I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum seeker dispersal policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will begin by touching on the asylum application system as a whole. At present, the system is so inefficient and backlogged that asylum seekers are being housed in hotels and temporary accommodation while endless appeals are dragged out. In the Home Office legacy case statistics, there are people with cases dating back to 2004.
We see the majority of cases turning out to be bogus. In fact, I see many economic migrants who have come to this country illegally clogging up the system with doomed cases, slowing the process for those in genuine need. Statistics from 2012 to 2013 on asylum cases where outcomes have been determined show that only 32% of cases were accepted at the first stage of applying, while 57% were rejected and 11% were withdrawn. Of those cases that were not accepted, 70% were appealed. Of those appeals, 68% were dismissed and 7% were withdrawn. The system is clearly being abused and delayed by bogus claims of asylum, and that cannot continue.
Let me give the House a real-life case study from my constituency surgery on Friday. Hassan is a Sudanese national. He is currently living in Rochdale in a house with four other male asylum seekers. He was 17 when he entered the UK in September 2014 via a lorry from Calais. Before that, he had worked in Libya, earning money in construction. He travelled to Europe by boat. He got off a lorry in Dover. Fingerprints were taken and he was put in a hotel. He spent two months down south. He was then moved up to Rochdale. He has been in Rochdale for one year and five months.
Hassan has been trying to claim asylum. He says there is a conflict between two tribes in close proximity to his village and that a lot of people have been killed. Hassan was interviewed by the Home Office over a year ago in February 2015, but no decision has yet been taken on his case. He now says that he is bored here, has nothing to do and that, if he had the choice, he would return to Sudan. He said:
“I want to feel human, like a normal person.”
He then broke down in tears in my constituency office. That is the reality of the asylum system under this Government.
Whatever we make of this young man’s case, there is no denying that there are failures within the system, and we must remember that the asylum system exists for a very good reason. As a prosperous and tolerant nation, we must play our part in helping those fleeing persecution and horrors in their home country. Earlier this year, a young mother attended my constituency surgery. She had been persecuted because of her Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, and I believed it to be an open-and-shut case. She had been subjected to awful abuse in Pakistan. She was twice violently kidnapped for refusing to abandon her religion. Here was a straightforward case of someone unable to return to their country from fear for their own security. I would always be prepared to support that kind of asylum case. To my complete surprise, her asylum application was rejected. Even though Home Office guidance shows that such cases should be supported, this young woman was denied a safe haven.
I raise that case because it shows the growing strains on our asylum system, which is grinding to a halt. It is being clogged up with economic migrants submitting hopeless cases, while genuine people in need of refuge are told they have no right to sanctuary. The system needs an overhaul. We need a well-resourced and properly funded body that is able to deport quickly those who have no claim and assist those in genuine need of a life away from their home country. We cannot fulfil our moral duty to those in genuine need under the system now in place.
I now come to the issue at the heart of this debate: the unfair dispersal system for asylum seekers. In Rochdale, we have 1,044 asylum seekers at present. That figure represents 3.77% of the 27,650 asylum seekers in England. Rochdale has a population of just over 200,000, so one in every 204 people in Rochdale is an asylum seeker. The situation is worse only in Middlesbrough where there is one asylum seeker to every 152 people. Rochdale has been dumped with an unequal share of the burden. The Minister will say, as he has said previously to me, that this policy was introduced by the previous Labour Government, but that is simply not good enough. He and the rest of his party have been in government for six years now.
The COMPASS contracts introduced under his Government have made the situation worse. In 2012, when the contracts were introduced, Rochdale was responsible for 371 asylum seekers. At the beginning of 2014, this number went up to 550. By the end of 2015, we suddenly had 1,044. The problem does not stop with Rochdale. Ten local authorities in England have just under 40% of all asylum seekers in the country. That is just 10 out of 322 local authorities, according to research that my office has done. The north-west region has been bearing the brunt, taking 30% of all asylum seekers in England.
In correspondence, the Minister stated:
“Our dispersal policy ensures a reasonable spread amongst...local authorities.”
That is clearly not true. Certain regions and councils have done absolutely nothing. The Minister must answer why this problem has got worse under his Government and why he has done nothing about it. I must add that, if local authorities will not sign up voluntarily, why has the Minister not enforced this on the shirkers using sections 100 and 101 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999? The Act enshrines power in the Home Secretary to ensure that leaders of local authorities co-operate to provide support for asylum seekers. The problem has been growing and the Minister must answer why that power has not been used.
