I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Twelfth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Session 2016-17, HC 637, and the Government Response, HC 551.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs asked for this debate because we believe this is an immensely important issue. Our country has an obligation under the 1951 refugee convention to provide shelter and support to those seeking protection and sanctuary from conflict and persecution. The Committee found serious failings in the provision, quality and management of asylum accommodation across the country. The Government took nine months to respond to our report. Everyone understands that there was an election in that period, but given the time it took the Government to respond, we had hoped for more considered and detailed responses to some of our recommendations. I was certainly disappointed by some of the responses we received.
This is a crucial time for Parliament to consider this issue, because the contracts for asylum accommodation across the country are open for tender—I understand that the closing date is in three days—and we do not want the failings that we have identified in the last few years in the previous contracts and system to be carried forward into the Government’s plans for the next 10 years, which is the period the new contracts are due to cover.
Let me start with some of the things we have welcomed, both in the report and in our other work. We particularly welcome the roll-out of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I welcome the work done by the former Minister with responsibility for refugees, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who set up that programme and worked intensively with local authorities, community organisations and charities across the country to ensure that it had extensive support. It has been heart-warming to hear positive responses from communities and organisations across the country about the way the scheme is working. We argue in our report that lessons should be learned from the scheme’s success for the wider support of asylum seekers and refugees.
Let me turn to some of the concerns we identified about that wider provision. Extensive delays in the processing of applications mean that an increasing number of people are being caught in asylum limbo and are unable to work or settle. Cases of people whose claims are not valid are still unresolved, which is unsatisfactory for them, for local communities and for the country. In the meantime, too many people are not in suitable accommodation. We were worried that in 30% of appeals the Government’s decision was successfully overturned. That suggests that in a high proportion of cases the Government simply do not get the decision right in the first place, yet they still challenge outcomes even after cases are appealed. That figure has now increased to 38%.
Since our report was published, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has raised real concerns about the quality of decision making and about staffing levels. Staff told the inspectorate that they felt pushed to the limit. Although the Government’s recruitment of additional caseworkers is welcome, there are still fewer than there were in 2014, and in a recent evidence session the inspector expressed concerns about recruitment and retention problems in the asylum casework system. Despite the number of new cases having fallen, in 10,552 cases people have been waiting more than six months for a decision. That represents 14,000 people and is the highest that figure has been since 2010. Some 6,952 people have been waiting more than a year for a decision—2,000 more than when we published our report. It appears that the delays in the system have in fact got worse, not better, since we raised our concerns back in February. I hope that the Minister is able to acknowledge the seriousness of those growing delays and set out what action he is taking to address them.
I raised with the Home Secretary the issue of pregnant women being categorised as “non-straightforward” just for being pregnant and, as a result, not being treated under the accelerated processes for getting decisions made as fast as possible. We heard from the inspectorate that some of those pregnant women were consequently trapped for longer in inappropriate asylum accommodation. I received a letter from the Home Secretary today, which I welcome. She says that she is looking further at this issue and that she has asked for those cases to be looked at to ensure that swift progress is made. I welcome that response, and I hope that she is able to make swift progress on those cases. I do not think any of us want pregnant women to be disadvantaged inadvertently as a result of the way their cases are addressed.
Let me move on to accommodation contracts and the procurement system. We raised a series of concerns about contract structure, oversight, funding and dispersal. I note that in the past two years there has been a small increase in the number of local authorities accepting asylum seekers. That is of course welcome, but we are still talking about just 121 out of 453 local authority areas. As I understand it, most of the increase was in the north-west, which already has the most asylum seekers.
I recognise the point that the Minister made in response to our report that some local authorities may be providing extensive support under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme or to unaccompanied child refugees. Nevertheless, I do not think that gets us around the point that asylum accommodation is still hugely unequally distributed across the country. The Government have not really recognised the seriousness of our point that concentrating asylum accommodation in a small number of the poorest local authorities is really challenging. That undermines consent for the whole system, and it is just unfair on communities—often the most deprived communities—that support is not distributed evenly across the country. All areas should contribute.
I welcome the Government’s announcement that there will be additional provision in the new contracts for funding for the south-east, which should not be exempt from doing its bit to provide asylum accommodation. We recognise that accommodation costs are different across the country, but we would like more to be done to ensure that accommodation is properly distributed.
We recommended that local authorities be given more say and more control over where asylum accommodation goes in their areas. We heard from local authorities that did not want to engage with the Government’s system because, once they signed up, they would lose all control over where accommodation was provided in their area. There is only a 72-hour window for local authorities to respond, which is just not long enough. Most local authorities know that putting accommodation in an area with no support services, or in a ward that has experienced challenging community problems, may not be appropriate, whereas there may be a much better location with much better services on the other side of the district. As long as local authorities feel that they are vulnerable and do not have a proper say, many of them will say, “We can’t take the risk of signing up to the Government’s scheme.” That is counterproductive, because we want as many local authorities as possible to sign up.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady and her Committee on this excellent report. She makes a powerful point on local authorities. Is it not even more powerful when we consider that local authorities are best placed to engage with the local community in order to provide support for those asylum seekers? There are many local communities, churches and other faith communities who will want to be beside and support those people, who, we should remember, are basically destitute. By not using local authorities in that way, we are preventing that extra community support from being given.
That is immensely important, and it shows the stark difference between the national contract-based asylum accommodation scheme and the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, in which local authorities have a central role; local communities and faith groups are involved in providing support and there is extensive planning for the kinds of support services needed. That community support is crucial. Too often in the asylum accommodation system, local communities feel they have had no say, and that asylum accommodation in their area has no links to either the community or local services. It feels distant and detached. That is when difficulties, tensions or misunderstandings can arise.
In the interests of community cohesion and of being able to draw on the very best traditions of our country and of those who want to provide support for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum—people in desperate need of help—we should give local authorities a much more central role in the process.
I thank the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee for giving way, and I commend the Committee on its report. Is there not another reason for greater local authority involvement, in that they will know better how to integrate the services for those seeking asylum—for example, by making sure that women fleeing sexual violence have appropriate access to social work and general practitioner services?
That is exactly right. A whole range of additional services might be needed, such as specialist support for those who have fled sexual violence, those who have been through family bereavement and separation, and those who need additional support for children or from education services. A whole range of different kinds of support might be needed, including different sorts of housing support. I was going to come on to this point later, but I will mention it now: there is also a need for proper support once refugee status is granted, to ensure that people can find a future in the local community, settle and get the support they need.
In response to that point, the Government have set up a handover pilot. I welcome that and would like to see the results of the pilot; that would be very welcome. As I understand it, the concern of some of the charities working with asylum seekers and refugees is that it is quite sporadic and it has not worked effectively in some places. I would be interested to know the Minister’s assessment of how that work is going, because if we can swiftly help people into work and help them to be embedded in their local community, that is extremely important. It is another good example of what has happened in the SVPRS and, again, something that should be provided more widely. I flag up the concern that the delays in the universal credit scheme, which have been widely discussed in other debates in this House, could make things worse for the settlement of refugees once they have successfully claimed asylum.
