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Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope before I start the debate that you will allow me to say a few words about the scenes in George Square this evening. A peaceful protest—a peaceful protest—of those who wish to campaign about the conditions of asylum seekers has been met by a counter-demonstration of the far right who sought to disturb that particular demonstration. I am sorry to see scenes of violence on social media in relation to the protest. Let me be quite clear that I condemn the racism of the far right and I celebrate those who wish to protest about the unfair conditions that asylum seekers are faced with in Glasgow. No doubt further news will develop as this debate goes on, but I want to make it quite clear that this demonstration tonight had nothing to do with statues, but was to address the issue of conditions in the city.

I thank you for allowing me to say that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate on a topic that has gained much media interest both in the mainstream media and the new media outlets with some horrific stories of asylum seekers and their treatment by the Home Office contractor. We have also seen the sorry sight of asylum charities having to submit supplementary written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in response to Mears, the Home Office contractor, and the claims of how asylum seekers are being treated in Glasgow. We have seen the campaigning ability of organisations such as Living Rent and the No Evictions Campaign, organising to help their friends and neighbours.

There are a number of issues: first, the Home Office cannot be allowed to regress to business as usual, and it must fit with—and not fetter—devolved Government and local authority public health recovery plans. I want to focus many of my remarks today on the asylum support regime and the need for Ministers to act responsibly in full compliance with public health policy and, as such, with local and devolved Government covid-19 recovery plans.

I must start with the asylum support rates. I understand that the Minister is well known for collecting data, so he will know that the asylum support moneys are only at about 42% of the social security breadline. That is not a lot and is less than every other person in this country is entitled to. I am not a data man. I am more interested in real life, so, to illustrate, the data tell us that a 300-page pad and six pens are sufficient for a child’s home education. That is what the methodology states, but even with the pitiful amount of £39 a week, the Home Office only raised the old rate by 26 pence per day. I see asylum-seeking families every day. There are 2,000 of them in Glasgow and I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that 20 pence per week is pitiful. The difference that makes is that a child can ask their mum or dad to get them a tiny chocolate Freddo bar.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. Does he agree that there are wonderful facilities in Glasgow for asylum seekers, but that asylum seekers generally in this country are not treated with and given the dignity that they deserve, particularly at this moment during covid-19, when we should be thinking much more about them than we are at the moment?

I certainly agree with that. Many of the asylum seeker services are actually provided by the charities. The support that they provide to asylum seekers is often against Home Office policies, and I will come on to that later.

Let me be clear that I am being not trite, but deadly serious. This increase was an insult to desperate people and children and to add to the injury officials quite callously did not make that data-driven decision until after lockdown, rather than before it. I urge the Minister to look beyond the data and show a bit of leadership. Perhaps he should give Marcus Rashford a call, because he can give Government some tips, as he told the Prime Minister, about real life, about children and parents going hungry, about how terrified mums and dads are about how their child will keep up at school when they go back to blended learning in August or September because, as we know, there is no wi-fi in asylum accommodation. There is no digital connectivity and no computer for the children to do their homework on. That is the real world.

It would not be an Adjournment debate without the hon. Gentleman, and, for the benefit of his many Twitter fans, I give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

What a really good issue this is. I have had similar correspondence in my constituency, and Refugee Action is one of the charities that have contacted me as well. It is difficult for people in our asylum system to buy food and other essentials in sufficient quantity to minimise trips or to prepare for self-isolation, and it is incredibly hard to make a choice between food and medicine. Does hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister must respond in a way that ensures that asylum seekers who are in a crisis get the financial assistance they need at this time? That is why I support the hon. Gentleman.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the asylum support work of Refugee Action and other charities, and I certainly support what he said today.

My constituent Simon wrote to me in advance of this debate:

“Access to a mobile phone and the internet has never been more important. As well as Refugee Week, this is also Loneliness Awareness Week and action is needed to address loneliness and social isolation in the asylum system, including by ensuring that people seeking asylum have the digital resources that they need to stay connected, access support and continue education.”

Simon goes on to say:

“The UK continues to face a global health emergency that has disproportionately affected people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, including here in the UK, with many minorities living in deprivation simply left dead by covid-19, not protected adequately by the UK Government. It remains vital that everyone, irrespective of their immigration status, can live in dignity, afford the most basic things and to be safe.”