Next, I wish to touch on some of the details of the COMPASS contracts. Key performance indicators within the contracts were to factor in the capacity of local health, education and other support services and the risk of increased social tension if the number of asylum seekers increases within a given area. There has been a clear disregard for those factors. A recent report from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation found that 10 of the 12 struggling towns and cities in the UK are in the north of England. Number one in that analysis is Rochdale. We can argue with the methodology of the research, but there is no doubt that public services are vital for local people in our town. There is a greater strain on services, yet the Conservative Government have added more than 1,000 asylum seekers to the town. Combined with this, we have Serco dumping asylum seekers in our town with hardly any notice given to the local authority. There are waiting lists for housing in Rochdale and a limited number of school places. Some schools are already being challenged to improve performance, but cannot afford the added burden of even more languages to be learned. Waiting times for GPs and access to accident and emergency are already stretched beyond acceptability.
On the changes to spending power from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Rochdale is again among the hardest hit from Conservative Government cuts, which already affect its ability to fund its already overstretched public services. Between those years, Rochdale will have its spending power reduced from £177 million to £165 million: a reduction of £12 million.
I caution the hon. Gentleman against the use of words such as “dumping” to describe the way in which human beings arrive in his constituency. Does he have a view on extending the right to work to asylum seekers? If asylum seekers are allowed to work and actively contribute to their communities, they would pay tax, including council tax, that would provide resources for local authorities. They would be seen to be actively contributing to communities, and that might help with integration.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On the language used, it is not a reflection of the individual asylum seekers, but a reflection of how Serco and the Government treat these vulnerable people. I completely agree about the ability to work. I raised that issue with the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when I was a parliamentary candidate before the 2010 general election, so I have some sympathy with that view.
On spending power in Rochdale, not only are we predicted to lose £12 million, but on top of that there have been £200 million pound budget cuts to the local authority since 2010. I take no pride in saying that Rochdale is one of the most deprived places in the UK. It pains me to admit that. I, the council and other agencies are doing much more to change that, but we have overstretched public services and a very low wage economy. Asylum seekers, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, are not allowed to work and that causes tension within communities. Groups of asylum seekers wander around town with nothing to do. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister’s Department is no good at processing their applications, so they are hanging around for literally years.
Rochdale is not the only example of such unfairness. The top five local authorities with the most asylum seekers are Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Rochdale and Bolton. All will have their spending power over the next two years reduced by more than 5%, yet they have all taken in more than 1,000 asylum seekers each. So I must ask the Minister why no consideration has been given to the strain put on public services and why tension in the local community has not been factored in.
The irony is that some local authorities see a rise in their spending power and have no asylum seekers at all. It is completely and utterly unfair. I will give some examples. In the Prime Minister’s local authority area of West Oxfordshire, zero asylum seekers are accommodated, despite a healthy 1% increase in spending power over the coming years. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s leafy local authority of Tunbridge Wells is also not taking in any asylum seekers and is seeing only a 1% decrease in spending power. The Home Secretary’s area has taken in only three asylum seekers, despite this issue falling under her remit, and faces only a 1% reduction in local authority spending power over the coming years. The Chancellor’s local authority seems to be reluctant to take any asylum seekers at all.
When we look further into the details, we really start to get a picture of the inherent unfairness of the system under this Government. Labour authorities on average have taken in 244 asylum seekers, yet have been on the wrong side of an average 5% reduction in spending power between 2015-16 and 2017-18. In contrast, Conservative local authorities have taken in only six asylum seekers on average and have suffered a rather modest 1% reduction in spending power. What is evident here is that Labour-run authorities are clearly the more compassionate. When they see vulnerable people, they strive to help wherever they can. That is an attribute that should be celebrated by the Government. Yet those councils have been hit with the largest reductions in spending power. Rather than helping those local authorities, the Government seem hellbent on ensuring that they make things as hard as possible, letting them take in some of the most vulnerable people, while tying one hand behind their back. This is partisan politics at its worst. The Minister must take action to stop it.
