I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health.
There has been a long-overdue shift in the way in which we approach mental health; we are now rightly encouraged to be open, to talk and to seek help when necessary. However, this Government are less willing to talk about the causes of poor mental health, and when we consider our asylum system there is little acknowledgement of the Home Office policies that contribute to a situation where asylum seekers are five times more likely to have poor mental health than the general population.
The Mental Health Foundation has found that the increased vulnerability to mental health problems that refugees and asylum seekers face is linked both to their pre-migration and post-migration experiences. People who have fled persecution, violence and war hope to find safety and security in the UK. Tragically, the current UK asylum system often exacerbates their suffering, with long waits for asylum decisions, poor accommodation and a ban on working all contributing to this situation.
The backlog in decisions has been worsening for years. The most recent immigration statistics showed that the number of applicants waiting over six months for a decision about their asylum claim was the highest on record, with many people waiting years for a decision about their status. Among unaccompanied child refugees, the situation is critical. Following the deaths of four young Eritreans over a 16-month period, Helen Johnson, the head of children’s services at the Refugee Council, said:
“For many refugees, the misery and distress resulting from their experiences do not always end upon reaching a safe place. Those who have left their home countries as children and experienced such a lot in their short lives are particularly vulnerable. Most of us can only imagine some of the horrors children have witnessed or experienced themselves.”
Of course, there are times when society truly sees refugees as human; we all remember the images of poor little Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey. However, I gently point out that when the Home Secretary talks of a two-tier asylum system and only accepting those who come through so-called “legal routes”, that is not how fleeing trauma works. When we see desperate families risking a dangerous sea journey in a rubber dinghy, it is clear that safe routes are not working.
Here in Glasgow, we have direct and personal experience of working with asylum seekers. Glasgow is the only dispersal region in Scotland and it is the largest dispersal local authority area in the United Kingdom. Despite that, the city receives no funding from the UK Government. We take our responsibilities with the asylum seeker community very seriously and Glaswegians are proud to offer those fleeing trauma a home. However, current Home Office policies mean that those in organisations working with this community are effectively operating with their hands tied behind their back.
Very early on in the pandemic, Glasgow MPs were alerted to the fact that asylum seekers had been moved by Mears, an accommodation provider, to emergency hotel accommodation. The small asylum support of £5.66 a day was removed. These individuals have effectively become prisoners, with their freedoms controlled, little money for essentials and limited access to support services—even the internet.
In May 2020, Glasgow MPs and the leader of Glasgow City Council raised concerns with the Home Secretary in a joint letter, but our concerns were not heeded. The situation took a tragic turn in June with the stabbings at the Park Inn hotel. Prior to that attack, fellow hotel residents had expressed concerns about the attacker’s mental health. The attacker, of course, was shot dead by the police. I have since spoken with another resident of Park Inn at that time, who described his days as being filled with utter despair and hopelessness.
However, in Glasgow we have a new concern with a mother and baby unit. Mothers and young children have been moved from their flats into camps—ill-equipped bedsits—by Mears Group. Testimonies from these mothers are alarming. Some were told they were allowed to take only two bags and had to forfeit their remaining belongings, and any parent with young children will know how difficult it is to go anywhere with less than two bags. Others report cramped conditions, poor ventilation and indefinite social isolation. Mothers are cooking meals on small stoves beside babies’ cots due to lack of space.
These examples point to a more sinister shift from community-based accommodation to an institutional accommodation regime. The use of dilapidated Army barracks to house asylum seekers is a very worrying step. Last month, a joint report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration stated that Army barrack accommodation demonstrated
“fundamental failures of leadership and planning”
by the Home Office. The same report described living conditions as “filthy” and “impoverished”.
The impact of these appalling conditions on asylum seekers’ mental health is clear. Dr Jill O’Leary of the Helen Bamber Foundation assessed the same barracks in Folkestone. She said:
“We have consistently seen the threat these former military sites pose to the physical and mental health of residents. We have witnessed a devastating Covid-19 outbreak due to the dormitory-style accommodation, not to mention mental health crises, self-harm and suicide attempts as a result of the unsuitability of the environment.”
However, the Home Secretary shows no change in ideology, with the news today that asylum seekers have been moved back into these barracks.