My constituent Saffie also wrote to me:

“Even before coronavirus I was barely surviving on around £5 per day. We have to travel to the bigger shops that have lower prices, but now with lockdown we can’t travel and the small shops have hiked their prices. Things like soap and hand sanitiser are very expensive and leave only a few pence for food and other essentials. Since lockdown, essential support services…have closed their doors, so you have to have phone credit or data to even contact them for help. This means deciding to eat or to get phone credit. The recent increase of 26p per day to asylum support is heart breaking. I just want to live in dignity, afford the most basic things and to be safe.”

My first question to the Minister is: as we come to Refugee Day this Saturday, will he please reconsider the asylum support rates, and will he promise not to penalise asylum-seeking families who receive digital packages and laptops so that their kids can keep up at school with blended learning? The coronavirus is a public health crisis, but it is also a humanitarian crisis for people in the asylum process.

I turn now to a welcome and, in public health terms, essential safeguard to asylum accommodation when lockdown was announced. It was stated that asylum seekers would not have their financial support and accommodation cut off—that they would not be evicted—and that that would last until, at the very least, the end of June. As the Minister will be aware, we in Glasgow have called for an end to asylum homelessness and eviction for years. Most recently, we resisted Serco when it tried and failed to make hundreds of people street homeless through cruel forced lock changes. We showed the way, and we urge all dispersal areas to resist asylum accommodation evictions and homelessness.

I welcomed the pause in evictions, as did Glasgow City Council and many other asylum local authorities, who for years have demanded that the Home Office take responsibility for the care of vulnerable asylum seekers, rather than shunt them heartlessly onto the streets.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Through him, I say to the Minister that we need to look again at this idea of how we disperse asylum seekers throughout the city of Glasgow, moving them on so often. Asylum seekers, who will often get involved in community group, a church or with charities, are frequently moved on to another area, where they will have no community support. I commend what is being done, but if we are to have a wider conversation about accommodation, we need to impress upon the Minister the need for people to be able to stay in one part of Glasgow, rather being shunted around all the time, which is no good to them.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope the Minister responds to that. I will have some questions for the Minister about his contact with Glasgow City Council, but I am sure that all us Glasgow MPs would welcome any opportunity to meet him to address the many issues that asylum seekers face in the city of Glasgow, including how to give them better protection.

Let me tell the Minister that the asylum evictions policy has, way before covid-19, blighted the lives of women and men thrown into homelessness on to the streets of councils that have been, and remain, decimated by the Government’s austerity programme. What a short-sighted and irresponsible policy austerity was. It has been ruthlessly exposed by the dreadful covid-19 pandemic. As the Health Secretary knows well, the facts are that we are no longer in a fragile recovery phase out of lockdown. The virus is still out there and the R rate varies by locality. It attacks the most vulnerable. They were the most vulnerable before the pandemic, have been during it, and, unless the Government act, will be after it.

I and many others are furious to now learn that last Thursday, when I was being told that I had been selected for this debate and presumably in a ministerial office far from the streets of Glasgow, Liverpool, Swansea and Middlesbrough, the Government decided to restart support cessations and, by implication, the imminent eviction in July of asylum seekers, both those who have been granted refugee status and those who are being refused asylum. That could mean hundreds and thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers rendered street homeless into an ongoing life-threatening pandemic. To increase the risk, it will be happening in some of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister and his staff were telling local authorities in these areas last Friday that that is what they plan to do.

Let us just think about what that means. The Government are getting back to the Home Office’s “business as usual” while everyone else in society is grappling with the new normal. Why is the Home Office different? This “business as usual” will make people street homeless at a time of an ongoing pandemic. This is all to happen while all other evictions are rightly postponed. The Housing Secretary in this place has paused evictions until the 23 August, so why have the Home Office not done the same?

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Would he agree that any such drastic decision could not possibly have been made, surely, unless the Home Office had sought advice from Public Health England? If that is the case, it is imperative that the Minister publishes the advice he received from Public Health England on the matter.

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. There should also be an equality impact assessment of the decisions the Government are making in that regard.

In cutting off support and making people homeless, the Government are not only placing them at acute health risk, including from covid-19, but are undermining the wider community and the local government and devolved Government recovery out of covid-19. What was decided last Thursday is, in my view, deeply irresponsible. I urge the Minister to reconsider, and I know I am not alone in that. I know that local authorities and, I am sure, public health directors feel the same way. It is basic common sense that we do not evict anyone into homelessness during an ongoing pandemic. It is inexcusable, especially for asylum seekers and those in the black and minority ethnic community.

