(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on whether the changes to the immigration rules laid last week will reduce the numbers of asylum seekers in supported accommodation.
This Government are taking action to fix the asylum system so that it is firm and fair—firm where the system is being abused, but fair to those who need protection. And we have been clear: we will use every means at our disposal to make the use of small boats to cross the channel unviable.
Last week we laid changes to the immigration rules that are vital to curb irregular migration, which is often facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs. Channel crossings are not only highly dangerous but unnecessary, because France and other European countries are safe. Asylum should be claimed there. These changes will mean that individuals who could and should have claimed asylum previously in a safe country may not have their asylum claims determined in the UK where we are able to safely return them. The changes also enable us to consider the return of these individuals to any safe country besides the safe country where they could have claimed asylum. Individuals will also not be able to make asylum claims at sea.
At the end of the transition period, the UK is no longer bound by the Dublin regulation. These new measures will enable us, by agreement, to replace Dublin with more flexible returns arrangements. This will have a deterrent effect, by sending a clear message to anyone thinking of coming to the UK dangerously from a safe country that they should not risk their lives by doing so. This deterrent effect will also destroy the business model of the ruthless criminal gangs.
Such returns would, of course, reduce numbers in accommodation. I want to be clear that we are not turning our back on those who need our help after fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. We stand by our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, the European convention on human rights and other relevant treaties. We will continue to welcome people to the UK through safe and legal routes, assisting the most vulnerable, providing accommodation and meeting essential living needs.
As I have set out, we are taking a number of steps to tackle irregular, dangerous migration. But addressing the problem really requires a complete overhaul, and in the first half of next year we will bring forward a Bill to fix the immigration and asylum system once and for all. This country will be fair to those who need protection, but firm where the system is being abused.
Coming into force on 1 January, the Home Office’s proposed changes to the asylum system have far-reaching implications. Intended to act as a deterrent to people traffickers, which of course is laudable, they instead create a separate tier of asylum seekers, who will not have their claims considered and who the Minister will seek to return, albeit with no mechanism yet to do so. They will also be housed in camps, such as the one proposed in Test Valley, with no mains electricity or mains water. How does the Minister intend to issue written guidance as to how these changes will be processed? He has just 10 working days before they come into force. Will the permitted development powers that the Minister intends to use to create several of these camps be extended by statutory instrument, like these rules, avoiding parliamentary scrutiny? Does he think the changes might in fact see an increase to the asylum application backlog? Does he have a strategic plan or does he hope that housing people on sites where he admits he will not provide healthcare will just act as a deterrent? He acknowledges that, even without covid, only a few thousand failed asylum seekers are returned each year, and in 10 working days he loses Dublin. I know he is working with the French to secure a replacement, but what about Greece, Spain and Italy, and will those agreements be in place by 1 January?
The Home Office is already in court over its inhuman treatment of asylum seekers housed in barracks and it has settled some claims, moving people into more appropriate accommodation. Is the Minister concerned he has laid these rules before the rest of those cases are heard, and just a matter of days after the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that the Home Office had
“a culture where equality was not seen as important”?
Last year, Wendy Williams identified that the Home Office needed to examine the development of policies to make sure that the person was put at the heart of its services. How do these rules fit with that?
The Minister has talked of legal routes, but he has committed to resettle only 232 people—the final step in delivering the pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrians, of which we were all proud. When will he finally launch the programme to resettle 5,000 refugees this year, which was announced in 2019?
The Minister plans to put people in camps with no mains water at a time when we know hygiene is critical. If it were not for you having granted this urgent question today, Mr Speaker, he would not even have come to the House to explain himself.
On the first question, about the asylum track, after somebody arrives—having come, we believe, from a safe country where they could have claimed asylum—and if they are declared inadmissible, we will seek for a short period to get the agreement of that other country to return them there, where their asylum claim can be substantively and properly considered. If that is not possible, the asylum claim will of course be substantively and properly considered in this country.
My right hon. Friend asked some questions about our asylum system more generally—I think she was in some way seeking to insinuate that it was not reasonable or fair. The accommodation that we provide is reasonable and good, and there are 60,000 people currently being accommodated.