Earlier this year, I was due to present a Bill that would give asylum seekers the right to work. This was not possible due to the pandemic, but I wish to raise a few points here. Most European countries, and even the United States, allow asylum seekers to work. Currently, asylum seekers may apply for permission to work only after 12 months, and even then they are restricted to roles on the shortage occupation list. There is therefore effectively a ban on working for a majority of those seeking asylum. This policy makes no sense economically and is counterproductive to both asylum seekers’ prospects of community integration and their prospects of living new lives with positive mental health and wellbeing. It is, quite simply, an ideological attack aimed at breaking and dehumanising those who most need our help.
A member of the Glasgow-based Maryhill Integration Network shared their thoughts on how the right to work and mental health are linked:
“The right to work is precious. It improves self-worth and esteem and provides social connection, independence and money to travel and meet new people. Without this, many people’s mental health deteriorates.”
Contrary to certain strains of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric, the vast majority of asylum seekers in this country are willing and committed to work. I always find it slightly ironic that the same people who talk about asylum seekers claiming benefits are those who talk about asylum seekers taking jobs.
There are some points that I hope the Minister will respond to today and take to the Home Secretary. First, the reliance on institutional emergency accommodation such as hotels and barracks should be ended. There must be investment in more community-based housing that is appropriate to people’s needs.
People seeking asylum should be given the right to work six months after lodging an asylum claim, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list. The Home Office must gather the right information from asylum seekers during interview and use it to make correct decisions the first time around.
I close by acknowledging the outstanding work of grassroots organisations that support our asylum seeker communities—organisations such as the Maryhill Integration Network and the Scottish Refugee Council, which offer a lifeline to those struggling with the institutional harm inflicted by the Home Office. That vital work should not, however, be shouldered by third sector organisations alone. It is essential that the Government take those issues seriously. It is common to see the slogan “Refugees welcome” around Glasgow. That absolutely remains the case, but we need a fresh approach in Home Office policies to enable us to support those in our communities more effectively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important debate. The asylum system in this country is failing. In the year ending September 2020, the number of people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim reached 60,548, a record high, and 76% were waiting six months or more. That cannot be pinned solely on the covid-19 crisis: waiting times were already rising dramatically prior to March 2020, and the number of asylum applications actually fell by 80% during that year. I have a constituent, originally from Yemen, who claimed asylum in June 2019. He was told by the Home Office that he would be contacted about a substantive interview within six months. He is still waiting almost two years later and has had to forgo a PhD offer, which he is unable to accept while his application remains pending. That perpetual process can only be seen as a deliberate part of the wider hostile environment towards migration pursued by the Government.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 123,000 asylum seekers and refugees in the UK at the end of 2015. Asylum seekers and refugees face unique and complex challenges related to their mental health, and they are often at greater risk of developing mental health problems. Research commissioned by NHS Leeds has shown that 61% of asylum seekers will experience serious mental distress, and they are five times more likely than the general population to have mental health needs. They are less likely than the general population, however, to receive support. The conditions connected to the process of seeking refuge—whether it be a protracted, processed asylum claim or separation from the family, or other common concerns such as poor housing—lead to higher rates of depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
The Government could and should take immediate steps that would have a significant impact on the positive wellbeing of asylum seekers in Britain: immediately ending detention in unsafe, overcrowded accommodation such as Napier barracks, which we all can see is one of the clearest expressions of the disdain with which asylum seekers are treated by them; giving asylum seekers the right to work; preventing them from being left in limbo while they wait for a decision that could take years; ending the conditions of no recourse to public funds; and increasing benefits support for asylum seekers from the current paltry sum of £39.63 a week. The Government also need to set out a strategy to clear the backlog of asylum cases, because the delays are adding to the existing trauma. Ultimately, it will be refugees who continue to suffer while the Government remain intent on stoking anti-migration sentiment as part of their wider culture war.
I would like to start by thanking all those who work with and help asylum seekers and refugees in Newport. They include The Sanctuary project, the Welsh Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, iNEED, Feed Newport and all the other organisations and individuals doing so much good work.
The Government have been keen to cultivate an image of being hard-line on asylum. The Home Office’s decision to house asylum seekers in the cramped, unsafe Penally barracks in west Wales during a global pandemic ignored both the welfare of asylum seekers and the concerns locally about the conditions and the unsuitability of the accommodation. The Home Office then abruptly emptied the camp, resulting in a flurry of people needing accommodation and support with inadequate measures in place. That just highlights the lack of dispersal accommodation and the need for the Government to properly help public bodies deliver services. I have to say, it stands in contrast to the approach of the Welsh Government.