I thank my hon. Friend for taking an intervention. I had been intending to stand and talk about the No Evictions Network: what good people they are and the incredible work they do in not just holding up placards, but providing one-to-one, face-to-face support for people. I am sorry I missed the beginning of the debate. I am sure he has mentioned, or will mention, the attacks they have come under in Glasgow tonight. Does he agree that another issue with asylum seekers being made street homeless is that if the people campaigning for them are being attacked by the far right just for supporting them, they will be in even more danger and that makes it even more irresponsible?

At the very start of my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker allowed me to say a few words to condemn the violence we have seen in Glasgow tonight, as I am sure the Minister will. There is no place for far-right thuggery anywhere in the United Kingdom. People are entitled to protest peacefully if they think the Government are not making the correct decisions. A peaceful protest was planned for tonight and they were met with thugs. I am sure that we will see and hear more about that on the news later this evening.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. May I urge him to please urgently reconsider and confirm to me today in writing that he will not restart any support cessations, or the evictions that will inevitably follow, without the express agreement of asylum local authorities, public health directors and, where relevant, devolved Administrations? Will he confirm that the last meeting to have taken place with local authorities, political leaders and Ministers was just less than a year ago, when the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was the Immigration Minister? What does that say about the Home Office and its relations with political leaders in local government dispersal areas? Can he tell us when the next meeting with the local government dispersal areas will be?

On the acute risk of covid-19 and severe illness and death for BAME communities, I turn briefly to a critical matter touched on earlier that is of the utmost public interest. As the evidence is now overwhelming that BAME communities living in areas of deprivation and often higher population density are at an acutely high risk of contracting covid-19 or of dying from it, this already high risk will escalate if BAME communities are made homelessness. The asylum seekers are from BAME groups, with people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and China, among many others. They are at a higher risk of dying from covid-19. Surely given that, the Minister must not end, but extend, the ban on asylum support cessation and evictions. It would be even more irresponsible in public health and safety terms to restart business as usual. Given the evidence about those who are homeless catching covid-19 and, for BAME communities, of dying from it, will the Minister urgently extend the ban on asylum support cessation and evictions, and set out how he is paying due regard to this public sector equality duty in deciding to end the current pause on cessation and evictions?

My third point is about hotel detentions, which was the subject of tonight’s peaceful protest in Glasgow. I have read the exchanges between Mears and the Home Affairs Committee. I have seen that the asylum charities have had to supply supplementary evidence. I have read the reports in the media and new media, and I have read the Minister’s letter to Councillor Jen Layden, so let me lay out the facts.

A decision was taken by Mears in the first week of lockdown, on 23 March, to quickly uproot 300 asylum seekers from single-occupancy or two-bedroom serviced apartments in the city—de facto households—into hotels. Asylum seekers have contacted my office and the offices of asylum charities to say that asylum seekers were bundled into vans with no social distancing and transported to these hotels—not quality hotels by any manner of means. In some of these hotels, the food provided has been mouldy and unfit for consumption, and in some it is culturally inappropriate, to the extent that around 20 asylum seekers are currently on hunger strike.

Asylum seekers have contacted my office to say that, due to the food provided, they have been unwell. That is not acceptable. It is so bad that charities have had no other choice than to step in and provide food. I can confirm, as a trustee of the Feeding Britain charity, that it has agreed to contribute to the provision of meals that are of sufficient quality and cultural appropriateness for families. I should add that 300-plus people uprooted from their serviced apartment accommodation, on arrival in the hotels, had all financial support cut off, which is not something that was required by asylum support. However, the Government and the Department chose to do that, and people are suffering every day. How would we feel when we leave this room today—how would any of us feel—if we were told that we had no money at all?

There is no social distancing and health concerns are too often ignored or met with a dismissive attitude. Claims made in ministerial correspondence that organisations such as the Red Cross and the Scottish Refugee Council have inspected the site and raised no concerns are denied by those organisations. As the Red Cross put it,

“I have confirmed with our operational staff that the offer of a visit to hotel accommodation was not taken up by our staff due to public health guidelines advising against all non-essential travel, this however may change as we transition out of lock down”.

The Scottish Refugee Council said:

“We declined the first invite to a hotel for lockdown public health reasons. We accepted the second invite to visit one of seven hotels in use, which we did, but we said to Mears before then, during it and after that visit, that there is not much we can meaningfully say on conditions and how people feel, on the basis of one short visit to one location. Mears accepted this was the case.”

It is the case that the decision to place asylum seekers into hotels results in those individuals losing that state financial support. The argument that this is not a cost-cutting exercise just does not wash, and sadly, there has been one tragic death.

