. If you come to the UK illegally in a small boat, you will be detained and speedily removed.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the recent, extremely sensible suggestion that, since the boats which are used in such dangerous circumstances to cross the channel do not comply with the safety requirements of the European Union, France and other member states have the power—and, indeed, the responsibility—to confiscate those boats? What representations are His Majesty’s Government making to France and the other countries to exercise these powers?

My noble friend makes an important point. It is right that Home Office officials and National Crime Agency officers are working closely with the French to try to disrupt the supply of small boats. We now have many of the boats used in the crossings which have been confiscated following the journeys across the channel. By and large, they are not ones which are sold on the French market; most of these vessels are constructed for the purpose. I have seen them myself, and they are incredibly dangerous and not fit for crossing an area of open water such as the English Channel. I can reassure my noble friend that, from what I have been told, the practice of the French, when they disrupt a launch, is to destroy the effectiveness of the boat and to confiscate what remains of the boat. This is something the French authorities have been handling. We are working, as ever, with them to disrupt the maritime side, and further work to disrupt the upstream provision of both boats and engines is ongoing.

My Lords, there is a shocking omission from the Statement. During the passage of the Illegal Migration Bill, a number of noble Lords expressed concern for the safety of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in Kent and who was responsible for them. The Minister repeatedly reassured us that these minors were rapidly transferred to other local authorities beyond Kent because it was not fair for one local authority to manage the numbers. Following a court case last month, the leader of Kent County Council said that the national transfer scheme was failing. Kent is now caring for 661 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and more than 1,000 care leavers. Last month alone, Kent received 489, but only 136 went elsewhere. Shockingly, the judge said that neither Kent County Council nor the Home Office knew where the children are or whether they are safe and well. What is the Home Office doing to make the NTS work? Above all, are these children safe?

Clearly, the Home Office has the judgment of Mr Justice Chamberlain in the decision of which the noble Baroness speaks. The High Court found that Kent County Council was in breach of its obligations under the Children Act in relation to housing these children. It found that the contingency use of Home Office hotels was acceptable for short periods in an emergency where the facilities of Kent were overwhelmed. It was his view that the periods for which these children were in the hotels had exceeded the permissible period. Obviously, the Home Office is considering that recent judgment. As the noble Baroness observed, the practice has been for Kent to take responsibility for these children. Clearly, the national framework is being used and will continue to be used to redistribute the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children around the country.

My Lords, small boats week was, unfortunately, a fiasco—it would have been a hoot were it not so incredibly serious when what we need is competent administration. The real problem is the Government’s prioritisation of gesture politics and grandstanding over hard work on dealing with this getting on for 200,000 backlog.

In his response to the Front-Benchers, the Minister said that funding would remain for asylum support. During the passage of the Illegal Migration Bill, Members from across the House warned—I remember that my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed in particular raised the issue—that international aid money could not be spent on people who are not asylum seekers if the Government refuse to admit them to the asylum process, which is what the Illegal Migration Act provides. Are the Government ever going to implement the Illegal Migration Act, or will they kick it into touch as they did with part of the Nationality and Borders Act, whose provisions on group 2 refugees have not been implemented? One wonders why we spent so many hours debating this—including till 4.15 am, as I remember —when the Government were acting all macho that this legislation had to go through. I would be intrigued to find out whether they will implement the Act not only because of these issues about budget but also because, as we warned, possibly hundreds of thousands of people will be left in limbo. It is an unworkable Act. What are the Government going to do?

I can confirm for the noble Baroness that we will certainly commence the Act. She will be happy, I am sure, to see statutory instruments commencing various provisions very shortly.

My Lords, one of the most welcome aspects of this Statement is the clampdown on the despicable lawyers who have benefited so much from leading on many young people who have come to this country illegally. Can the Minister tell the House honestly—I am sure that he is always honest—whether he really believes that we are getting value for money from the French Government for the £480 million that we spend? Can he also tell us how much training all these extra decision-makers, as I think they are called, have had? Were they all newly appointed or have they come from other parts of the Home Office?

I will deal first with the question about lawyers. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that the purpose of the Professional Enablers Taskforce is to bring together regulatory bodies, law enforcement teams and government departments to exchange information thus to investigate, disrupt and increase enforcement action against those lawyers who help illegal migrants exploit the immigration system. I am sure that I do not need to remind the House that such prosecutions against corrupt immigration lawyers could result in them facing sentences up to life imprisonment for assisting illegal migrants to remain in the country by deception.

Turning to the noble Baroness’s question about value for money from our agreement with the French, plainly, it is very hard to put a price on the lives of those saved who may have drowned while attempting to cross the channel. However, I venture to suggest to the noble Baroness that the answer is yes.

I turn to the noble Baroness’s third question, which related to the 2,500 additional asylum case workers. They are all fully trained. The Home Office also has a detailed programme of ongoing refresher training to ensure that each case worker is up to date. As to their source, I am afraid that I do not have the precise breakdown, but my understanding is that they have been recruited to that role. I can certainly look into how many of them are entirely new to the Home Office and how many have moved from other parts of the Home Office, and I will write to the noble Baroness in respect of that.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s initiatives in this policy area, in particular the 10-point plan, the 20% reduction in arrivals and the deal that was secured with Albania. However, can I gently press the Minister on the possibility, or the suspicion, that we might be moving towards a de facto amnesty situation in our haste to reduce the waiting list of asylum claimants? I pray in aid evidence by way of comparison with France, which accepts and grants the claims of only 25% of its asylum claimants whereas we grant 73%. Retaining robust standards is an important issue that people are concerned about, particularly in terms of the people we are training to adjudicate these claims in order to reassure the public that real action is being taken in this vital area.