That is important because, as has been said already, we know that asylum seekers and refugees are especially at risk of developing mental health issues. Research from the Welsh Refugee Council shows that refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population as a whole. The factors that contribute to this are not hard to identify. Before arriving in the UK, refugees may have lost loved ones, experienced violence or persecution or seen their livelihoods fall away, and in many cases will have made a perilous journey overseas. These traumas are often compounded on arrival in the UK by financial insecurity, the inability—as has been spoken about—to gain stability through work, issues with accommodation, the constant fear of deportation, the sense of isolation that comes with family separation and the all-encompassing stress of wrangling with a complex asylum system.
I have seen the last point at first hand through my casework in Newport. I pay a special tribute to my long-standing and excellent caseworker Sarah Banwell, who has much expertise in this area and many friends in the communities in Newport. Lengthy Home Office delays add to the stress by allowing the uncertainty to linger. Over the last few months, my office has dealt with constituents who have been waiting up to two years for their asylum interview after claiming asylum in the UK, while others are still waiting for their biometric residency permits to be issued six months after a positive outcome of their UK Visas and Immigration application. There is a real human cost to this.
On the delays, I know Home Office staff work really hard, and I appreciate that, in a pandemic period, adjustment will be needed. However, there should have been more decision making, and that is down to leadership and oversight at the top. The additional pressure caused by the delays is being heaped on individuals, inevitably resulting in greater strain on already hard-pressed mental health services. Liz Andrew, head of adult psychology for the Aneurin Bevan health board, which covers my constituency, has pointed out:
“It is hard to offer help when someone does not know if they are going to be granted leave to remain. They will remain in a state of threat and worry and this will make it harder to process trauma memories.”
Nor does it help that support services have struggled to provide home visits and face-to-face services in the pandemic, which leads to more isolation, or that accessing remote services is difficult for those who do not speak English as a first language and also because of digital exclusion. That has an impact on the ability to communicate about someone’s case, but also limits their ability to access things such as English as a second language classes. I hope Ministers listen to the concerns today. It is time for them to look again at their approach.
It is a pleasure to contribute today with you in the Chair, Sir Charles, and to do so as a representative of Sheffield, the country’s first city of sanctuary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing the debate and on the powerful and comprehensive way in which she opened it.
The Home Secretary recently said that our asylum system is broken. She is right, although it is perhaps worth remembering who has been running it for the last 11 years. However, it is broken, above all, for those who come to this country seeking refuge, and too often it breaks them. The Government’s new plan for immigration encapsulates the approach of Ministers, framing asylum seekers as the problem rather than addressing the problems they face, dehumanising those who seek the refuge provided under international law and the treaties to which we are proud signatories, and talking about them as illegal migrants.
The move towards detention on arrival in the Government’s new plan is deeply worrying, particularly after the experience of Napier and Penally barracks, which others have mentioned. Reception centres where asylum seekers will be sent as they enter the UK look dangerously like becoming detention by another name. We have seen with immigration removal centres how facilities established for one function quickly develop another: long-term detention.
Moving towards detaining on arrival would shut down community links and create isolation. Those who seek asylum, with all the trauma associated with the persecution or conflict from which they are fleeing, which is often added to by the journey they have had to make, have that trauma exacerbated by detention. I co-chaired the 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention, when detainees told us that it is “worse than prison”, because prisoners count down the days to their release, while those in detention count them up with no certainty about their future. Experts told us that those who were detained for over 30 days, as so many were—many for months, some for years—had significantly higher mental health problems.
There is a solution, and the Government have piloted alternatives to detention. I have met with previous Ministers who are genuinely committed to those alternatives, recognising that detention is inhumane, inefficient and expensive, but I understand that, instead of being expanded, these programmes are being wound down, with Action Access already finished in March. As the Government have committed to evaluating the programmes, I would be grateful if the Minister told us in winding up when the reports on those pilots will be published.
This morning I heard from the Snowdrop Project in Sheffield, a brilliant charity providing long-term support to survivors of human trafficking. It talked about the delays and indecision in the system, which traumatise survivors of trafficking. One victim supported by the project was exploited in the UK in domestic servitude until she managed to escape. She claimed asylum and was recognised as a victim of trafficking in the national referral mechanism. She was not granted the discretionary leave to remain, to which she was entitled as a recognised victim, despite multiple requests.