Returning to the point about commissioning contracts and providing accommodation, the Committee made a series of recommendations that the Government have not engaged with, including the recommendation that local authorities be given more say and control over where in their area asylum accommodation should go. Alongside that, we should be prepared to oblige local authorities to do their bit. If we give local authorities more flexibility and ability to shape the services, then we should also ensure that there is an obligation on them, so that they cannot just turn their backs and walk away without doing their bit for any of the difficult refugee and asylum schemes in place. Everybody has to do their bit.
We also recommended looking at devolving the commissioning of contracts, rather than having big, national contracts that end up being divorced from local communities, centrally managed and therefore not responsive to local circumstances. For example, we recommended handing commissioning over to the regional strategic migration partnerships that have played a central role in the SVPRS. Why not let them do the commissioning? Why not allow for more flexibility in local areas, so that in some areas the accommodation could be provided by local authorities or charities, rather than it all being done through a small number of national companies—particularly given the challenges we have had over the last period with the way those contracts have worked?
It is disappointing that, instead, the Government have stuck to basically the same contract model, rather than learning from an alternative scheme that is working or looking at alternative ways of doing this. Given the challenges and problems, I am also concerned at the idea of locking in those contracts for 10 years, seemingly with no review period built in during which we could change, adapt or get out of the contracts. We also argued for local authorities to be given a role in inspecting the contracts, because we identified that some of the problem—and this was the evidence we heard—was that the quality inspection regime is not working effectively enough. Giving local authorities that role, and the resources that must go with it, might make for more effective inspections.
I am sorry to intervene on the right hon. Lady again. She is talking about contracting; does she think it is an interesting idea to open it up to local authorities, perhaps working through strategic migration partnerships, so that they could compete? We might even see several different types of contract with several different types of provider, so we could learn lessons.
I do. Giving responsibility for commissioning to the strategic migration partnerships would give us the ability to look at the links between accommodation and broader services, and allow those partnerships to take decisions on a mix of different kinds of accommodation provision within a region. Those could include local authorities bidding to provide accommodation themselves, or working in partnership with other local authorities, charities, housing associations or different kinds of organisations. That allows for wide variety, and for different kinds of bids and proposals to come forward. That was our recommendation in the report.
The remainder of my remarks will be on perhaps the most troubling and distressing part of the evidence we took and of the conclusions we came to in our inquiry. This concerns the quality of the accommodation provided. In our report, we warned that some of the accommodation that we saw or took evidence on was just not fit for human habitation. Committee members visited accommodation, and we certainly saw some that was good quality, but we also saw some that really was not adequate.
In one initial accommodation that I went to, I talked to a women who had I think three very small children. She and her husband had to take it in turns to come down to the communal room to eat because they could not manage to get all the kids down the stairs. They had been put in an upstairs room that was not appropriate for them, and they basically had not taken the kids out of a small room in weeks. That was clearly not appropriate accommodation for that family, who had been through very difficult experiences.
Our report listed serious failings, such as infestations of bugs or cockroaches, unsafe accommodation and inappropriate sharing of accommodation. Our conclusions were that some of the accommodation is a disgrace, and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions. There are different bits of the Government’s response that I disagree with, and we will have disagreements about the policy way forward, but the bit of the Government’s response that troubled me most was in response to our conclusion about the serious inadequacy of some of the accommodation. It simply said:
“The Government does not agree with this conclusion”.
Had the Government said that they recognised that some of the accommodation falls below acceptable standards, and told us the action they were taking to resolve the problem, we would of course have pressed them on their progress, but we would have welcomed the commitment to action.
I am quite disturbed by what appears to be the Government’s failure to recognise that there is a serious problem with the quality of some of the accommodation. We have a responsibility to make sure that the accommodation that people are in is fit for human habitation, but the conditions that some people are stuck in are inhumane. I will give hon. Members an example that I received from the Red Cross since our report and the Government’s response came out:
“My furniture was very old. Some had blood on them. I couldn’t sleep on the bed; there was blood on the bed, like menstruation blood. They gave me new sheets but no duvet. I couldn’t use it. I used my own clothes/wrap as sheets until I got the first money as an asylum seeker and I used this money to get new sheets.”
It is really troubling that somebody is being put in accommodation with that kind of quality problem.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that any accommodation provided to asylum seekers should be from a registered social landlord? Is she aware of instances in my city of Glasgow in which landlord accreditation has been taken away from providers, but Serco has still used them to provide accommodation to asylum seekers?
I am not aware of the case the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I will certainly be troubled if the companies involved continue to use providers who have failed to meet basic standards. The quality of accommodation is immensely important, as is a swift response when facilities or services are inadequate. We need to recognise the importance of providing adequate standards of accommodation.
In another example, a mother and baby were forced to stay in the same accommodation, even though the child had been bitten by bed bugs. This is another example:
“I was not allowed to live in the same accommodation as my heavily pregnant wife and was put into a house more than 3 miles away from her when I first arrived. Despite repeatedly asking to be moved to a house together as the situation was affecting her health, we were not given our own house until the baby was 3 months old.”
Somebody else said:
“it eventually took 5 months for someone to come out and fix the cooker. The G4S officer said we should ‘just eat salad’ in the meantime.”
Those are examples received from the Red Cross and other refugee charities, and they are very troubling. While I recognise that there will always be a programme of work in order to raise standards, I urge the Minister to recognise that some of the accommodation that asylum seekers are being placed in is really not fit for habitation and needs urgent improvement. More action needs to be taken, because if we do not recognise the problems under the last contract, how can we be sure that the issues will be recognised in the new contracts and the new system, and make sure that the problems do not continue?
The Committee also made recommendations on making sure that asylum seekers know how to complain if there are problems and are not prevented from complaining about the quality of accommodation by the fear that it will affect their asylum case, and also on sharing rooms. Serco and Clearsprings do not allow the sharing of rooms, but G4S continues to do so. That is a serious problem. Will the Minister reassure us that, as part of any new contracts, that will not happen?
I will finish where I started. The Government have done some really good work in the last few years with the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I applaud the Government’s work in making sure that that quality support continues, and I hope they will be able to extend and continue not only that scheme for those who have fled the conflict in Syria, but a refugee resettlement scheme for people more widely. However, that good work is being undermined by the lack of quality, standards and safeguards, and the lack of an effective commissioning process around the wider asylum and refugee system.