In terms of our system more widely, last year we made 20,000 grants of asylum or other forms of protection—that is a very high number. We welcomed and received more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children last year than any other European country, including Greece. Over the last five years, our resettlement schemes have seen 25,000 people taken directly from conflict zones and resettled in the United Kingdom—more than any other European country. After the 232 remaining people have come over, we will continue with resettlement, as far as we are able to, given the context of coronavirus and everything else. I therefore think we have a proud record of helping people who are genuinely in need.
My right hon. Friend asked about safe and legal routes. In addition to what I have described, last year over 6,000 people came into the UK under the refugee family reunion routes, which of course continue to exist.
The purpose of these changes is to prepare us for life after Dublin, and it is quite right that we make preparations, but at the heart of this is a desire to dissuade people—indeed, prevent people—from making unnecessary and dangerous journeys, particularly across the English channel, endangering their own lives and feeding ruthless criminal people smugglers, and all for no purpose, because France is a safe country where asylum can easily be claimed, as are the other European countries these migrants have travelled through.
My right hon. Friend asked about future agreements. She referenced France, and we are of course in close dialogue with France—we have a very close and friendly relationship. We will also be entering into discussions with other countries, including some of the ones she mentioned, as soon as the current European-level negotiations are concluded. These rules lay the foundations for those future discussions and negotiations, but most of all they will deter dangerous and unnecessary journeys, and I hope the House will join me in supporting that objective.
I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this urgent question and for the incredibly important points she made, not least in relation to asylum accommodation.
As we have heard, these changes will allow a claim to be found inadmissible if someone has had the opportunity to claim asylum in another safe third country prior to claiming asylum in the UK. That is not dissimilar to the current arrangements under the Dublin III regulations that we have in place with our European neighbours, but which will cease at the end of this month. We are leaving the Dublin III regulations, so this change allows the Government to deem a claim inadmissible without any co-operation or agreement in place to facilitate returning the person concerned to a third country. This is an unworkable half-plan, being introduced by the back door as changes to the immigration rules, with no opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
On Monday, the Minister outlined that it is this Government’s intention to open discussions with those countries as soon as we are able to do so. Can he confirm that those talks are yet to start and that there will be no such arrangements in place by 1 January, when these changes come into effect? Will he clarify what a person’s rights will therefore be in the period between their claim being found inadmissible and a returns agreement being reached?
The changes also suggest that an asylum claim can be reinstated after a reasonable period of time, if another safe country is unable to admit that person. How long is “a reasonable period”? Further still, as the Minister has confirmed, these changes will allow someone to be removed to any safe third country, including countries that the person has never been to and has no connection with. How does he envisage that that could possibly work in practice?
The changes before us come into effect in less than a month’s time. The Minister must realise the widespread concern about leaving some incredibly vulnerable people in limbo, at risk of homelessness and destitution.
Let me reassure the shadow Minister on one or two points. She concluded her questions by asking about the risk of destitution. To be clear, if somebody who is in the inadmissible cohort is unable to make provision for their own accommodation or upkeep, they will be eligible for accommodation in the normal way, just as people currently in the Dublin third country cohort, awaiting return to a European country, are accommodated and supported. There will be no risk of destitution, which would of course infringe their article 3 rights were it ever to happen.
The hon. Lady asks about the status of people who may fall into that cohort. Clearly, the intention is that a period of time will pass when we seek the agreement of a third country to return them. That will happen within a reasonable time—we will set that out in guidance, but it will be a matter of a few months; it will not be a long time. If, after that reasonable time, no agreement is forthcoming, their asylum claim will be substantively considered here. There will not be any extended period of limbo, which I do not think would be in anybody’s interests.
The hon. Lady refers to the fact that these arrangements are in some regards similar in concept to Dublin. I hope the House will take from that that they are reasonable in spirit, because no one has objected to the principles that underpin the Dublin regulations—indeed, many people have pointed to them as exemplars.
Finally, the message all of us in this House should be sending out, the Opposition Front Bench included, is that if somebody is in continental Europe and they feel they have a protection claim that needs to be heard, they should not attempt a dangerous crossing of the English channel. They should not pay money to ruthless people smugglers. They should use the very well-functioning asylum systems in our very civilised European neighbours. Let that message go out from this House today; it will save life.