The Minister can choose to put whatever spin he wants on the situation, but it is clear that the status quo is deeply unfair to the less well-off. Areas that are struggling the most under this Conservative Government have been made to carry the increasing burden of our overweight and slowing asylum system; they have been doing so while the local areas of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have done nothing but shirk their responsibilities to the most vulnerable people in society, while shielding themselves from the worst cuts.
Labour-run local authorities have been doing more than their fair share, but Conservative authorities have been ignoring the plight of asylum seekers. The most unjust aspect of the whole situation is that it is Labour local authorities that are being punished the most with cuts, while Conservative authorities are being rewarded for sitting back and watching. I look forward to the Minister’s attempt to address each and every point raised in the debate.
Order. Before I call Patrick Grady, I should say to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who will be speaking from the Front Bench for Scottish National party, that we started early because both the mover of the motion and the Minister were present. The hon. Gentleman missed only the aperitif; he is here for the meat of the debate.
I am grateful to have been called, Mr Hanson, having not indicated beforehand that I wanted to speak. Having seen how sparse the attendance was, I thought I should take the opportunity to reflect briefly on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk).
Glasgow, part of which I represent, has approximately one asylum seeker per 217 residents, placing it in the top 10 centres of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The asylum seeker community has done nothing but benefit the society and culture of my city. We must recognise the huge contribution that people make to Scotland and the United Kingdom when they come here from all over the world for a wide range of reasons. It reflects well on the city of Glasgow when it extends the kind of welcome it has done to people coming from extremely vulnerable and distressing situations.
I pay tribute to the work of the integration networks in Glasgow. Community-based organisations play an incredibly valuable role in providing advice and support to asylum seekers. Since being elected last year, some of the most moving experiences I have had have been when I have encountered asylum seekers, either in formal settings facilitated by the likes of the Maryhill integration network in my constituency, or on a one-to-one basis when they have come to my constituency surgeries.
The hon. Member for Rochdale made the point that Cabinet Ministers lack first-hand experience of these issues because they simply do not have comparable numbers of constituents coming to their surgeries, and that does affect overall Government policy and attitude towards asylum seekers. There is nothing more humiliating for me as a Member of Parliament than sitting in a surgery and a constituent presenting me with a card that tells them, “You do not have the right to work.” That right is enshrined in human rights instruments around the world. It is one of the basic factors that allows people to express their human dignity by using their skills, attributes and strengths to earn a living for themselves. For them to be issued with a card from the Government that says, “You do not have the right to work,” is literally inhumane.
Likewise, when I see bits of paper that say, “You are liable to be lifted and deported and expelled from the country,” I am left literally speechless in front of these people, who have fled some of the most terrifying and difficult situations around the world. We heard about some of those situations in the previous debate about Libya—conflict situations in which, very often, the UK is complicit. There has to be an absolutely integrated and joined-up approach from the Government. Currently, such an approach is completely and utterly lacking.
Asylum seekers need to have the right to work. The Azure card, which allows people to buy things only from certain shops, should be abolished. Cash allowances would enable people to get culturally appropriate clothing, food or utensils, or whatever else they might need to provide for themselves or their families. Much asylum support is provided through the Home Office, rather than by the Department for Work and Pensions. From a practical point of view, could that be integrated between the Home Office and the DWP? That might help to address some of the challenges and issues we hear of.
On dispersal, it is appropriate that local authorities throughout the country find a way to take their fair share, but they have to know that they are going to get Government support. The right to work is particularly important because it would make it all the more attractive to local authorities if they thought that their revenue base, council tax base or whatever might grow. We create work and problems for ourselves when we bracket people and let them get trapped in a bureaucratic system that denies them basic human rights.
I am grateful to have been called, Mr Hanson, because I wanted to take the opportunity to offer some reflections on the issues. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate and providing Members with the opportunity to scrutinise Government policy on the dispersal of asylum seekers at this important time in the development of that strand of policy. I am sorry to have missed the aperitif, but I certainly got the main substance of what the hon. Gentleman had to say.
Broadly, dispersal issues can be put into two categories. First, what exactly do we need to do and provide for those who have claimed asylum here? Secondly, where should that happen? To start with the second issue—the “where”, which is the meat of the debate—no one would now quibble with the Government’s stated ambition to expand the number of areas to which asylum seekers are being dispersed, although I certainly have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s argument that that should have happened long before now. More widespread dispersal is entirely the correct thing to do, from a number of different angles: it is fair that responsibility for providing housing and other support is shared around the country, and it is easier for local communities to adjust and for asylum seekers to integrate into those communities when responsibility is shared out in that way.