I urge the Minister to respond in more detail to some of the Committee’s recommendations, and to set out what action the Home Office is taking in response to those recommendations, and how it is making sure that we do not lock in for the next 10 years the problems that have blighted some accommodation over the last few years. Some of the most vulnerable people in the world are dependent on us for accommodation and support—those who have fled torture, trafficking, rape, violence and persecution, and those who have lost their homes, families, friends and countries. We are already doing more for some groups; we can do better for those who really need our help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I appreciate your calling me so early in the debate. It is with great pleasure that I follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I congratulate her and her Committee on an excellent piece of work, which highlights a problem that should concern all of us, because in truth it affects all of us. We all, as taxpayers, pay for asylum accommodation, and we should all therefore, as taxpayers, be concerned about its quality.
The Home Affairs Committee has done the Government a great service in highlighting some of the problems with some of the accommodation. My right hon. Friend has been incredibly fair and patient in stating quite clearly that not all the accommodation is bad, and that some is of a different standard. The Committee has been thorough in its recommendations and I urge the Minister to revisit them, because they are very clear and some of them are worthy of again receiving proper scrutiny.
I speak as the Member for the constituency of Bristol West, where we have asylum seeker accommodation, but also as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees. Earlier this year, the APPG published a report, “Refugees Welcome?”, which is about refugee integration. I am grateful that the Minister read that report and met me to discuss some of its findings. I am grateful to him for giving that time, but I want to remind him of some of the findings relating to accommodation.
The Home Affairs Committee referred to the Government’s review of
“the 28–day grace period for people granted refugee status and the Department of Work and Pensions’ ability to manage applications for support from people transferring out of the asylum system.”
I discussed that with the Minister, and he was keen to address it, so I welcome the comment in the Government’s response to the report that the Home Office has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to establish a new process to address that. I will be grateful if the Minister us on how that process is progressing, particularly in relation to the issuing of national insurance numbers. That relates to accommodation, because refugees told us during our inquiry that they had difficulties if their 28-day move-on period, when they have to move out of their accommodation, was over before their national insurance numbers had arrived. Refugees spoke to me about having to try to hang around outside the accommodation they had previously lived at in order to wait for the postman to arrive, but not being able to take the post off them because that is not allowed. Those things were problems and continue to be, and they are related to accommodation and having to move out of it.
Our recommendation was that the 28-day move-on period should be extended. I understand why the Minister does not want to do that, but our counter-recommendation is therefore that, if we are going to stick to 28 days, that 28 days has to work. It has to mean that a national insurance number and a biometric residence permit are with that person in their asylum seeker accommodation on the day that they receive refugee status, otherwise we will create further problems for refugees down the line.
Does the hon. Lady agree that there will be significant problems owing to the roll out of universal credit, given the long waiting times involved in applying for that benefit?
I completely agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point for me, because universal credit is a great concern. Again, I am grateful to the Minister for having allowed me to discuss that with him. I understand that the Government are trying to push the idea that nobody should be out of pocket because they can get an advance, but an advance is a loan. Refugees, by definition, do not usually have other family members to call on who have other funds that they can draw down. They are going to struggle, particularly if they have the compounding problems of a long wait for the first proper payment to come in and a 28-day move-on period, which means they will have often left the accommodation from which they made the application before that has been sorted out. The 28-day period does not marry up with the wait for universal credit, so yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
My experience of some asylum seeker accommodation in my constituency—not all—and the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee has presented makes it hard for me to see why many refugees would feel welcome. The question in the title of our APPG’s report, “Refugees Welcome?”, would have to be answered: maybe not all the time. This is a fixable problem. I reiterate that, as taxpayers, we should be concerned when our money is paying for accommodation to protect people who have the legal right to apply for asylum in this country, but that accommodation is costing us a lot of money and is not fit for purpose. I urge the Government to revisit the Committee’s recommendations.
We have some fantastic organisations in Bristol West working with refugees, with some great volunteers and paid staff alike who are going the extra mile to help people to integrate and cope with often very difficult and unsatisfactory accommodation that sometimes just about meets the Home Office’s key performance indicators but really skirts up against the edges.
On visits that I made following the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and during the course of the APPG on refugees inquiry, I came across accommodation where there are serious problems. I contacted Clearsprings, which is the provider in my area, to ask if I could make an announced visit. I wanted to give the provider a chance to show me its best stuff. The Clearsprings manager who took me round some of the accommodation—some of which I had seen before—did, to be fair, show me a mixture. Some of it was adequate—I would not call it great, but it was adequate—but some of it was not. I was concerned that action was taken only when an MP intervened and said to the Clearsprings manager, “This draught here, this rotten window frame, this problem here, which has clearly been a problem for the tenant for some time, needs to be fixed.” What about all the people in other accommodation—accommodation that we are paying for—that is substandard, unhealthy and unlikely to make refugees feel welcome or in any way integrated, and gives very bad value for money? An MP cannot intervene every step of the way. I am really concerned about that.
I saw some accommodation in which damp or heating were really problematic. In one home where a family was living, the mum had a very serious long-term health condition. Having a damp, underheated or difficult-to-heat home was making life miserable for her and severely impeding her chances of a safe recovery from that serious illness. Her husband was terribly upset by the fact that he felt he was failing to care for his wife at a time of serious illness. To be frank, the house was unheatable due to the fact that it had not been maintained.
I believe that home was unsuitable for long-term use, but the family had been there for a long time because their case had been deemed complex—or non-straightforward, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said. That particularly worried me because children were living in some of the accommodation that was supposed to be temporary. I applaud the Home Office’s determination to stick to the six-month turnaround time, but once we have gone beyond that because a case is complex, people are still living in accommodation that is supposed to be temporary and is anyway substandard. There are real questions as to what we are doing to people who have fled war and conflict and to whom we have a legal obligation.
I apologise that I was not here for the speech by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I am trying to juggle my time with another debate in the main Chamber at the moment.
When the Home Affairs Committee looked into this and went to inspect some of the properties, we too noticed with some obvious deficiencies. We were assured that the providers have regular inspection programmes that will reveal all those things, which clearly they do not. More needs to be done there, and I am sure the right hon. Lady mentioned that. Also, some tenants are afraid to report problems because they fear they will be penalised for doing so, so they suffer in silence.
My right hon. Friend did refer to those points, but I would like to reiterate them. That subject particularly worries me, because the Government’s response to the Home Affairs Committee’s recommendation about property inspections was:
“The Home Office does not agree that property inspection should be handed over to local authorities as it would reduce the accountability of the Home Office and the ability to hold Providers to account.”
That would be fine if it was happening, but the evidence that the Committee found, and certainly my subjective and selective experience, was that that is not happening consistently. It may well be happening some of the time—I understand from the Committee’s report that there was sometimes evidence of good inspection, or at least good accommodation. However, given that the Committee and I were able to find accommodation that would not pass an inspection, even though I had asked to see the accommodation and therefore was expecting to see Clearsprings’ best offering, I question the Home Office’s confidence that it is able to hold providers to account. Will the Minister tell us what evidence there is that the Home Office is satisfactorily holding providers to their key performance indicators?