Many people in the country share the views the Minister has just expressed; they are appalled by the dangerous and illegal trade in people across the channel, both in dangerous boat voyages and in trucks and cargo containers. He has every support from millions of people to do something. Will he also ensure in the new law that comes in that, while there is the opportunity for appeal, there are not repetitive, constant and frivolous appeals, delaying the judgment and wasting the time and resource of the Home Office?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. As he says, I think these proposals and this approach will command widespread public support. The public do not understand why people should cross the English channel in dangerous circumstances, facilitated by criminals, when they could perfectly easily claim asylum in France or somewhere else, which is of course what they should do. Characteristically, he makes an extremely pertinent and prescient point about the legal process, which the new Bill next year will most certainly address. At the moment, it is possible to bring a series of claims over a period of time—repetitively, sometimes vexatiously and sometimes even in contradiction with one another—with the express purpose in mind of preventing, frustrating or delaying the proper application of our immigration rules. We will be legislating to prevent that kind of abuse of the legal process, and I look forward to working with him on making that law a reality.
I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this urgent question. It seems to me that this is not about fixing the asylum system; rather, it is about blocking access to it, leaving people in limbo and undermining the refugee convention in doing so. The Minister has focused on the channel, but putting aside those crossing the channel, can he be clear on what percentage of asylum applicants the Department thinks is likely to be impacted by these inadmissibility rules and left in limbo? Can he be clearer on what statutory support and accommodation will be available to those who are put in that limbo situation? If this is really about replacing Dublin, surely we must wait to see what replacement agreements are concluded and what safeguards are in place before being asked to look at these changes.
Finally, if the Government are serious about fixing the asylum system, will they start by addressing yesterday’s news of 29 deaths in asylum accommodation this year alone? Can we have a clear Government commitment and published policy to record and investigate such deaths, to support the bereaved and to learn lessons so as to prevent further tragedies? Surely creating a legal limbo of several months will only make things worse, not better.
First, as I have said, the people in this cohort will not be in limbo, because after a reasonable period, if no return to another country is possible, the asylum claim will be substantively considered here. The possibility of limbo that the hon. Gentleman referred to does not exist, as I have said twice already.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of destitution. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), the people in this cohort will be eligible for accommodation and support, so the risk of destitution, which would be in contravention of article 3, does not exist either.
The hon. Gentleman asked about people crossing the channel and referenced the refugee convention. He will know that article 31 of the refugee convention talks about people
“coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”
being immune to various forms of penalty. He will know that France is a safe country where people’s life and freedom are not threatened. Human rights are respected in France. Asylum claims can be processed in France and, indeed, in other countries through which this cohort typically pass prior to their arrival in France. That deals with the questions that he raised.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the very sad deaths in accommodation, every single one of which is, of course, a tragedy. I remind him that we have 60,000 people in asylum accommodation. While each individual case is very sad, if he studies the statistics he will see that the numbers are not out of line with what we would expect among a population of 60,000 people.
Sooner or later, there is going to be an appalling tragedy in the channel. The reason economic migrants make this crossing is that they know that our present asylum laws are a complete joke. If someone makes it halfway across the channel, their chances of ever being deported are virtually nil, because of the activities of so-called human rights lawyers, who are actually putting lives at risk by their shenanigans in the law courts. What we want from the Minister is a firm commitment that, from 1 January, if someone crosses the channel and it is obvious that they are coming from a safe country, they will be immediately returned—that is what we want to know.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who has a distinguished legal background, for his question. He is absolutely right: we need to deter these crossings, and we need to ensure that our legal process works effectively. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, very often it does not do so. Despite that, we are able to return and deport quite large numbers of people if they should not be in the country or if they have committed very serious criminal offences, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago.
In relation to the question about immediate returns from 1 January, that is the policy objective of the Government—it is my objective, the Home Secretary’s objective and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s objective. But in order to effect returns, we need the agreement of the receiving country, and so my top priority, as soon as the European-level negotiations are concluded, is to seek exactly those kind of return agreements.
The Government are about to end the only agreement that they have in a place for safe returns by ending the Dublin agreement, which will make it harder, not easier, for the Minister to complete safe returns. He told the Home Affairs Committee that there are currently no negotiations for a replacement—they have not even started—and we are only 15 days away. Will the Minister confirm what I think he just said—that asylum accommodation and support will still be available for everyone who is in this limbo for the next few months? Does that mean that with no return agreement in place and the existing support systems continuing, he is actually adding several months to the waiting times for asylum claims to be sorted out? If he had an agreement, he could just use the existing rules.