As we have heard, a number of authorities are shouldering a disproportionate share of the responsibility, including Middlesbrough—where the cluster limit of one asylum seeker for every 200 of the settled population has been exceeded—and Rochdale. As I understand it, the Home Office has written to other local authorities to encourage them to take part in the dispersal process; it would be useful to have information from the Minister on the response to that request. Many authorities are absolutely willing to play their part, but that willingness is conditional: they will play their part if, and only if, full and proper support comes from central Government. That is absolutely the correct approach.
That brings us to the other key issue: what exactly do we want to achieve through the dispersal process? It should not be about paying private companies to seek out the cheapest accommodation they can find in different corners of the country and then simply placing asylum seekers there willy-nilly, while leaving hard-pressed local authorities and other services to get on with it. That is not a sensible way ahead, but as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, sadly it sometimes appears to be all the COMPASS contract was designed to achieve and has achieved. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have made my misgivings about the contracts known in other debates; I will wait for the Home Affairs Committee to look at that issue more forensically in due course.
Dispersal should occur as sensibly and sensitively as possible, ensuring the provision of required support and finding communities where people fit. That means accommodating people and taking account of family circumstances, age, language and other factors. Most importantly, dispersal must occur where asylum seekers will have access to necessary support and services. Previously, COMPASS health assessments—for those dispersed to Glasgow, for example—were very easy to arrange: they took place in the same building in which many asylum seekers were initially accommodated. Sadly, under the current contract, providers are proving significantly less reliable at making support available to ensure that people can get where they need to go, and appointments are being missed. That is an extremely worrying development, particularly as those people often have complex health needs. Some are victims of torture, and many have mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of the traumas that they have been through.
There is a range of other factors to be considered. When I practised as an immigration solicitor, there was—there still is—an experienced and capable group of immigration and asylum law practitioners in Glasgow, because it is a dispersal city and there is significant demand. However, that is not the case in other cities in Scotland and elsewhere, where dispersal has not yet taken place. We need to ensure that those who are dispersed to new towns and cities have access to quality advice, which is essential for their often complicated cases.
Local authorities in different parts of the UK have sought to go above and beyond what is required. The Scottish Government have funded the Scottish Refugee Council’s family keywork service to support newly arrived families with children aged up to eight during their first six months. It covers areas such as advice about the asylum system, education and health, and it co-ordinates the different services.
As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, it is vital to keep communities involved and on side. There can be no sudden appearance of large numbers of asylum seekers without warning, which has happened from time to time with initial dispersal accommodation. That does not work for anyone. Equally, leaving asylum seekers alone and isolated by placing them in ones or twos in different parts of cities is also not helpful.
I have touched on only a tiny number of the basic wrap-around services that need to be considered when dispersing asylum seekers. We could have a whole debate on the right to work; the Scottish National party voted last week in support of the right to work, and we will always do so. Local authorities think twice about getting involved because it requires proper planning, close partnership working and discussions among national, devolved and local governments. That requires not just planning but proper resourcing, and many local authorities feel that the current arrangements provide neither sufficiently. The model of using private contractors to provide accommodation without additional support services is not attractive to them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, Glasgow has benefited over the years from the dispersal of asylum seekers in a number of ways, but when that policy was first introduced the council was contracted directly by the Home Office to provide accommodation and the funding was sufficient to develop a whole host of wrap-around services as well. The existing COMPASS contracts move away from that model. Glasgow can just about cope, because it already has well-developed infrastructure to support asylum seekers, but local authorities with no history of dispersal do not. If the Home Office attempts to expand the programme without adequate funding for developing services, we would be seriously concerned about the impact on public services and community cohesion. It is the same issue with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children: I understand that the Home Office is not paying a daily rate that covers the cost of supporting vulnerable young people.
Local authorities have willingly participated in the resettlement of refugees under the vulnerable persons scheme, and although there will always be differences in schemes’ requirements, the stark contrast in resourcing and planning cannot be justified. Why not learn lessons from the successes of the vulnerable persons scheme? Local authorities will ask why they should agree to take part in the dispersal programme and then have to shoulder the responsibility for funding services such as education.