Can the Minister confirm whether, on what date and to whom in Glasgow City Council Mears gave notice of the plan, with effect from 27 March, to move those 300-plus asylum seekers who were already on section 98 support and who were in serviced apartments in the city? Did Mears not give advance notice to the council in that regard?

The case to which my hon. Friend has referred was in my constituency. A young man called Adnan passed away at the start of May in temporary and inappropriate hotel accommodation with insufficient mental health support. Does my hon. Friend agree that the conditions that vulnerable people are expected to live in are entirely inappropriate, and does he share my concern at the reports from the Glasgow No Evictions Campaign of two further people in temporary hotel accommodation who were refused medical assistance over the weekend by staff at the hotel and Mears staff?

I am aware of those claims, and I would say to my hon. Friend that the Home Office must immediately intervene and establish the facts in that regard. If people need medical care, they should get medical care. Indeed, the Minister’s letter to Councillor Jennifer Layden outlines that there is supposed to be immediate medical care for those asylum seekers who are in hotels.

A further question to the Minister relates to deaths that take place in asylum accommodation. Will he set out what steps his Department takes in relation to a death in asylum accommodation? I understand that he may not be able to talk about the current case, but can he signpost me to the policy that the Home Office follows in these situations? Lastly, can he tell me when hotel detentions will end and when asylum seekers will be returned to suitable accommodation?

In closing, I can tell the Minister that Glasgow is a political village. People know when someone is not telling the truth or the full facts. They know when someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. A number of things in his correspondence to the council are simply not the case. In Glasgow, asylum seekers are our neighbours and friends. They are part of the community. Any move to detain them in hotels or to evict them from their accommodation will be met with the same resistance that led to the rent strikes led by the great Mary Barbour, and the same resistance shown by the great Glasgow Girls. All we ask is that our neighbours, our fellow Glaswegians, are treated with respect, because that is what they deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this evening’s Adjournment debate. Let me start by putting on record my agreement with the remarks he made at the very beginning of his speech in relation to the disturbances and the violence—the counter-demonstrations—in the city of Glasgow. Violent protest of any kind is abhorrent. People have the right to peaceful protest, and I join him—and, I am sure, everybody in the House—in condemning the acts of violence to which he referred.

Let me start by laying out the United Kingdom’s generosity in welcoming people who are granted asylum and, indeed, people who claim asylum. Last year, the calendar year 2019, there were about 35,000 claims of asylum, which was one of the highest figures in Europe—not the highest, but one of the highest—and last year we granted about 20,000 asylum grants and other forms of protection, so more than half those claims were granted. At the same time, we welcomed 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—the highest number of any country in Europe. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, although he did not mention it in his speech, that just last week or the week before, we announced a significant funding increase to local authorities to support looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We increased the support by £17 million from about £218 million to £235 million a year. At the same time, we increased the care leaver grant for those people who were UASC but are now part of the post-UASC care leaver cohort, to £240 per care leaver per week, which was an increase of between 20% and 60%, depending on which local authority we are talking about.

Of course, at the same time as we offer that support to asylum seekers, we have the largest—or certainly the second largest—overseas aid budget in Europe. We are the only G7 economy to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, around £13 billion or £14 billion per year. We are doing a great deal to help people not just to come to the UK, but who are at risk overseas.

I withdraw the word “crap”, but the Minister is talking absolute nonsense. He talks about how welcoming the UK is. They are the same UK Government that had “Go Home” vans going round communities, and the hostile environment. I suggest that he cuts the talk about DFID, which has been abolished this week, and focuses on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).

I will certainly come on to that point, but no amount of huffing and puffing can disguise the fact that we are the only G7 country meeting the 0.7% of GNI commitment. No huffing and puffing will disguise the fact that we gave 20,000 grants of asylum and protection last year.

The hon. Gentleman can shake his head all he likes, but those are the facts. They are facts that evidence the compassion with which the United Kingdom deals with those very vulnerable people. He can shake his head, and he can fold his arms, but those are the facts.

Let me come on to some of the questions that have been raised. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West spoke at some length about the asylum support rate, but he did not talk about everything that is provided in addition to the cash sum of money, which was increased by 5%, well above the rate of inflation. The cohort concerned get free accommodation. All utility bills are paid for, council tax is paid for, free health care is provided under the NHS, and any children get free education. The method for calculating the cash support rate was tested in court some years ago and found to be lawful. The amount of money is essentially calculated by a formula which has been endorsed by the Court of Appeal. When Members talk about asylum support, I urge them to keep in mind all those other things—the free accommodation, the utility bills being paid, the council tax being paid, NHS healthcare and free education.