I also came across instances where there were clear problems with damp. When I raised that with the Clearsprings manager, he said that it was due to tenants hanging their clothes to dry on radiators. I asked where they were supposed to dry their clothes; the homes were very difficult to heat anyway, and there was no outdoor space or launderette nearby. I said, “They’re a family with children. They’ve got to dry their clothes somewhere. What’s your solution? You can’t tell them not to dry their clothes, particularly in winter.”
The complexity of the asylum process is compounding these problems, and the fact that an increasing number of cases are being deemed complex adds to the delay. I would like the Minister to address some of the problems with deeming cases complex. In my experience as an MP, the asylum seekers I am supporting through this process ask, “Why is my case deemed complex?” and it is often impossible to work out why. One wonders whether the decision-making process is taking so long that it is easier to deem a case complex than to get it sorted. I urge the Minister to look at what is going on in the nether regions of the process, because it is not good for any of us—the Government, MPs and especially asylum seekers—to have endless delays built into the process, and it is certainly not good for asylum seekers’ experience with accommodation.
As I said, the 28-day move-on period pushes asylum seekers into serious difficulties. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned potential problems with universal credit. I welcome the fact that the Minister has mentioned reviewing that, but I would like him also to commit to a few specific things. Will he, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said, review the process of asylum for pregnant women in particular? It is an indictment of all of us that we are keeping pregnant women in frankly unsanitary or unsafe conditions. That is not the country we want to be.
This is a time when we should be thinking seriously about what sort of messages we want to give out to the rest of the world about who we are and who we see ourselves as. I am proud to be British. I am proud that we have a tradition of welcoming asylum seekers and refugees, and I want to carry on being proud. At the moment, some of the evidence I see from my work as a Member of Parliament gives me cause to feel ashamed. I am proud, like my right hon. Friend, that we have the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme to draw on. I urge the Minister to address the fact that if we brought the system up to meet the standards of that scheme, we would be doing everybody a favour.
I would like the Minister also to think about the focus on quality and remember that we, as taxpayers, are paying for substandard accommodation. I know I have made that point several times, and it may seem that I am labouring it, but I do so because this should be everybody’s problem. All too often, asylum seeker accommodation or problems affecting refugees are seen as a niche, minority issue. Actually, this should be an issue for all of us, because we are taxpayers and because this says an enormous amount about who we are and who we want to be seen as in the mid-21st century.
Order. I remind Members that I intend to call the first of the Opposition spokespeople at 2.30 pm at the latest. I call Chris Stephens.
Thank you very much, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and all Committee members for their excellent report. I want to make a number of points, but first I pay particular tribute to some of the local organisations assisting asylum seekers: the Govan Community Project, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and, indeed, the Glasgow SW food bank, which is assisting asylum seekers within the city of Glasgow.
Glasgow was one of the first local authorities to say to the Home Office that it would accept asylum seekers. At that time, the local authority managed those services. I think that we should consider local authorities going back to managing the services. Local authorities knew how to integrate the services; they knew how to integrate social work and the healthcare system, local GP services and the rest. I certainly think that the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers was at its best when the responsibility rested with local authorities.
The work was taken over by Serco, which for a time subcontracted the work to Orchard and Shipman. I have had to be involved in cases in which polythene bags were being used as windows. Constituents were in properties where there was blood on the walls and where wires were clearly not complying with health and safety and were sticking out. We have had instances of women who are making claims, having fled sexual violence, being placed in tenement buildings where the other five properties are inhabited by five single men. We have had instances of shared accommodation in which there has been a clear clash of cultures, which has been very unhelpful, and instances of people being placed in accommodation and then provided with a card whereby they can shop only at Asda, even though the nearest Asda has in some cases been 4 miles away. Those asylum seekers have had to walk to get access to food and so on. Recently, I had a constituency case in which it was clear that the accommodation was unsuitable. There were no carpets, there was inadequate heating, and inadequate bedding was provided.
I want to make a number of points on the report and some of the themes that I touched on in my interventions. Who is providing this accommodation? It is not housing associations, although some housing associations in Glasgow are providing accommodation. It is not the local authority. It is mainly private sector landlords. I would probably go further and say rogue private sector landlords, because recently Glasgow City Council took the decision that when it was awarding landlord accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, those decisions would be taken in front of a panel of elected councillors, and we have found that they have removed the accreditation of landlords, some of whom have been providing housing to asylum seekers.
I want a real commitment today from the Minister that if private sector landlords lose their accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act, those landlords will then be removed as providers of asylum seeker services. If they are deemed unsuitable to provide services to anyone as landlords, that should include asylum seekers. There should be no opt-out in relation to that.
There are devolved Administrations who have different housing standards. I would argue that the Scottish housing standard is a lot better than the decent homes standard, which has been referred to, in the asylum seeker contract, so will there be a commitment to meet the Scottish quality housing standard? As you will know, Mr Hanson, representing a constituency in Wales, the Welsh Assembly will have different regulations for housing. I therefore hope that the Minister will commit today to looking at the housing regulations and laws across the UK and under devolved Administrations.
Another bugbear of mine is that when I, as a Member of Parliament, ask a question of any provider of services, I am told, “I can’t provide you with that information under data protection.” It pains me to say that Serco did that to my office recently when I raised the complaint about housing to which I have referred. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 22 November, but have not yet had a response. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully, because I want to know specifically—I also want a guarantee in this regard—why the Home Office is supporting Serco’s view that MPs’ offices need the permission of the person making the complaint.
Data protection law is clear when it comes to Members of Parliament. We are not required to obtain that, as I hope the Minister will confirm, because we all as Members of Parliament represent every single constituent, no matter where they come from or how they voted. We are here to represent everyone who lives in our constituency, and I will always do that to the best of my ability. It pains me to see Serco trying to frustrate that process. I will continue to represent constituents who are here seeking asylum from other parts of the world. I regard it as an honour to do so.
I want to make a couple of comments about the announcements about the new contract before I conclude. Will the Minister tell us how many welfare officers there will be? There is now a commitment to fund additional welfare officers. It would be useful if we could get a figure for that. I say that as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we have asked Atos and Capita how many qualified doctors there are in those services. It was incredible to find out that there were two qualified doctors in Atos and two in Capita. That perhaps says a lot about our assessment system. It would be useful if we could get a number. It would also be useful if we could get a number for the welfare officers who will be placed in Glasgow, because there is a real issue there with some of the providers. In particular, when Orchard and Shipman had the contract, it was using the police to help to evict asylum seekers. That, I would suggest, was inappropriate, given that a man in uniform means something different to someone who has just arrived in the country and is fleeing persecution from what it means to the rest of us.