On the Select Committee Chair’s question about accommodation and support, I can confirm that it will be available, as I have said already, because not to provide it would breach article 3. That support will be available and people will not fall into destitution.
On the negotiations, back in May—I believe it was 19 May—we tabled an EU proposal on these matters, but if that is not agreed to in the course of the current discussions, we will seek bilateral agreements with various countries. As I said to the right hon. Lady’s Committee a week or two ago, individual member states have been asked by the Commission not to engage in such discussions while the European negotiations are ongoing, so we will commence those as soon as we are able to. Even in the absence of those discussions, it is possible to raise returns cases on a case-by-case basis with member states, which, of course, we can do from 1 January. Critically, the new provisions prepare the way—they lay the foundations—for agreements that we may reach in future, besides facilitating case-by-case action.
Finally, although currently in force, the Dublin regulations have not been terribly effective. The right hon. Lady will know that the numbers we successfully return under Dublin are really rather small, numbering in the low hundreds per year. I am confident that, through active negotiation, not only can we replace Dublin but we can improve on it.
I thank the Minister for everything he is doing to tackle illegal migration into this country. As he knows, in Stoke-on-Trent we have resettled the largest number of refugees in the region, which has put significant pressure on local services. Will my hon. Friend look at what more can be done to ensure that local services are not overwhelmed, and put more pressure on local authorities in other parts of the country that are not contributing fairly to the rehousing of refugees?
I thank my hon. Friend and Stoke-on-Trent for their work to welcome genuine refugees, including as part of the resettlement programme. He raises a good point, because some parts of the country decline to take unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as part of the national transfer scheme, thereby putting enormous pressure on gateway authorities such as Kent, Portsmouth, Croydon and Hillingdon; and many other authorities, despite proclaiming themselves to be cities or even nations of sanctuary, often do not give consent for dispersed accommodation for asylum seekers. I say to any of those local authorities and to the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales: please help us by accepting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under the national transfer scheme, particularly from Kent, Portsmouth, Hillingdon and Croydon, and please give consent for dispersed accommodation, because it is essential that we have that available to accommodate people who are seeking asylum.
Does the Minister recognise that this is a huge global issue; that there are almost 80 million refugees globally; that 85% of them have been taken in by the poorest countries in the world, not the wealthiest; that all of them are human beings; and that those who have made their way to this country, historically and in the current time, have made a massive contribution to our lives and our wellbeing? Can he say something positive about the contribution that refugees make to our society?
In the light of the new regulations, can the Minister give us an assurance that no refugees will be destitute while they are waiting for a decision, that none will be left homeless and that none will be left without food? Sadly, in all our cities one comes across people who are making apparently legitimate claims for asylum but are left in a position of destitution and forced to rely on the faith community merely to survive. Does the Minister not think that we can do a bit better than that in the fifth richest country in the world?
I have already given the assurance about destitution to the shadow Minister and to the Chair of the Select Committee. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the asylum system in general does provide support, accommodation and other support, the cost of which is getting on for £1 billion a year, so it is generous in nature. He talks about the refugee problem around the world, which we recognise. That is one reason why we spend a great deal of money on overseas aid. Even after the recent adjustment, that will still be many, many billions of pounds, probably in the region of £10 billion, which is more than almost every other country in the world, so we are doing our bit that way.
We are also doing our bit through the resettlement scheme, which I talked about earlier. It is the largest resettlement scheme of any European country—25,000 people over the past five years. Of course I accept that the people who choose to make their home in this country can, and very often do, make a significant contribution, which we welcome. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), set up the points-based immigration system with the Home Secretary, which went active very recently. It is essential that people either claiming asylum or entering the country for work and other purposes do so legally, and all Members of this House, including the former Leader of the Opposition, should be very clear with migrants in Europe that they should not attempt this dangerous crossing and they should not pay dangerous people smugglers. If they need protection, they should claim it where they are in Europe.