We support the Government’s ambition to broaden dispersal, but their vision of what dispersal is all about requires much more work to convince us and, more importantly, local authorities. The Government should get down to that work quickly before contemplating using the powers in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 or the new powers in the Immigration Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing this debate.
The asylum seekers dispersal policy and the contracts for providing accommodation have something of a sorry history. As we know, the six contracts were signed in March 2012 and taken up by G4S, Serco and Clearel. Only Clearel had any experience of the asylum housing sector, and that soon began to tell. The most significant findings of the National Audit Office’s January 2014 report were that G4S and Serco took on stock without inspecting it, that the Home Office did not apply the key performance indicators in the transition period and that, although the intention and hope was for savings of £140 million, the savings in the year 2012-13 amounted to just £8 million.
Those are not teething problems, but clearly ongoing problems with the current system. The Home Affairs Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office all highlighted serious flaws in the operation of the current dispersal system. The use of red doors and wristbands in Middlesbrough and Cardiff, which arose earlier this year, led to disquiet among the public and in the media.
There are five big issues. The first is the standard of the accommodation being used, about which the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office expressed concern. The Public Accounts Committee concluded that
“The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor”.
I visited Oldham earlier this year—I will mention this a number of times in my speech—and I was struck by the quality of the accommodation provided on the ground in some of the towns in the north-west, where lots of asylum seekers are housed.
Secondly, there is a concern about the oversight and inspection regime. The Home Affairs Committee concluded that
“the complaints and inspection processes…appears to be flawed”.
Asylum seekers have little opportunity to make complaints, and the inspections by the local authorities and the Home Office are ineffective. The issues of the red doors and the wristbands exemplify the flaws in the system. In the end, those issues were exposed by the media, not the complaints and inspection regime, which is intended to deal with such issues.
Thirdly, there is the issue of clustering, which has been touched upon already. There are clearly marked differences in where asylum seekers are housed. Some local authorities take very large numbers—Glasgow has the highest, with some 3,000 or so—but 177 local authorities have refused to take any and a further 100 have taken five or fewer. There are clearly limits, which the Minister will point to, to the policy of not housing in London and the south-east and to the voluntary opt-in for local authorities—in other words, it cannot be mandated—but there are some marked differences. Let me take three examples at random. Swansea has rehoused 843 asylum seekers, whereas neighbouring Carmarthenshire has rehoused none and neighbouring Neath Port Talbot has rehoused only one. Middlesbrough has taken 917, whereas Redcar and Cleveland has taken just 10 and Hambleton has taken none. Glasgow, as I mentioned, has got 3,000, East Renfrewshire has got none and Renfrewshire has got just four. There are clearly big differences across the country.
Fourthly, there is a lack of appropriate support services. In other words, the dispersal of asylum seekers is not matched by appropriate support—whether healthcare, schooling or language classes—leaving asylum seekers isolated and vulnerable.
Fifthly, rising demand is outstripping housing and service supply. We all know that the number of asylum seekers has increased from about 18,000 in 2010 to 32,400 in 2015. All three providers of dispersal accommodation have emphasised that it is proving very difficult to get more accommodation for housing at a viable rate. The 2014 NAO report recommended that the Home Office share forecasts and flow with the contractors. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is happening and, if so, how it is being managed.
The policy questions and issues that arise are these. We need to underline that the dispersal system should be fair, affordable and humane, and that it should protect and promote community cohesion. There is no doubt that, under the current scheme, none of those things are being achieved. I have real concerns about clustering. In Oldham—no doubt, the situation is the same in Rochdale and some of the other areas that have been touched on—I witnessed large numbers of asylum seekers being housed not only in one local authority, but in a particular area within the local authority, predominantly because housing is simply cheaper there than anywhere else. The high concentrations in the areas I visited in Oldham were causing real concern for the asylum seekers, who felt isolated because of how they were being housed, and for the people of Oldham, who felt that they were taking on too much, in one small area and more than they could cope with. So there are real problems for community cohesion in the way that the dispersal system works.
The system cannot be based purely on the bottom line. In other words, the cost of accommodation cannot be the driver—there has got to be a wider approach. Cheaper provision is not synonymous with better provision. A resonating question that has already been asked is, what are the Government doing to encourage more local authorities to take part in dispersal? To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Home Office should be mandating local authorities to take asylum seekers at this stage. I can see real problems with that if that is the fall-back position. Letters have been written, but what more can be done? In addition, what support is being offered to local authorities to make it more likely that more of them will offer to provide accommodation and other services?