The covid situation that the country has been facing is thankfully now easing, but it has of course been a very serious public health crisis. We took the decision on 27 March to suspend the policy of the cessation of support. That is where an asylum seeker’s claim is decided, either positively or negatively, and we ask them to—with notice, of course—leave the supported accommodation estate. Clearly, if they have had a positive decision, they are entitled to find work or to universal credit. If they have a housing problem, obviously they are entitled to all the support that any of our constituents would be entitled to in the ordinary course of events. Clearly, they cannot continue to be supported in asylum accommodation indefinitely as they are essentially members of society like the rest of us who live their lives, just like all of us and our constituents do.

In the event they get a negative decision, the expectation is that they return—

That was a very welcome decision, and I think it was based on advice from Public Health England. Can the Minister say categorically that Public Health England has been consulted on the decision to go back to cessation of support and evictions, and will he publish that advice as well as the earlier advice?

I was just about to come to that point. When the decision was taken on 27 March to suspend the cessation of support policy—I am grateful that Opposition Members welcomed that move—it was announced as being effective until the end of June. To be clear, no eviction notices have been issued. We are going through the process of thinking carefully about how we transition back to a more normal state of affairs as the coronavirus epidemic abates, and we are doing that in a thoughtful and considered way. We are thinking carefully about all the angles, and we will talk to the relevant authorities, including local government, and take public health advice seriously. This matter is being considered and thought about carefully, and we will proceed in a careful way that gives proper attention to the various considerations. As I hope Members will have seen from our decision, we are determined to be responsible and careful in the way we handle this issue, and I believe our conduct has reflected that.

Let me say a word about the implications of our decision. Although we suspended the cessation policy, we still have intake because people are still claiming asylum. Either they present as cases under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, or they make fresh claims for asylum. Those claims are not at the level they were before coronavirus, but the level is still quite high. The number of people who are being accommodated in asylum support is going up a lot. Indeed, in the past 10 weeks, it has risen by about 4,000—a significant number. We are working night and day to find accommodation for those extra 4,000 people, and the numbers are going up on a weekly basis. Members will understand that trying to find extra emergency accommodation is difficult, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, but we have done it. We have risen to the challenge, and I thank local authorities, and Home Office officials, for their tremendous work in finding those 4,000 extra places at short notice and in difficult circumstances.

Some questions were asked specifically about the city of Glasgow, which is well represented in the Chamber this evening. As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, a decision was taken in late March in relation to 321—he said 300—people who were in temporary serviced apartments. For a variety of reasons, it was decided that those apartments were not appropriate in the context of the coronavirus epidemic—they were not safe to stay in, and as a consequence, people were moved into hotel accommodation. Let me be clear that that is a temporary measure and is categorically not permanent. As soon as circumstances allow, if those people are still receiving asylum support, they will be returned to the sort of accommodation they were in previously.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned cash savings. Over the past 10 weeks, the additional cost of accommodating those extra 4,000 people has run into tens of millions of pounds, and possibly more than that. I assure him that no cost saving is being made anywhere in that part of the Home Office budget. The hotels provide three meals a day that meet dietary requirements. In terms of cultural sensitivity, Korans and prayer mats are provided, and during Ramadan, late evening and early morning food is provided for those who observe it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned connectivity. Each room has a TV and, critically, wi-fi, and 24-hour reception staff are available, as are translation services and staggered meal times to cater for social distancing. There is full access to the building for cleaning and repairs. Laundry facilities are available on site; there is space for NHS staff and medical consultation, and full provision of things such as towels, soaps, sanitiser, bed linen, toiletries, and feminine hygiene products—all those things are provided. If any areas require further attention, the hon. Gentleman is welcome to write to me and I will happily address those matters.

I have only a minute left, but I will take a quick intervention from the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate.

Will the Minister commit to meet Glasgow MPs, because there are major discrepancies between what he is saying, and what we are being told? I would be obliged if he met us.

Of course—I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to discuss any specific concerns. It would be helpful if he wrote to me in advance to lay those concerns out in writing, so that I could come with answers, rather than reply off the cuff. If he wrote to me first, I would be happy subsequently to meet him and go through his specific concerns.

This country takes its responsibilities very seriously. As I said, we granted 20,000 asylum and protection orders last year, and we have one of the biggest overseas aid budgets in the world. We can be proud of our record, and I am happy to stand here and defend it this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.