My Dudley North constituents and I really want to place on record our gratitude to the Home Secretary and her team for the huge efforts that they are putting into fixing our broken asylum system. Does the Minister agree that we must get this legislation absolutely watertight to put a stop to the fraudulent claims that are costing the hard-working taxpayers of this country very dearly?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid that, as it stands, the legal system is, as my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, unfortunately routinely abused with repeated unmeritorious claims. We are determined to prevent that from happening. Of course people will have a fair hearing, but we cannot have our legal system abused. I am very much looking forward to my hon. Friend’s assistance in making sure that this legislation is tightly drafted to ensure that there are no loopholes.
I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on obtaining this very important urgent question. It is quite remarkable that, but for her efforts, there would be no effective scrutiny of changes of this magnitude. May I take the Minister at his word when he speaks about support for safe and legal routes and perhaps invite him then to update the House on what work he is doing to build a replacement for the Dubs scheme to bring unaccompanied refugee children from Europe to the United Kingdom?
As I have already said, we have a very effective resettlement scheme, which takes people directly from conflict zones. The resettlement schemes that we have run over the past five years have principally focused, for obvious reasons, on Syria. A total of 25,000 people have come in via those schemes over five years. The Dubs scheme focuses on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Europe. If we have to prioritise our scarce resources, we should prioritise people, including children, who are in dangerous places such as Syria, not people who are in Italy, who are already in a safe European country. Furthermore, in terms of UASCs in Europe, this country had more UASC applications last year than any other European country. The figure was about 3,800 applications, which means that we are doing our bit for UASCs in Europe, but it is right that we prioritise people in dangerous places, not people in countries such as Italy when it comes to direct resettlement.
I welcome the immediate steps this Government have taken to overhaul our broken asylum system. What steps is my hon. Friend taking in the longer term to fix the system once and for all?
My hon. Friend is right: the measures in this set of rules are only a first step. The asylum and immigration system has far more systematic and fundamental problems that cause it, unfortunately, to be abused on many occasions. We need to have fundamental legislative change and, as I said in oral questions just a few days ago, we intend to legislate in the first half of next year to make sure that the legal system is tightened up, so that it cannot be abused and we have a system that is fair to those who need protection, but firm on those trying to abuse it.
I, too, would like to thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing the urgent question. The treatment of asylum seekers already in the care of the Home Office is immensely significant and the Government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers in Penally camp in Pembrokeshire contrasts with the heart-warming response of local groups who support them as they arrive in the community. Winter is upon us and it remains unclear whether the camp was ever used by the Ministry of Defence during the winter months in the past. The camp is located in a remote rural location, raising questions of whether the Home Office can provide duty of care services effectively. Given those questions, will the Minister commit to set a date for an inspection of the camp by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration?
It is not for me to tell the chief inspector how to conduct his inspections and his affairs, but I would say that Penally has been set up in a thoughtful and careful way. We have had to use such emergency accommodation because during coronavirus the number of people we are accommodating has gone up very dramatically, from 48,000 to about 60,000, as the cessations or move-ons we would ordinarily do have been substantially reduced. In the case of negative cessations, they are currently paused entirely across the whole United Kingdom. So that is the reason why it is organised as it is. As I said earlier, if Members, and in particular local authorities and devolved Administrations, want to see the use of hotels and places such as Penally reduced, supporting the Home Office in procuring more dispersed accommodation is the way to do that.
On accommodation, Clearsprings Ready Homes, which I believe manages the Penally camp and has also managed accommodation in my constituency for many years, made multimillion-pound profits over the past few years, paid one of its directors £147,000 last year—that is more than Dominic Cummings—and took a £2 million dividend in 2019. Yet we hear of squalid, degrading and unsafe conditions at its properties. I have raised those issues over many years with Ministers and officials, but it has been awarded a generous new contract with the Home Office. Why was it awarded that contract? How is it value for money? What will the Minister do to bear down on those appalling conditions?
The contracts for the three service providers were awarded after a thorough process to evaluate the bids and they are, of course, subject to ongoing scrutiny on issues such as quality of accommodation, in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. Generally speaking, the accommodation provided is of good quality and it compares very favourably with accommodation provided by some other countries. However, if he would like to write to me with any specific issues he wants to raise in relation to particular units of accommodation in his constituency, I will of course make sure they are investigated.
I am aware that many asylum seekers are being housed in hotels in central London. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that we are looking to find a long-term solution?