The Home Office delayed making a decision on her case for some years, despite legal and political representation highlighting the impact of that delay on her mental health. After four years, her asylum application was refused, but the case was appealed successfully and finally, after five years, she was granted protection in the UK. Those years of uncertainty had a profound impact on her mental health. She suffers from severe anxiety, depression and PTSD, and receives support for suicidal intentions. Someone who had been accepted as a victim of human trafficking should have been given leave to remain on that basis and that experience should have been avoided. The Snowdrop Project is right that it is not acceptable to keep someone’s life on hold for five years.
Like many colleagues, I regularly hear from those who are living in limbo, awaiting the outcome of a Home Office decision. They are all victims of what the Home Secretary described as a “broken system”. In conclusion, I hope the Minister will spell out what the Government plan to do to ensure that the Home Office ends the limbo inside and outside detention that is so damaging to the mental health of asylum seekers.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am going to do something that I have never done before in this place. I am going to read a letter—it is such a good letter that it is worth quoting from. This would be easy but for the fact that I dropped my reading glasses outside my constituency office and a passing motorist drove over them. I hope colleagues will bear with me. The letter is from Christina Livesey who lives in Caithness. She says:
“While I appreciate that we must, as a nation, have a care for our own security when considering requests from people seeking asylum, this should not mean that Asylum Seekers are ‘Guilty until Proven Innocent’ and then treated far worse than convicted criminals in our gaols!
There have been reports from credible organisations such as Amnesty International, The Scottish Refugee Council, and Freedom From Torture that Asylum Seekers have while in the care of the British Government:
(a) been denied access to proper medical care, both for physical and mental health.
(b) have been driven to suicide by their circumstances and the lack of care they have experienced.
(c) have been housed in unsuitable places such as former Barracks, where they were unable to socially isolate (and where Covid-19 was spread).
(d) have been held in isolated locations where they had no access to legal advice or any other support services,
(e) have suffered immense trauma before arriving in the UK, and are often separated from their families, if indeed they have any family remaining alive.
This sounds more like the war torn, ravaged ‘Third World’ countries many of these refugees are fleeing from, rather than the civilised, proudly independent nation we claim to be!
I am aware that the Home Office are launching an online consultation of their new proposals (most of which have already been tried and which were later abandoned as unworkable) which will run until May 4th.
Among the measures proposed are to withhold or restrict appeal rights against a refusal of asylum if someone has entered the UK without prior permission. This is much like what Michael Howard did in 1999!
There is a proposal to build new asylum reception centres and withhold financial support from people on the basis of how they entered the country. David Blunkett’s first Immigration Act included each of these measures in 2002!
Britain is surely meant to be carving out NEW measures to build up the country and its people, not merely re-hashing outworn, unworkable policies from ages past. These are NOT policies we can be proud of.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to shape the future of all our citizens, as well as potential future citizens. Let us strive for better, not worse, conditions and for inclusive, not divisive, policies.”
Sir Charles, this is an uncompromising email. She does not mince her words, but she is exceedingly eloquent. I have spoken to her several times prior to deciding to read this letter here in the House of Commons. I often think that policy on this front—perhaps on all political fronts regardless of political colour—can sometimes be wrong. I do not doubt the good intentions and kindliness of people who attempt to do their best by refugees.
I will conclude with two points. First, I believe that the UK has a very proud tradition of accepting refugees. We generally agree that they very much better the nation. I am myself in part descended from Huguenot refugees who left persecution and found safety here in Great Britain. Secondly, in my constituency in the highlands of Scotland, there is a long tradition of strangers being welcomed, taken into the community, and we value the contribution that they make. I have probably said enough, though I have not taken up six minutes. I thank my colleagues for their forbearance in listening to me read an email rather badly, but I think it is worth considering what Christina Livesey said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for setting the scene so very well, and I thank my colleagues for all their marvellous contributions. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). He plays himself down when he says he does things rather badly. On the contrary, he does things rather well. I think we all enjoy his contributions—I certainly do—whether they be in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber. He always gives his thoughts very clearly, and I think every one of us appreciates his comments.