What are the Government doing to improve oversight and inspection of dispersal accommodation? I have already mentioned the revelations in Middlesbrough and Cardiff; they throw up a failure of the complaints and inspection system, which needs to be looked at again.
I, too, would like an update on the savings. According to the NAO, the savings in 2012-13 were £8 million of the expected £140 million. We are now nearly four years into the contracts, and it is important for the Minister to give an update on what the savings have been, because they were the driver of the contracts.
It is time to review the overall costs, not only the cost of providing the accommodation now, compared with before the contracts, but the cost that takes the prohibition on work into account. That has been touched on. The only reason why many of the families and individuals who are seeking asylum need to be housed under such arrangements at all is that they are prohibited from working. They fall into the destitute category because they arrive with little in the way of cash or other assets and are prohibited from working. It is therefore inevitable that large numbers within that group must then be accommodated.
Measures have been taken to improve the period within which decisions are made, but many decisions are still not made or concluded within the six months—many more beyond the 12 months—so, for a prolonged period, asylum seekers are prohibited from working and are inevitably dependent upon housing at public expense, which they could otherwise pay for if they were working. All the evidence suggests that at the end of the process, if people are granted refugee status, there is a strong likelihood that they will stay within the local authority where they have been temporarily housed— perhaps inevitably. Furthermore, because they have not been able to work for the period it took for the decision to be made, the likelihood is that the local authority will still have to house them, because they will not be able to go straight into work at the end of it.
I have a probing question for the Minister. Is it time to step back and ask what the overall cost of the dispersal policy is, factoring in the prohibition on work? Would it be better in most, if not all, cases to allow people to work after a given period, so that they can pay for their own accommodation? They would not need to be in a particular local authority to do so.
That supports my wider call: it is now time to review the dispersal policy. There are clearly ongoing problems that have not been resolved. I think that the contracts expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension, so there is a window of opportunity to review the situation before the contracts are renewed for either two years, or even longer in 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, I believe for the first time. I welcome you to the Chair and to your role.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on securing the debate, and on his probing questions and focus on the subject. He spoke about the impact on his community, given the pressure from the number of asylum seekers, and he has flagged some of the issues. Let me say at the outset that I hope that we will continue the discussion outside the Chamber, perhaps in meetings between Serco, my officials, him and his council about the pressures and the matters he has brought to the House’s attention this morning.
On the overall background, the UK has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those genuinely fleeing persecution. I confirm that the Government remain committed to providing an asylum system that protects and respects the fundamental rights of individuals who arrive on our shores seeking refuge from persecution. The Government also want to send a clear message to those who seek to exploit the system—a point that was clearly made by the hon. Gentleman.
For those asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, the Government provide access to support services, in accordance with our international obligations. The Government provide that support through the COMPASS contracts, which have been mentioned, with three contractors: Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Ready Homes. The contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board so-called initial accommodation while their means are assessed, and then with the dispersed accommodation throughout the UK.
The Home Office is working hard with its contractors to ensure that all the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is safe and secure, and that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, taking account of their vulnerability. We are also ensuring that the system is effective and efficient, and provides value for money for the taxpayer. Since the new approach came into operation in 2012, standards in asylum seeker accommodation have improved.
The specific point that the hon. Gentleman focused on was the policy that follows the period of initial accommodation: the dispersal of supported asylum seekers across a number of areas in the United Kingdom. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced the policy of national dispersal, which was designed to share the impact of asylum seekers across the whole of the UK. At the time, in how it was constructed, the policy was intended to ease the burden of numbers on London and the south-east.
Not all asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office. Many are accommodated by their friends or relatives throughout the UK, often in London and the south-east of England, which also has pressure on local services from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—I might comment briefly on that matter later. The legislation was introduced to relieve the pressures on the local authorities that had previously shouldered a significant proportion of the asylum seekers, given their proximity to the main ports of entry into the UK. The dispersal policy aims to ensure a spread among UK local authorities, and we work to a maximum agreed dispersal cluster ratio of one asylum seeker per 200 head of total population. We would not normally go beyond that ratio without the agreement of the relevant local authority.