I welcome the fact that there will be further dispersal. I have continued to raise that issue in various debates in relation to asylum seeker support services. I hope that the Minister can confirm that he will ensure that funding for local authorities is inadequate. Can he also respond to the letter that has appeared in the press over the past couple of days from 35 organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers? Can the Minister make a commitment that the contract will be independently reviewed within three years of its operation, that there will be independent oversight and accountability to local authorities and that services will be fairly and fully financially resourced across the UK?
It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Again, I welcome the report. I will start my brief remarks by talking about the Government’s overall approach to asylum seekers and refugees. I want to ask the Minister whether he will say on the record that it is a different approach, a different philosophy, from that for dealing with illegal immigrants. The Government have developed what they call the “hostile environment” approach to illegal immigrants. We can debate the wrongs and rights and the shape of that, but the hostile environment policy would clearly be wrong if applied to asylum seekers and refugees. Our country should be adopting an approach of welcome and caring. I invite the Minister to say that that is the Government’s policy and approach. I am sure it is, but it would be very helpful to have it on the record that the approach is very different from the hostile environment approach seen elsewhere in the immigration system.
That is important as we approach the issues raised by this excellent report. There has been some discussion about how we organise asylum accommodation in the future. The report goes very much in the right direction, away from a centralised, private contracting approach to a different model. In many ways, the report could have gone even further, but its stress on involving local authorities is absolutely right, and the idea of strategic migration partnerships at the heart of the system is vital. Those partnerships are beginning to bear fruit. They were a good policy innovation, but they need to be developed further, because they will solve many of the Government’s problems, as well as making the experience of asylum seekers and refugees far more acceptable and improving quality.
I think there is a huge appetite in local authorities and local communities to do more and be involved, but at the moment they are excluded. That is not sensible policy, is it? If there are people out there who want to get involved and play an active, positive role, we should try to facilitate that. The current contracting model militates against that—it excludes. I do not think it increases accountability, far from it, it is the reverse. Accountability is not direct through the Home Office, but to the people and the communities. If they are more involved it will be a much better system.
We all know that civil servants in Whitehall like to have one organisation to deal with. They do not like lots of organisations, as that is all too time-consuming and complicated. I am sorry, but they are going to have to get used to dealing with more than one organisation. Given that we have these 12 strategic migration partnerships, at least they have a model that means they do not have to deal with every single local authority in the country.
I want to stress the point about involving people in civic society. I recently visited Lancaster where I met a wonderful lady called Mo Kelly from the local Quaker movement. She was looking at how refugees were welcomed in her city. She found that there was no real provision of accommodation or services, because the local authority had not thought that it should volunteer. Given that the Government are seeking more local authorities to step up to the plate, her experience, and what she did with others, is quite telling. They went out and petitioned in the streets. They asked the people of Lancaster, “Would you like to see Lancaster as a city, and our overall community, welcome asylum seekers and refugees from Syria and elsewhere?” Although, of course, a few people did not want to sign the petition—you will not be surprised by that, Mr Hanson—the vast majority of people did. The people in Lancaster—I do not represent it—said “Yes, the local authority and our community should be moving forward and offering to the Government that we should be part of it.” That is the point I am trying to make: if we give that opportunity to people out there, they will be far more welcoming than, say, the Daily Mail.
There is a big point about how we change the nature of the discussion, the debate, about foreigners in our country. I am really worried, not just because of Brexit, but because of other things we see, that we are seen as an uncaring, unfriendly and unwelcoming country, which is completely against British traditions. If we reorganise many aspects of policy, and this is a good one to start with, we can begin to change that.
That brings me to my final two points. I know this point is not directly within the remit of this report, but it links to it, and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) mentioned it. The point is the right of these particular asylum seekers awaiting decisions to be able to engage in work and voluntary work in the community. My experience of asylum seekers, and I deal with quite a lot in my surgery, is that they want to be involved, to give and to contribute, and when they are stopped from doing that, they are frustrated. Guess what? It does not help their health, their relationship with other people in the community, or the taxpayer—it does not help anybody. Why do we put barriers in the way, particularly of this group? People say different things about illegal immigrants or whatever, but we should surely be allowing this group to engage in activity, whether it is paid work or voluntary.
I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman. In my constituency, asylum seekers have approached me who have waited years for a decision. They are qualified in health and I am sure they could make a contribution to our national health service by working. That would not only help their mental health, but help them to be part of that community. At the moment they feel that people in other areas of the community who are also poor look at them as if they are getting something special, but they are not. Does he agree that the right to work should be looked at as a matter of urgency?
I do. I can give an example from my own constituency from a few years ago of a gentleman from Kosovo who, with his wife, had suffered terrible trauma in that country during the troubles. It took me three years to get him the right to work. When he got it he went off very happy. He came back the next week in tears, because he had applied to work as a bus driver and the bus company wanted him to be there for 12 months to justify the training. I had to ring up the bus company and say, “I will personally guarantee your training costs, just give him a job!” He got a job. He was one of their best bus drivers; he took all the overtime, and helped old ladies on and off with their shopping. He then set up a business and now employs other people. He pays more tax than I do. His wife, having had huge mental health problems, is now working in our NHS. If we engage with people as human beings—guess what—they want to give back and act as human beings, and be part of our society. We have to do everything to enable human beings to be human.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point, particularly about mental health. Does he agree with me that one thing that asylum accommodation needs to do better is ensure that people who have come from traumatic experiences and are possibly further traumatised by the conditions in which they find themselves have access to good quality, appropriate mental health support?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have been talking about mental health for all people in this country, but the people who have been traumatised and tortured, escaping violence and persecution, suffer the most.
I will end on one further point, which is not about asylum seekers, but about failed asylum seekers, specifically those failed asylum seekers whom the Home Office rightly does not want to send back to their country, because their country is benighted. It is a very odd class of people, but they exist in quite large numbers. I had a lot of cases of people from Zimbabwe in this situation in years gone past. They did not meet the Home Office tests as an asylum seeker, but we were not sending them back, because of our concerns about what Mugabe and ZANU-PF would do to them. Those people were in limbo. They had no support, no right to work, but they existed as human beings. We need to think about that group of people, because they are the most destitute and vulnerable people living in our country today. I do not know whether they can be included in a new approach to asylum accommodation, but I think they should be considered as the Government review this area. I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and her Committee for this report, and I hope the Government respond positively to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hanson; you have evidently had a busy week. I welcome the opportunity to debate the Home Affairs Committee report, “Asylum accommodation”. I was pleased to have been involved in that inquiry. I thank my colleagues and the Committee Chair for all their work on that project, and for securing this debate.
In this debate I speak as the Scottish National party spokesperson, rather than as a member of the Committee; happily, from both perspectives, I fully endorse the Committee’s report and recommendations. Indeed, I pretty much endorse everything that every right hon. and hon. Member has said. Their critiques of the system have been knowledgeable, and there is absolutely no point in me repeating those powerful and damning criticisms.