My hon. Friend is quite right that hotels are being used in central London and, indeed, in other cities. That is a consequence of the very short-term pressures created by coronavirus. It is our intention, as we go into next year and as the coronavirus pandemic abates, to get hotel numbers back down again. For financial and other reasons, it is not ideal to have to use hotels and we would like to phase out their use as quickly as we possibly can in the coming year.
On Christmas eve, the first asylum seekers are due to arrive at the remote site of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where they will be housed in prefab-style accommodation. We have seen a similar approach in Kent and Wales, where Army barracks are being used, and other sites are planned. That is a lot of activity for what we are told is a temporary arrangement. Will the Minister explain the new policy approach to housing asylum seekers in hostile environments and tell me exactly when it will end?
It is not a hostile environment. The accommodation meets the required standards. As I explained in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), we are having to provide additional units because the number of people being supported has gone up enormously as a result of coronavirus. Far fewer cessation notices have been served this year than would ordinarily be the case, because we are mindful of the welfare of the people concerned and the wider population. We do intend to scale up the cessations as quickly as we safely can. As we do that, the pressure on numbers will reduce correspondingly.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to preventing the criminal gangs from preying on the vulnerable people who make the dangerous crossings from France to the UK. One of the concerns that we all have is about how he will speed up the decision-making process so that those who are entitled to asylum in this country can be speedily resettled, and those who are not entitled to be here can be returned to a safe place as fast as possible. Will he advise the House on what action he will take in the new year to speed up the process so that decisions are made quickly?
My hon. Friend is right that speeding up the decision making is in everybody’s interests. It will mean that fewer people will need to be accommodated, it will be good for those people who get a positive decision, and for those who have a negative decision we can proceed with removal. Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on decision making, but it is now being rapidly ramped up again. We intend to recruit more asylum decision makers in the new year, and we also intend to look at ways of deploying technology, so better IT systems, to speed up processes and decision making. I recently visited Lunar House in Croydon, close to my constituency, where many of the teams who make the decisions are based. The spirit of my hon. Friend’s question is absolutely right, and we certainly intend to act upon it.
This afternoon the Minister has sought to assure Members that the changes to this regime will protect applicants from destitution, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the level of destitution in the UK, among UK citizens, is set to double to 2 million families. Can he explain how he expects Members to accept that the Government will protect asylum seekers from destitution, when they cannot protect 2 million UK nationals?
We are protecting asylum seekers from destitution at the moment. I have already pointed out that we are spending in the region of £1 billion a year supporting the various cohorts of asylum seekers, and the accommodation and cash allowances that they are provided with have been tested by the courts and found to be suitable, so there is very clear evidence that the Government’s work in this area does the trick. The hon. Gentleman asked about wider issues, so I will just point out that measures such as elevating the minimum wage and increasing the tax-free allowance have done huge amounts over the past five or six years to combat poverty and create prosperity. As the economy recovers next year, after coronavirus, that will continue.
I know that both my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary are doing everything in their power to stop the illegal crossings on the south coast and the continuing abuse of our immigration and asylum system, but it is perfectly clear that we do need long-term reform. When can we expect the full details of how the Government intend to reform our currently broken system so that the UK is no longer a soft touch?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. We intend to introduce legislation in the first half of next year, but that will of course be consulted on, so that everyone with an interest in the matter, including my hon. Friend and his constituents, can propose ideas and we can make sure the legislation has the desired effect.
During this transition period, the Dublin regulations have given the UK temporary power to transfer refugees and migrants back to the EU country from which they arrived. As the ever-shifting deadline looms, I understand that the Home Office has sped up its asylum seeker processing in an attempt to deport vulnerable immigrants, including suspected trafficking victims, before the year’s end. I have dealt with a lot of cases of trafficking victims in Ilford South. I seek reassurance from the Minister that he will seriously consider putting proper screening in place so that anything that is unlawful and could end up creating serious harm can be stopped. Will he consider ending deportation until robust and proper screening is implemented?
There is a robust screening process in place, via the single competent authority and the national referral mechanism. That is working, I think it is fair to say, extremely effectively, so the risks the hon. Member identifies do not currently exist. This is a matter that is frequently tested in the courts, so we will almost certainly not be stopping removals and deportations. The Government are determined to apply the law, whether to people who have failed in their asylum claims or dangerous criminals who pose a threat to our constituents. I hope the Labour party and the hon. Gentleman will join us in supporting the proper operation of our law and protecting our constituents.