Historically, approximately 100 local authorities were signed up to asylum dispersal. We have been proactively engaging with all areas that to date have not participated in asylum dispersal, with a view to negotiating voluntary agreements for them to do so. The number of participants now stands at 103, with approximately 20 more signed up. We are engaging with areas that to date have not participated. Since 2015, 21 new local authority areas have agreed to become dispersal areas, with another 28 areas in discussion with us and our housing providers.
Through regional strategic migration partnerships—which basically group together the local authorities within a particular region and are Home Office-funded forums—we work with the contractors, local government and other local agencies to plan the most appropriate dispersal of asylum seekers. The partnerships consider the impact on communities and local services so that adjustments can be made where appropriate. This is intended to ensure that community cohesion, social welfare and safety issues are properly considered. We judge strategic migration partnerships to be the best mechanism to achieve that focus. We are working in particular with the strategic migration partnership in the north-west, where there have been particular pressures, so that local authorities in the surrounding areas can play their part in assisting the partnership.
Asylum seekers are placed in initial accommodation while their claims for support are addressed. Initial accommodation is short term and, after successfully claiming for support, asylum seekers are housed in dispersed accommodation. In initial accommodation, which tends to be hostel or halls of residence-style accommodation, service users are put in touch with support services and healthcare and provided with meals. Across the UK, there are initial accommodation centres in Croydon, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Wakefield and Birmingham.
As has been indicated in a number of the contributions to the debate, and as I am sure hon. Members will recognise, global events have meant that the number of asylum seekers—many of them destitute and in need of our support—entering the UK has increased this year. That, and a change in the mix of the nationalities and characteristics of asylum seekers, means increased demand on the asylum accommodation system. As the hon. Member for Rochdale correctly said, the number of asylum seekers accommodated in Rochdale has increased in recent years. I pay tribute to the town for its participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme and the support it has provided to asylum seekers for many years.
We work closely with local authorities that raise concerns about dispersal to help to address those concerns. Indeed, my officials and I have met individual MPs to listen and respond to local concerns, and I extend an invitation to the hon. Member for Rochdale to meet us to pursue a number of the points that he has flagged. For example, we have listened to the concerns of the local authority and stakeholders in Prestwick and ceased the use of contingency accommodation there. In Middlesbrough, we have agreed with the Mayor to reduce the number of asylum seekers to the 1:200 dispersal ratio by the end of December, and the population there is already reducing. In Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff, we have listened to the concerns of local authorities and MPs and our providers are reducing, in a gradual and balanced way, their use of hotels as temporary accommodation.
I remain convinced that increasing participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme is the strongest long-term solution for avoiding the use of contingency accommodation such as hotels. The director general of UK Visas and Immigration has written to local authority chief executives to ask them to participate in dispersal, and I plan to write again to local authority leaders following the local council elections.
The hon. Gentleman made a point in his contribution about the powers in the 1999 Act, which have not been used to date. Our preference is to continue to work with individual local authorities through the strategic migration partnerships to get buy-in from those authorities on broader dispersal. We would face challenges if we were to try to create, effectively, a mandated national dispersal mechanism, which other hon. Members have highlighted their reservations about. Therefore, our focus remains on working with local authorities to establish how we can expand the number of participating authorities; and, as I have indicated, we are starting to see progress. There is clearly more to do, which is why I intend to take further action by writing out following the local council elections.
I do not want to be overly partisan, but my office’s analysis shows that Labour local authorities do take asylum seekers and Conservative local authorities do not. That is broadly the situation. Surely a Conservative Minister in a Conservative Government could apply some pressure on his local authorities and local representatives to get them to take some of the burden that Labour authorities carry.
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that my local authority is a dispersal area; equally, other Conservative authorities do take asylum seekers in dispersal. As I indicated, we seek to expand those numbers further and I will continue on that in the months ahead.
I want to respond to this point specifically: despite the increasing numbers, we continue to process claims promptly. Indeed, the inspection by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found that the Home Office had made significant improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of its management of asylum casework during 2014-15. It had met its aim of deciding all straightforward claims made on or after April 2014 within six months, while successfully clearing all straightforward claims lodged before 1 April 2014 by 31 March 2015. The inspection also found that non-straightforward cases were being monitored effectively and decided quickly once barriers were removed.