I will begin with this quote from the Henry Jackson Society, because I absolutely agree with what it has to say: “Those that need our help the most are not the young men with the means to reach Britain, but they are the poor, the weak, the vulnerable trapped in conflict.” For me, that encapsulates where we are. I am not saying that we are better than anybody else, but my nature is one of wishing to help other people.
I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights, on health and on the Department for Work and Pensions—in a small party there are a whole lot of things to do, but I love the subjects I have been given and they are matters of interest. I am concerned that we could be throwing the baby out with the bath water, in our well-intentioned attempt to prevent abuse of the system. I know the Minister is a man of compassion and understanding, and a person who wants to help other people. I know that because I have had a friendship with him for many years, since before he was a Minister. Our friendship is the same; it has not changed.
We look to the Minister for the answers and to understand what the Government are trying to do. I understand that they have to control and oversee immigration, and when I asked the Secretary of State this question, she came back with a good answer. I ask the Minister the same question and I would appreciate a response: how can genuine cases involving women and children be addressed under this legislation? The people I refer to are the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.
During the pandemic, I highlighted the need to ensure that asylum seekers had access not just to services, but to food and clothing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has spoken about this, as have her colleagues. A report from Refugee Action stated that asylum support rates are currently set at £39.60 per week or £5.66 per day. My goodness, how on earth could anybody survive on that? I mean that honestly. People cannot live on noodles or the 99p specials in the shops all their lives. The money does not go far. What if they have a family? The problems are horrendous. The amount that these people are forced to subsist on is 73% below the poverty line. Again, I ask the Minister to outline the rationale behind this level of support and if there is an intention to ensure that anyone that lives in this country is able to eat and be clothed regardless of the reason they are here.
I want to give the Minister and the Government a plaudit; it is important that we recognise good things. It is not about asylum seekers, but we did have a scheme that brought people from Syria. Half a dozen families, who were persecuted Christians, came to Newtownards town and have settled, with the help of Government, local government and whole lot of individual bodies in Newtownards. Imagine what we could do if we made the same effort for everyone.
The backlog in decision making and the length of time that it takes to get a decision from Government is having a detrimental effect on mental health. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) gave the figures earlier on about the applicants waiting over six months. I will not repeat them, but can the Minister outline his intention to increase staffing and support so that people can have peace of mind in a timelier manner?
Every one of us has experience of how the pandemic has affected us, not just as representatives but through our constituents, both physically, through all the things that have happened, and in terms of the impact on mental health. I am very fortunate as I live on a farm. Whenever I go home at night, I can go for a walk in the fields with the dogs and get some respite. What about all the people who are living in flats and houses? I have thought about them many times, and I say to myself, “How on earth do they stick that?” How much harder is it for asylum seekers, who are living on a small wage, have lost their family and are living with the trauma of all that has happened in the country they have fled from, to look for support? I recognise that the Government and the Minister are wishing and willing to help. I am not saying the men are not important—they are—but for me the issue is the mothers and the children. We need to have some action for them and some responses from Government about what we are to do.
That is very kind of you, Sir Charles. I expect I could speak for about six hours, but I shall do my best to confine myself.
We are at a pivotal moment for our asylum system, which is in a fragile state and in danger of breaking, because it is in desperate need of investment and of policies to improve it. Instead, the Government propose to take a massive hammer to it. They are not fixing it, but crushing it beyond repair. It is on that rather sad note that I offer congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing such a crucial debate about the mental health of asylum seekers, some of the most vulnerable people we have responsibility for, whether or not they become refugees, and the impact that the asylum system has on them. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and all the hon. Members who have taken part, on their speeches, which amounted to a pitch perfect critique of where we are at. As we have heard, too often people’s experience of the system is grim, and makes the mental health of already struggling people even worse. Those are people who have fled persecution and endured traumatising journeys, and too often are made even more ill by a system that should be helping and supporting them.
The debate has also reflected the fact that the situation works on two levels. First, there are policies that in principle we would all support, but the problem is that in practice they have been starved of resources or implemented in a faulty way, to the detriment of asylum seekers’ mental health. Secondly, the Government have made deliberate policy choices that are designed to tackle the big flying pig that they always point to—the so-called pull factor. In short, they choose to treat asylum seekers here, often, outrageously cruelly and inhumanely, to deter other people from coming here to claim asylum. As a point of principle that is thoroughly objectionable.