I welcome the steps the Government have taken to deter dangerous journeys that put human lives at risk. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a long-standing principle that asylum seekers should claim asylum at the earliest opportunity, in the first safe country they reach? Will he also confirm that safe countries still include France, Italy, Greece, and so on?
My hon. Friend is right. European Union countries, including the ones she lists, are obviously manifestly safe and civilised countries. People who find themselves in need of protection in those countries should claim asylum there, as she says. They should not attempt dangerous crossings of the English channel, facilitated by ruthless criminals, and every single Member of this House should send the same message.
These major, fundamental changes to the immigration rules were laid last week, incredibly, with zero consultation with stakeholders such as local authorities and the asylum sector. In the last two years the number of people waiting for longer than six months for a decision has increased almost threefold, with nearly 40,000 people having to wait at least that long. Surely the changes risk creating even greater inefficiency and delays, with people having to wait to find out whether the UK will even consider their asylum claim?
The changes are designed to ensure that we can enter into agreements with other countries to replace Dublin. They are designed to ensure that people who unnecessarily come to the United Kingdom—often clandestinely, often dangerously and often facilitated by criminals—do not do so, because they could instead claim asylum somewhere safe, such as France or Germany. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that that is the right thing to do and what we should be encouraging people to do.
On the timing of asylum decision making, as I mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), we want to speed things up, but unfortunately coronavirus has impacted decision making, as it has impacted so many elements of the public service system. However, we are focused on making sure the system speeds up, and that is a top priority for the coming year.
I thank the Minister and the Home Secretary for everything they are doing in this area. Does the Minister agree that the attitude of many Opposition Members in objecting to the deportation of convicted criminals, including murderers and rapists, harms the case of genuine refugees? Will he act to overhaul the rules, which see some lawyers abusing the system, to the detriment of taxpayers in North West Durham and across the country, and also genuine refugees?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We saw in our debate a couple of weeks ago some Opposition Members, astonishingly, standing up for the rights of people who have been convicted of extremely serious criminal offences, instead of standing up for the rights of victims or the rights of our constituents to be protected against the harm that those dangerous individuals represent. He is also right when he points out that unmeritorious claims crowd out, or push further back in the queue, the claims of those who have every right to protection. That is why we are determined to legislate next year to ensure that those whose claims are genuine are treated quickly and fairly, but that where people do not have a good claim and are abusing the system, the system is firm and rejects those claims.
As a city of sanctuary, Newcastle seeks to support those fleeing war and persecution, but all too often the Home Office places them in accommodation that is unsuitable, inadequate or plain disgusting, and where they may be targeted by far-right groups, as happened recently in Newcastle, and then leaves them for months or years without proper consideration of their case, at great cost to the mental wellbeing of those who are already vulnerable. Am I right to think that the Minister’s solution to this is now to arbitrarily reduce the cases considered, rather than actually fixing the process?
The Government’s policy, as I have laid out, is to do everything we can to make sure that where people wishing to claim asylum are already in a safe, civilised country like France, Germany or Spain, they claim asylum there and do not attempt a dangerous journey facilitated by ruthless criminals. That is the right thing to do, and I would hope to have the hon. Lady’s support in doing it.
The people of Ashfield and Eastwood are fed up with seeing illegal economic migrants leaving safe countries such as France to claim asylum in the UK while filling the pockets of greedy lawyers. I welcome the immediate steps the Government are taking to overhaul our broken asylum system, but the people of Ashfield and Eastwood want to know what steps my hon. Friend is taking in the longer term to fix this system once and for all.
My hon. Friend is right in the sense that the system does not work currently in the way that it should. People are able to make repeated, unmeritorious and sometimes vexatious claims to frustrate the system and prevent removal. For that reason, we will legislate in the first half of next year to make sure that the system is fundamentally fixed and fundamentally reformed in a way that will give his constituents the confidence they have every right to expect.
The Minister will be aware that Glasgow has housed and accommodated asylum seekers for almost 20 years—something of which we are very proud. Can he say a bit more about how those who may be considered to be inadmissible under the new rules will be supported and accommodated? Will they, for example, be placed in detention centres, camps, barracks and hotels—he will be aware that a group of doctors has written to the Department with concerns about the conditions for asylum seekers in these sorts of accommodation—or is he going to rule out those sorts of accommodation going forward?