I can assure my noble friend that we are certainly not engaging in an amnesty. Of course, that is what the previous Labour Government did in relation to bringing down the backlog, and it would be incredibly damaging to deterring false asylum claims if one were to go down that line. Every asylum claim is considered properly and fully against the acceptable standards. I can put my noble friend’s mind at rest on that question.

I realise that I omitted to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord German, in relation to asylum support, and I ask for the indulgence of the House to provide those answers. There appears to be some confusion around the moving on process. The provision of asylum support is heavily regulated. I assure the noble Lord that the prescribed period for someone given notice that their asylum claim has been granted or that their appeal has been allowed or that their asylum claim has been refused and they have been given another type of leave is 28 days. In all other cases, it is 21 days. As per Regulation 22 of the Asylum Support Regulations, individuals will receive a notice-to-quit support letter, which will be issued in writing at least seven days before the individual’s support payments are due to end. Where an individual’s 21-day or 28-day period has passed but they have not received their seven days’ notice, they will still receive the seven-day notice period.

I should add that there is no legislative power to provide such support beyond the 21-day or 28-day prescribed periods and that there are no plans to change the periods. I hope that that provides a sufficiently detailed answer for the noble Lord.

My Lords, before the Recess, I asked a simple question expecting a simple answer from the Minister. I asked what is the youngest age of an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child to have been placed in a Home Office hotel? It is a simple question, but the answer was quite breath-taking in that the Home Office could not give an answer because the data could not tell it the age of the youngest unaccompanied asylum-seeking child to be held in a hotel. Why is that the case? If the Home Office cannot answer that question, what are the implications for safeguarding and appropriate provision for such young children?

Clearly, safeguarding is a significant consideration. The Kent Intake Unit, where unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are initially triaged, is certainly somewhere where safeguarding concerns are taken very seriously. The staff there pay very close attention to ensuring the best possible care for the children who pass through the centre. Careful consideration is given in the cases of very young children that they are not sent to hotel accommodation but, rather, to local authority accommodation if it is at all possible.

I should add that, of course, the vast bulk of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are nearer the age of 18—that is, 16, 17 or 18 years old.

My Lords, the Statement and, indeed, the Minister emphasised how lawyers have been, and are, capable of frustrating this process in ways that would often constitute serious criminal offences. Of course, those are matters for prosecuting authorities or the Solicitors Regulation Authority if the stories that the Daily Mail has helpfully published are true, and there is no reason to think that they are not true.

The Statement talks about the Professional Enablers Taskforce. Can the Minister set my mind at rest about whether this will help very much? Is there not a danger that having a bureaucratic organisation such as the Professional Enablers Taskforce may get in the way of the fairly straightforward process of prosecuting by the authorities or, indeed, pursuing professional matters under the regulation authority?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. The Professional Enablers Taskforce will perform the important function of ensuring that information is shared between the Home Office—of course, it has access to the documents relating to the various cases and could arguably provide witnesses in relation to them—the regulatory bodies of the various lawyers concerned, the police and the prosecuting authorities. The exchange of information in such circumstances is a great enabler to the successful prosecution and conviction of these people who would abuse our asylum system and our system of humanitarian protection for personal or professional financial gain.

I will try again. Very simply, why does the Home Office data not have a simple answer on the age of the youngest unaccompanied child seeking asylum who is in a hotel run by the Home Office, or, I should say, procured by the Home Office? Why is that data not available as a matter of fact?

As I have already made clear, the categories of data held by the Home Office are held in accordance with the practices that are deployed in the triaging of the various UASC who come through the Kent intake unit. Some data is held, and obviously some of that is protected because it is personal data. It will not surprise the noble Lord to learn that there is a vast amount of data which is held, and it is simply not satisfactory for the noble Lord to complain that one particular category of data is not held.

My Lords, could I push the Minister very gently a little more on his obvious reasons on the question of value for money with France? Am I right that we have a relationship with Belgium, which does not get £480 million, and that it is doing much better at stopping these boats? Is there not some way that we can get the French to copy their colleague nation in the European Union to do the same?

I thank the noble Baroness for that remark. She is absolutely right: the Belgians are doing an excellent job. The Belgians, in contradistinction to the approach taken by the French authorities, stop the boats when they are in the water and return them to the shore, rather than the approach adopted by the French authorities, which is that they are unable to interfere once the boats have launched. Clearly, this is a topic that is the subject of frequent discussion. I reassure the noble Baroness that her point is well made, and I will take it away.

I am sorry to come back on this point but the answer that the Minister has given twice now to my noble friend Lord Scriven is in conflict with the answer that he gave the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne. To the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, he said that the Home Office received data, whereas to my noble friend Lord Scriven he said that that data was not available. We know from the data that has been in the press that Kent County Council is certainly aware of the number of children and other details, as would be any other corporate parent local authority receiving children. We are not asking for individual data and the names of children, but there must be statistical ranges of the children who have arrived. The Minister has said that the Home Office holds some data—why does it not hold that data?

I have already answered that question. I am afraid I simply do not accept the noble Baroness’s point that there is conflict between the answer I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and the answer I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. The point is this: certain categories of data are simply not collected and this falls into that category. Lots of data is held, as it will not surprise the noble Baroness to learn.

Can I have one last try at this? Does the Home Office record and hold data on the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are triaged in Kent and who are placed in hotels? A simple yes or no will do.

As I have already made clear, the data requested on a child in hotels could not be provided as it comes from operational databases that have not been quality assured.

Sitting suspended.