Depressingly, the Government’s so-called new plan for the asylum system will make things a million times worse, leaving even more people in limbo facing endless uncertainty and restricted rights. That is a fast track to an upsurge in mental ill health among asylum seekers. That is all on the pretext of a manufactured crisis in numbers, when in reality in international terms the UK receives a tiny number of asylum applications here, that it should be capable fairly easily of processing swiftly, efficiently and fairly. Rather, the crisis that we face is in Home Office resourcing and competence.
That brings me to the huge list of policies that the Government should fix, instead of destroying the asylum system altogether. Each of those could, as I have said, merit a lengthy debate in its own right. First, hon. Members have rightly mentioned the issue of decision making. First and foremost, it is too slow, as several Members have pointed out. That, of course, has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was already bad, and getting worse, beforehand. Secondly, too many poor decisions are made. About 40% of appeals against asylum refusals are successful. We need proper resourcing and training to resolve that.
A further issue is the dispersed asylum accommodation model, which has been thoroughly analysed in several Home Affairs Committee reports. It is right in principle to house asylum seekers in communities; but that approach is struggling in practice, thanks to the model of outsourcing where asylum seekers are placed in inappropriate accommodation and sometimes in altogether poor conditions. Ministers regularly complain that one of the issues is that not enough councils take part. I agree, but lots of councils that would want to take part are put off by the way that that process works. If the Minister wants me to, I shall happily arrange a meeting between him and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—and I am sure that the Local Government Association would want that too—to discuss the barriers to new local authorities getting involved. They include financing, and a them having a proper democratic say in how asylum seekers are treated and where they are placed in asylum dispersal areas.
We have heard mention this afternoon of the level of asylum support. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked how anyone could survive on it. It is a disgracefully low level. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West has championed the right to work through a Bill and on various other occasions. To use her words, excluding asylum seekers from the labour market altogether makes no sense at all. Work is hugely important for self-esteem and self-worth, and the implications for mental ill health of leaving folk out of work for months on end are obvious.
We have heard about the military barracks, and I have spoken about that absolutely disgraceful episode previously. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was absolutely right to ring the alarm bells about the move to institutional reception centres that lies ahead. These military barracks seem to be a prototype of that. That would be a horrendous road to go down.
On family reunion, the UK has already been criticised for its restrictive rules for children who are here and for adult children who are abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) sought to fix that with his private Member’s Bill, but now things are set to be worse, with family reunion rights restricted for those who come to claim asylum here.
I barely have time to mention the new immigration rules. Restricting the admissibility of claims is just going to lead to asylum seekers being left in limbo for a further six months. An attack on the appeals process seems to be proposed in the Government’s new consultation document.
Ultimately, what this boils down to is that the Opposition want to put in place an asylum system that is designed to protect people and assumes that they have fled persecution. We should address abuse with fast decision making so that abusers do not benefit from trying to game the system. The Government seem to have a presumption of abuse, and therefore they intend to make the system as painful as possible to deter it. That is just a thoroughly inhumane way to go about things.
It is a pleasure, as always, to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important and timely debate. She made a number of really important points. Although we are limited in time this afternoon, as others have said, this debate is timely because we have had the Government’s policy statement and new plan for immigration, and there is no doubt that, during the passage of the sovereign borders Bill, we will have to return to some of the really important points that she made.
On the asylum system and the mental health of those seeking asylum, it is hard to know where to start in the time that we have. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, we agree with the Government that the system is broken and is failing everybody, but I politely remind the Conservative Government that they have been in power for 11 years and are, I am afraid to say, the architects of that failure.
A number of really important points were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who raised the backlogs in the Home Office and made the powerful case for returning the right to work, as others did. That is a point that we will return to. The Minister will remember our exchanges and our support for that campaign during the passage of the immigration Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke passionately about the importance of co-ordination and the need for quality dispersal accommodation. We will need to return to the inadmissibility rule changes, passed in December, which will only trap more people in the system for longer. The reference to reception centres in the new plan and policy statement only further blur the lines between detention and initial accommodation.