Glasgow does accommodate a large number of asylum seekers. We work very closely with Glasgow City Council and the Communities and Local Government Secretary in the Scottish Government on that topic. Glasgow is the only Scottish authority to receive asylum seekers. It would ease the pressure on Glasgow, and indeed across the United Kingdom, if other Scottish local authorities were able to accommodate asylum seekers as well. In terms of the type of accommodation provided, the inadmissible cohort, although inadmissible, will be entitled to accommodation, as I have said, and the support that goes with that. We will make sure that the support they receive fully complies with all our legal and moral obligations.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for asking this question. The vast immigration detention estate, in all its forms, is a standing indictment of our failed immigration system, which, as the Minister knows, every day carries with it a risk. He is right to focus on reform, although I would say that the goal is not so much to be fast and furious as to be fair and accurate.
My question relates to the security of some of the barracks accommodation and other accommodation that is being provided. There have been some reports of asylum seekers leaving these estates and not coming back. What inquiries has the Minister undertaken, and what reassurance can he give to communities where these sites are located?
The size of the immigration detention estate has actually shrunk considerably over the past five or six years. I think I am right in saying that it has reduced in size by, very approximately, 50%. Detention is used sparingly and only as a necessary precursor to removal. On the accommodation for people seeking asylum, this is not detention. The people are not detained and are free to come and go as they choose, but obviously those operating the sites keep a very careful eye on them. For example, there is a process of signing in and signing out, and if people are not back on the site by 10 pm each evening, then inquiries are made. Although the people in the centres are not detained, very careful measures are taken to understand their whereabouts to make sure that nothing untoward happens in the local communities. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as reassurance, but I would be happy to discuss these issues further, particularly in the Yarl’s Wood context, if he would like to do that.
I thank the Minister for his response to the questions so far. The changes explain that an asylum claim can be reinstated after a “reasonable period of time” if another safe country is unable to admit that person. Can the Minister outline what a reasonable period is, what support will be given in the interim period, and what processes are in place to support people whose claims are deemed inadmissible in the United Kingdom?
I can assure the hon. Member that while the process unfolds of seeking another country to receive the person, support will be made available to avoid the risk of destitution. The reasonable length of time taken to secure the agreement of another country will be laid out in guidance shortly, but it will be a matter of a few months; it will not be an extended period.
Britain’s broken asylum system is currently costing the taxpayer over £1 billion per year. Does the Minister agree that a decisive push is now needed comprehensively to deal with and process more quickly the 60,000 asylum seekers currently in supported accommodation, and to disincentivise others from making the perilous journey across the channel?
Yes, I do agree. In fact, some of those 60,000 are people whose asylum claims are not pending but whose asylum claims have been rejected, and where the legal process has been convoluted and removal has not been effected. One of the things that we intend to do in our Bill is ensure that failed asylum seekers can be more quickly returned to their safe country of origin, which, of course, is what should happen. My hon. Friend is right that we need to speed up asylum decision making and get these numbers down. That is fair to individuals who have a valid asylum claim, but also to the taxpayer, upon whom otherwise falls an extremely large financial burden. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s sentiments.
Lewisham is proud to be a borough of sanctuary, and the council has stated that it will not collaborate with the Home Office in enforcing new immigration rules that make rough sleeping a legal ground to cancel or refuse permission to stay in the UK. As we enter the coldest months of the year, how can the Minister justify these rules when they risk deterring rough sleepers from seeking help and threaten to put many lives at risk?
The Government have been extremely clear that the rules on rough sleeping to which the hon. Lady refers only apply where the person concerned has persistently refused offers of help and support, and are engaging in persistent antisocial behaviour. It is expected to be used in an extremely small number of circumstances. Of course everybody will be offered help and support to get off the streets. The Government have invested about £700 million this year alone in helping people to get off the streets and into accommodation. She mentions Lewisham’s desire to assist. One way in which the London Borough of Lewisham can certainly assist is by taking on some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are arriving in Kent. I look forward to hearing from her and from the leader of her authority as to exactly how many of those children they propose to take in over Christmas.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for responding to questions for approaching an hour. We are now going to suspend for three minutes for the sanitisation of the Dispatch Boxes, and the safe exit and arrival of Members of Parliament.