Instead, let me address what needs to be done to resolve the problems that have been highlighted. Implementing the recommendations in our report would obviously be a significant start, but ultimately we need a radical rethink of how we approach asylum accommodation to address two overarching concerns.
First and foremost, we need to recognise that we have a system that demands that accommodation fit the budget, rather than ensuring that accommodation fits the asylum seeker. Secondly, the system drastically fails to address much more than provision of a roof and four walls—and even that, as we have heard, is often not up to scratch. There is so little in the system that takes into account broader issues of community cohesion, integration, or health and welfare concerns. In some instances, those other concerns are neglected absolutely; in others, local authorities and health boards have to pick up the pieces, and indeed the tab. “Savings”, as they are called under the COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts, are almost certainly just part of a cost-shunting exercise.
As other right hon. and hon. Members have said, if the Minister really wants to make savings, he could consider letting those asylum seekers who have been waiting more than three months for a decision take up employment, pay for their own accommodation and pay tax. That would be good for asylum seekers, the communities in which they live, and the taxpayer.
As right hon. and hon. Members have suggested, there is a strong case for providing local authorities, perhaps in combination with other local service providers, with overarching responsibility and, crucially, proper funding for providing asylum accommodation in their locality. They are best placed to know in which areas accommodation would be appropriate, to link it with other necessary services, and to ensure accountability for standards. Of course, that would include the continued use of private accommodation. For all I know, it could continue to include the use of private contractors to assist in sourcing accommodation. Whereas private contractors now call the tune, that would place local authorities in control, but funding would have to match the cost of appropriate asylum accommodation, rather than accommodation matching a cut-price budget.
Glasgow City Council has a long track record of housing asylum seekers, under both the previous Labour administration and the new Scottish National party city government, which I am delighted to learn is determined to continue that tradition. In fact, that new SNP administration has intimated an interest in bidding for the new asylum accommodation contract in Scotland, but as right hon. and hon. Members have said, the odds are stacked against it. Most obviously, the contracts are divided up into huge chunks—this one is Scotland-wide—making it far from easy for a local authority, or even a combination of local authorities, to bid. A key concern is that the funding involved will not allow local authorities to deliver to the standards that they seek.
In fact, the new proposals seem so little different from the current contracts that they are more like COMPASS 1.1 than COMPASS mark 2. The system is set up in such a way that the current providers are absolutely odds-on favourites to win. It would be wise to pause and reflect on who we are talking about here, because along with the Home Office, those providers have to share the responsibility for the mess of the current contracts. One of them is also responsible for the scandal in the Medway secure training centre and the shocking scenes recorded at Brook House detention centre. Another provider was previously banned from bidding for Government contracts after involvement in an overcharging scandal. Will the Minister therefore meet senior representatives of Glasgow City Council when he is next in Scotland—if I understand correctly, that will be very soon—to discuss how such a public sector bid can be facilitated, so that we can at least ensure a level playing field?
I want to address what I understand to be the announcement of new “move on” support to be provided to local authorities in 20 dispersal areas in England. Don’t get me wrong: any sort of support for local authorities that are taking a disproportionate share of asylum seekers is absolutely positive and very welcome, but a number of concerns have arisen. This comes just four days before the deadline for intimating interest in the contracts. For a start, that suggests that the Home Office has not for a moment contemplated that local authorities might want to bid for the new contracts. Otherwise, why would such a material consideration not have been made public many months ago?
Furthermore—perhaps the Minister can clarify this—I understand that most of the funding comes from an underspend at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that it is essentially one year of funding, with local authorities expected to fund year two. As this is an England-only scheme, it will not be open to significant asylum dispersal areas such as Glasgow, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Belfast. Cumulatively, those five councils alone account for more than 6,000 asylum seekers.
Will the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations about that issue, and whether there will be Barnett consequentials? I assume that there must be, because if there are not, it signifies that the Home Office does not see this as really being about the reserved issue of asylum. Will he also confirm whether the money comes with any strings attached, such as obligations to share information with the Home Office? Although I welcome the additional funding, it does not yet seem to represent a joined-up, holistic approach to the challenge that local authorities face in housing asylum seekers.
I am a realistic person; I know that the Home Office has a lot on its plate, and is struggling to cope with what it does at the moment, never mind the prospect of Brexit, so let me focus finally on two changes that I hope it will consider, even in these difficult circumstances. First, as other hon. Members said, it would be totally unacceptable to sign up to 10-year contracts that bind our hands even if the mess continues, so there must be some sort of review or break clause after three or five years. Secondly, local authorities must be given genuine power, and resources to play a far more significant role in how asylum seekers are housed. Those two small but significant asks are crucial for asylum seekers, local authorities and their communities, and I very much hope that the Government will listen.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Our asylum accommodation system is not fit for purpose. Those who come to the UK for protection are housed in appalling and at times unsafe conditions.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on securing the debate. She does an excellent job as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. Today, she has clearly and forensically exposed the Government’s failures to implement the Committee’s recommendations on asylum accommodation, and I, too, agree with most of the contributions we have heard from hon. Members.
I will take a slightly wider view this afternoon. The issue of asylum accommodation exposes three underlying issues in the Home Office that run through everything it does: first, the inability to deal with its workload and process cases efficiently and fairly; secondly, the lack of transparency and accountability; and thirdly, the pursuit of cost savings above what is best for communities. There is an urgent need to change our asylum accommodation system. We have that opportunity, as the current contracts are coming to an end, but so far the Home Office has not been listening. Now is their chance.
The Committee highlighted in its report that demand on the asylum system has increased and that the Home Office has not been able to keep up. The backlog is significant. The chief inspector of borders and immigration said of his recent report:
“Given the life-changing nature of asylum decisions, the Home Office’s performance needs to improve.”
When the Home Office takes too long to decide a claim, real people suffer. When it makes inaccurate decisions, people suffer.
Research by Refugee Action found that on average, people spend 37 days in initial accommodation, waiting for their claim to be assessed, despite the fact that the Government have recognised that such accommodation is not suitable for long-term stays. The temporary nature of initial accommodation prevents people from registering with GPs, placing their children in school or appointing a legal representative to progress their asylum claim. Will the Minister regularly publish data on the length of time people spend in initial accommodation? Do the Government even collect that data?
I am deeply concerned about the extent to which the Home Office evades transparency and accountability. Contracts to provide asylum accommodation have been granted to private companies and look like they will be again. As complex services are outsourced, they evade scrutiny. The Home Affairs Committee report found that the
“current compliance regime is not fit for purpose.”
Will the Minister assure us today that he will provide an independent oversight and accountability role for local authorities, as the Committee recommended?
Asylum accommodation deals with some very vulnerable people. The Committee’s report highlighted deeply concerning reports of unannounced visits. One person came home to find a housing officer going through their phone. The report found victims of trafficking being re-traumatised by officers entering their property with keys, without waiting to be let in, as well as threats of repercussions if people complained, and rude and intimidating behaviour.