We continue to focus on driving further improvement and ensuring that cases are determined promptly. Of course there are some more complex cases, where we may have concerns over issues of previous criminality or perhaps even war crimes that individuals may be linked to in some way. It is therefore appropriate that we consider matters carefully and cautiously in those circumstances. However, I am clear about the need for an efficient and effective service. We have been driving that through change over recent years and we intend to retain a focus on that.
On the COMPASS contracts, the suppliers are contractually required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose accommodation to comply with the Housing Act 2004 and the decent homes standards. All Home Office contracts include performance standards that are defined in the contract and managed using key performance indicators. Any failure in delivering the critical service levels may result in deductions against submitted invoices in the form of service credits. The Home Office and the providers regularly inspect asylum seeker accommodation. All three contractors are currently meeting the key performance indicators for property standards. When any defects are found through the inspection regime, such defects are being rectified promptly and within contractual time limits.
I stress the change we have made in the inspection regime. We are listening more closely to service users—I think we had not previously listened and had that rightful feedback from them to a sufficient degree—and working with non-governmental organisations to pick up on issues where they arise, so that we are better able to target the inspection regime and address any concerns about the quality of accommodation that asylum seekers use. The Home Office regularly inspects properties in Rochdale and did so only last week. The inspections found that the accommodation was of a good standard and that the asylum seekers living there felt adequately supported.
To take the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the COMPASS contracts, as well as improving accommodation standards, remain on target to deliver £136.4 million of financial benefits during their lifetime compared with the cost of the previous arrangements. As I made clear at the recent, passionate Westminster Hall debate on 19 April on unaccompanied children, the Home Office takes its
“responsibility for the welfare of children seriously.”—[Official Report, 19 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 286WH.]
We have stringent and statutory policy safeguards in place regarding child welfare. Ensuring that we treat children with care and compassion is a priority.
Last year saw a 56% increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK, particularly in Kent. The Government are grateful to all those in Kent and to other local authorities meeting that challenge for the excellent way in which they have responded to those pressures and we are keen that there should be no repetition of the situation that occurred in Kent last summer. That is why I have announced that we will put in place a national transfer scheme this summer to ensure a fairer distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children across the UK. I am extremely grateful for the collaborative way in which the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have engaged with that work. I will be writing to all local authorities again after the local elections to provide further information about the scheme and the support mechanisms.
I am sure hon. Members will agree that the outpouring of support we have seen in response to the Syrian crisis has been incredible, from local authorities that have volunteered to take refugees as part of the Syrian resettlement programme, to offers of help from the general public, businesses and voluntary organisations. Less visible is the ongoing support in communities such as Rochdale and what they have been doing to provide for asylum seekers over a number of years. I pay tribute to those communities.
I have said before that I think the scheme to resettle Syrian families is very good, but I have a growing concern about a two-tier system. I know that there is much greater financial support for local authorities that house Syrian families than for those that house other asylum-seeking individuals. Does the Minister share my concern that there is a growing perception of a two-tier asylum-seeking system evolving?
It is important to remember that those who are arriving into the UK through the Syrian resettlement scheme are given refugee status on arrival. There is a distinction to be drawn between those granted refugee status and those seeking a refugee status that has not yet been established.
On the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, we need to ensure that we retain focus across the system, in respect of the asylum system and also resettlement programmes. We continue to do that. I work very closely with the Minister for Syrian refugees to ensure that we recognise the pressures that may build up in certain local authority areas from supporting asylum seekers, as well as pressures for those that are meeting responsibilities under the refugee scheme, including in relation to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. There are a number of different pathways and factors that need to be viewed in their totality. That is precisely what the Government are doing and will continue to do. I pay tribute to those communities that are taking action, supporting asylum seekers in their communities and playing their part. I am keen that we build on that support and join up between resettlement and asylum wherever possible, so that all communities across the UK are able to support unaccompanied children, asylum seekers and refugees.
I agree with a number of hon. Members that we need to continue to widen the dispersal system across the UK. That is what we are seeking to do, and we have had some important successes. That is the best way for the towns and cities of the UK to offer protection to those who genuinely need it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for raising this debate, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
I will be brief. I thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Hanson, and I thank the Minister for his contribution and some of the answers he has given. I have concerns about the dispersal system, which is why I called for this debate. I appreciate that the Government are beginning to move towards a wider dispersal strategy, but some speed would be appreciated.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered asylum seeker dispersal policy.