I seriously question why the Home Office has granted contracts to companies that have very dubious records in other contracts they hold. Only recently, staff of the security firm G4S were found to be abusing detainees at Brook House. The conduct of the staff was disgraceful, but so was the lack of Home Office oversight. What assurance will the Minister give that companies with such terrible records will not continue to be granted asylum accommodation contracts? Will he confirm that when we find appalling practice, we can terminate the contract? Will the Minister agree that councils are much better placed to manage the service? They already manage integration and other public services that asylum seekers would be accessing.
The new contracts are being advertised for 10 years, with no break clause. From a purely practical point of view, that is wrong. Asylum is a volatile and unpredictable area. We need proper accountability and the ability to change contracts that are not working. Will the Minister commit to a review of the new contracts within three years of operation to check whether they are performing well, need reform, or need to be halted?
The Home Office’s aim was to save £140 million through the COMPASS contracts. It seems unlikely that they will achieve those savings. The dispersal system has not worked. Instead, asylum seekers are clustering in some of the most deprived areas of the country, which are already at the sharp end of cuts to local government and are now being asked to absorb the significant extra costs associated with housing and integrating high numbers of asylum seekers and refugees.
The report highlights some success stories. The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme has involved local authorities in designing the process to offer holistic support to refugees and facilitated integration. Will the Minister re-examine the dispersal policy and roll out the resettlement scheme’s approach to all asylum seekers in the UK? Does he agree that privatising that service provided this Government with yet another reason to cut funds from already stretched council budgets? Councils are not being given the opportunity to use such funding to invest in the local area for the benefit of all; instead, it is being used to provide substandard housing to make a profit.
Standards in asylum accommodation are shocking. Nobody should live in a vermin-infested house, or in fear of officers who could arrive at any time. The Home Office’s approach to the issue highlights underlying trends: an inability to deal with its caseload, a lack of transparency and accountability and the pursuit of cost savings above what is best for communities. I encourage the Minister to re-examine that approach and accept the Committee’s recommendations.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
Many specific points have been made and questions raised during the course of this debate. I will do my best to cover them, but I will also make a point of going back through the debate, and if there are any points that I do not cover in the next few minutes, I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee to cover them. Although we have quite a lot of time, I want to leave time for the right hon. Lady to respond.
Before responding more generally, I will say that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) seems to have a better grasp of my diary than I do. I do not doubt that I will be in Scotland shortly. I am not sure whether I will be in Glasgow, but I am happy to meet or talk in Glasgow or in London, whichever works.
Many speakers this afternoon have outlined the ethos and the moral position. The Government agree on the overarching principle of how we look after, support, work with and integrate people who gain asylum here. Although we might disagree sometimes on the details, I would like to think that we agree across the House on the principle.
I urge slightly more caution in the comments made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). It is dangerous and wholly inappropriate in a debate such as this to confuse asylum with detention for returning people. They are different things, and bringing them together in the way that the Opposition spokesman did is wrong and does a disservice to the position that we take as a country. We try to be clear about how we want to deal with asylum seekers, and I will come to that.
The opening and closing remarks made by the hon. Gentleman on the state of accommodation in asylum were also somewhat misleading. Hon. Members from his own party have said that much of the accommodation is very good. I will come to that point. I do not deny that any property that is not up to the right standard, whether it is social housing or accommodation for asylum seekers, is not acceptable. However, to cast it in the way that he did is simply wrong. Having visited Barry House recently, I disagree with him categorically.
Similarly, I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to make about what I always refer to as the compliant environment. Again, it is not helpful to have that in the same conversation, because it does not apply to someone who is gaining asylum. He is right about that. Somebody who is gaining asylum will hopefully play a hugely important part not just in our economy, but in our communities and our society. Much as he described, when I have travelled around the country meeting people who have been resettled, whether they are refugees or people who have gained asylum, I have seen that they play an important part in their local community and are valued by the community. He made a good point about that. I am happy to confirm that the compliant environment is a different thing. It is about people who are here illegally, which is different. Personally, I try to keep them in different conversations, because asylum is different from being here illegally.
To ensure that things are clear, I am not saying that all accommodation is poor.
That is what you said.
Well, we can check that again. Some of it is appalling. The key point on which I wanted clarification is whether the Minister, in saying asylum and detention are being mixed up, is saying that asylum seekers are never detained.
I am saying that confusing the completely unacceptable and abhorrent scenes that we saw in the “Panorama” programme on Brook House with somewhere like Barry House and the work done by organisations around the country on asylum accommodation is simply wrong. It is a mistake to go that way. It gives the wrong impression and confuses two very different things.
Ultimately, the United Kingdom has a proud history of providing an asylum system that should look to protect and respect the fundamental rights of individuals seeking refuge from persecution. I have always been clear that I personally and we as a Government are committed to continuing to ensure that destitute asylum seekers are accommodated in safe, secure and suitable accommodation. They should be treated with dignity while their claims are considered.
Since the current system for asylum accommodation contracts began in 2012, there have been changes. It is important to be aware that the contracts for the provision of housing for asylum seekers demand high standards of accommodation—in many areas, higher than in the social housing sector. I should also be clear that a third of all properties are inspected every year—more than in social housing—and where it is required, appropriate and requested, that is done in conjunction with local authorities, to involve them in the process. It is a requirement that every property be inspected every month by the accommodation provider. We encourage service users to report defects to their provider as they arise.
The contracts also contain strict time limits within which repairs must be made, and we in the Home Office have an inspection monitoring regime to ensure that those time scales are met. The vast majority of accommodation provided has been maintained at a good standard, but as with all housing, property defects and issues can and do occur. Where they do, our providers are required to rectify them. If any hon. Members have examples of where that has not been done, I want to know about them so that we can chase them through the system.
Does the Minister understand that despite this apparently significant sanctions regime, the fact that so many problems still seem to arise repeatedly and routinely across the country has utterly undermined faith in the inspection regime? Is that not all the more reason to hand the inspection role to an independent organisation or to local authorities?
I was just going to say that since the Committee published its report almost a year ago and started its inquiry two years ago, a number of improvements have been made to the contracts and services provided. We must be cautious about accepting some of the things that we read and the stories that we hear. That is why, if somebody raises an issue, I always want to look into it to get the detail. For example, if there is a complaint about accommodation, I will want to chase it further, and I encourage Members to give me details.
We need to be cautious about some of the examples. An hon. Member mentioned a case involving blood on the walls. Members should be aware that we have investigated that allegation, which has been repeated a few times. When questioned about it, the service user who was living there confirmed that the marks on the wall turned out to be not blood at all, but spilt fruit juice. We need to ensure that we are clear that the issues are issues; if they are, we should deal with them.
My right hon. Friend and predecessor informed Parliament last year of a number of changes made to the contracts already in place, including the provision of additional funding to increase the number of housing officers. Members have asked about asylum case working and welfare. We are increasing the number of asylum caseworkers. In particular, we are focusing on non-straightforward cases to reduce the number of people awaiting a decision. The Chair of the Committee referred to the letter that she received from the Home Secretary outlining the work that we will be doing and delivering on, particularly relating to pregnant women. As the letter outlines, there are some complications, but that highlights why we should not have a blanket approach; we should look at every person’s individual needs. We are looking at changes such as additional funding for increasing the number of housing officers, providing more funding to allow providers to procure properties for the increased number of service users, and exploring different commercial models to encourage providers to procure additional accommodation. Those changes build on feedback from stakeholders, including people who provided the evidence found in the Committee’s excellent report.
As well as those contractual changes, the Home Office has continued to inspect properties to ensure that the accommodation is of the right standard. Interaction with service users has increased by asking questions about their treatment and by ensuring that they are aware of their rights and of how to raise any concerns that they might have. We will continue to meet non-governmental organisations to discuss housing issues formally at an advisory board that we run, and informally by providing avenues for them to raise issues with senior officials.
Can the Minister assure us that the providers of housing services to asylum seekers are accredited properly and are registered social landlords? Will the contractor or the Home Office keep a register of social landlords, so that if anyone loses their accreditation, they will no longer be allowed to provide housing services to asylum seekers?
I am happy to liaise with the hon. Gentleman further on that, but I encourage him to look at the changes that we made in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which I am closely aware of after taking it through Parliament. We made a lot of changes in terms of requirements for housing providers, including the private rented sector. It is worth him having a look at that because it partly covers what he outlined, but I will take his points on board.
That links to the hon. Gentleman’s point about welfare officers. It is worth noting that in the contract extension, we agreed to put in an additional £1 million to support additional welfare officers.
I recognise that there will be issues with asylum accommodation at times as defects arise. With over 40,000 people accommodated by the Home Office, it is important that we deal with issues where we find them. I believe that the standards required by the contract, the inspection regime and the avenues through which people can raise issues and concerns, should they have them, mean that things can be resolved at an early opportunity. As I said, however, I encourage all hon. Members to contact me about any specific allegations, so that we can follow them up.
Since autumn 2016, we have undertaken work to design and develop a new model for asylum accommodation and support for after current contracts expire. We have undertaken extensive engagement with local government, non-governmental organisations and potential suppliers in a range of sectors to understand their experience of the current arrangements and their aspirations for the future.
Hon. Members. have touched on the length of the new contracts. We must find a balance between ensuring that the contract is robust, reliable and delivers the services that we want, and ensuring that it is long enough for organisations to make the investments that we want to see, which are backed up by a good business case and by confidence about their future business model.
Given that those companies were all willing to sign up to a five-year contract plus a two-year extension, surely that should be the most that we consider? There is no need to sign us up to a 10-year contract this time round.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that there is a difference between the business model and the kind of investment that people make on a longer contract compared with a shorter contract. That does not change my point about wanting to get the balance right to ensure that we have a contract length that encourages and requires organisations to make good, solid investments.
With those contracts, we will make a number of improvements as a direct result of stakeholder feedback, which I will outline before I give the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford a chance to reply. I will respond more fully to the Committee on the points that I have not been able to cover. It is important to note that we will require more proactive property management and will continue to operate a rigorous inspection regime. We will stipulate more standardisation in the initial accommodation estate—the full-board accommodation that many asylum seekers enter if they have an immediate housing need. That will ensure that there are dedicated areas for women and families and more adapted rooms for people with specific needs, including pregnant women.
The new contracts will improve service user orientation to help them live in their communities and access local services. Underpinning that will be better data sharing with relevant agencies so that they are in a better position to join people to the services they need, which covers the point that a number of hon. Members made. Building on enhancements to safeguarding that have been put in place across the immigration system in recent years, other changes will focus on safeguarding and supporting vulnerable service users. They include the introduction of standardised health checks to identify people with specific physical and mental health needs, and more uniform training for providers’ staff on safeguarding best practice.
Alongside the new accommodation and support contracts, we will introduce a national contract to provide users with advice and assistance for completing applications. It will support service users through the end-to-end asylum support system, help them to co-ordinate the issues and problems that they encounter, and ensure that they are referred to the right people so that those problems can be resolved.
The advice, issues resolution and eligibility contract will provide a single contact point for service users to register complaints—thereby building a relationship—and to report problems. It will build on the work that we in the Home Office have undertaken with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that newly recognised refugees can swiftly access benefits and employment support services. We will commence procurement for that contract in 2018.
I am grateful for hon. Members’ interest and input in the debate and for the passion and clarity with which they made their cases. That shows a common view that in principle, we want to ensure that we provide for people seeking asylum. That experience means that when they gain asylum, they can take part in and make a valuable contribution to society and have a valued life of their own. That is something that we should be proud of as a country and I am determined to continue that.
I thank all hon. Members from the Select Committee, the Back Benches and the Front Bench who have contributed to the discussion, which I hope has been helpful. I welcome some of the points that the Minister made about the specific provisions they will put into the contracts to try to improve quality. I also welcome his commitment to ensuring that there is proper, respectful and quality support for all asylum seekers and refugees in this country.
I press the Minister on a series of additional points. First, will he or the Home Secretary come back to the Committee in a couple of months to discuss the progress of cases, specifically of pregnant asylum seekers, to ensure that they are being dealt with? Secondly, will he further consider the action needed on the issues of quality that have been raised by many hon. Members and on the individual cases of substandard quality and conditions that are not fit for people to live in, for example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)?
Thirdly, will the Minister reconsider the contract structure? I understand his point about the impact that a long contract can have on costs, but evidence across the public sector shows that those long-term contracts often need to be adjusted, which adds costs because circumstances change. I am not convinced that a 10-year contract is in any way a good thing for a service such as this where demands change so substantially.
Fourthly, in addition to restricting the time length and adding an additional inspection, I ask the Minister to look again at the role of local authorities. He is missing a trick and missing the opportunity to bring in the positive commitment from people in communities who want to provide support and to be part of the process of providing help for people fleeing persecution, but who, because of the way that the current system is designed, see it simply as a private sector contract and a professional process that has nothing to do with them or with communities.
The Minister referred to partnerships working together and data sharing. Data sharing is a minimum, but it is not sufficient. Local authorities have to have some responsibility and funding in place to get those partnerships in place. There needs to be a different approach that allows the positive commitment that so many communities have to supporting refugees and asylum seekers to be part of the process.
I hope the Minister has listened to the points that have been made. I welcome the fact that he has moved and responded to some areas. I hope we can continue this dialogue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Twelfth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Session 2016-17, HC 637, and the Government Response, HC 551.