In the time that I have, I will focus my remarks on contingency asylum accommodation, in particular, and specifically the former MOD sites at Napier barracks and Penally camp, which represent a callousness in decision making that has been nothing short of inhumane. The Government initially claimed that the use of those barracks was due to the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic, yet the equality impact assessment that we have seen, conducted by the Home Office in September, revealed that the use of that particular type of accommodation was not borne out of necessity but was a political choice. It suggested that providing nothing but the absolute bare minimum to those seeking asylum is in the interest of community relations, but even the bare minimum should surely have meant safe. The Government’s reluctance to provide anything deemed to be beyond what is necessary has seen people, including those with leukaemia, diabetes and tuberculosis, housed 28 to a single dorm, sharing limited toilet facilities and communal areas that were cleaned only once a week during the pandemic.
We wrote to the Minister’s colleagues back in December 2020 calling on the Government to commission a review of covid safety in all establishments being used for asylum accommodation—a request that was ignored.
On 8 March 2021, in a report already referenced by others, the then independent chief inspector of borders and immigration published initial findings from site visits to Penally camp and Napier barracks in mid-February. They confirmed that, given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, a large-scale outbreak of covid was virtually inevitable, which is exactly what happened: there were 197 positive cases of covid at Napier barracks between 1 January and late February.
The Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group’s infection prevention report undertaken at Napier, which we secured through a freedom of information request, also confirmed that the site does not facilitate effective social distancing.
The ICIBI report raised serious safeguarding concerns about those who were most vulnerable, stating that there was inadequate support for people who had self-harmed and that people at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit isolation block that was unfit for habitation. Even more distressing was a survey conducted by the inspectors that found that one resident in three at Napier barracks had felt suicidal during their time there. That clearly demonstrates the damaging psychological impact that our asylum system is having on vulnerable individuals who require specialist medical care and need to be housed in suitable and safe accommodation.
In evidence provided to the Home Affairs Committee last month, the Government claimed that they had been following guidance in every single way, but the CCG and ICIBI reports make it explicitly clear that at no time has that been true. The barracks are just one element of this system, which is failing everyone, but they represent the recklessness of this Government at their worst, putting their desire to be perceived as hard-line on immigration above what is right, fair and safe.
We know that dispersed accommodation, with local councils and communities working alongside Government to make much better choices, will be the way forward. We are part of a valley of sanctuary in Halifax where organisations such as St Augustine’s are instrumental in supporting those seeking asylum and refugees, and facilitate integration within communities.
Ordinarily, a political choice to use barracks as asylum accommodation would lack humanity and compassion, but in a pandemic it is unforgivable. There is an opportunity, with the upcoming legislative changes, to build a fairer and swifter asylum system that does not have a detrimental impact on a person’s health and wellbeing, but instead unlocks a person’s potential. However, that will require a significant shift away from some of the proposals outlined in the policy statement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this debate on the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health. It is timely, given our wider debate on the subject.
It is important to underline at the start the fact that our United Kingdom has a proud record of helping those facing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty around the world. As part of that, the UK resettled more people through planned resettlement schemes between 2015 and 2019 than any other country in Europe. In addition, the UK Government, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in relation to the contribution that his own area made to this work, have delivered on their commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees directly from the relevant region under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, despite the obvious challenges presented by the pandemic.
However, we recognise that significant improvements are needed to protect our asylum system from being gamed or abused by those who are actually economic migrants, while ensuring that it offers protection and fairness to those in need of our support. That includes, as a number of hon. Members have made clear today, a need for much more prompt decision making.
Through our recently announced new plan for immigration, we are committed to increasing the fairness and the effective operation of our system, so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of our protection, while deterring illegal entry to the United Kingdom by those coming from safe and democratic countries with functioning asylum systems. That is about breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those whom they endanger, including through dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings.
We must do all we can to stop the criminal activity, which is putting lives at risk, while ensuring that we still play our part in the international effort to support those who are fleeing war and oppression in other parts of the world. I therefore urge all who have an interest in the issue to take part in the consultation on the new plan and to help to shape the future by creating a fair but firm system.
I note the concerns raised about the type of accommodation being offered to asylum seekers. To put that in context, we have seen an increase in demand for accommodation during the pandemic of about 30%, resulting in more than 60,000 asylum seekers being provided with safe and secure accommodation while their claims are considered. The challenges encountered throughout the pandemic have led to the use of contingency accommodation, including hotels and Ministry of Defence sites, and to some people being accommodated in such accommodation for more than a brief period. We are working closely with local authorities across the United Kingdom and with our contractors to procure more housing, reduce our reliance on this type of accommodation and minimise the time individuals are housed in it, when it is necessary to retain it.
Despite the challenges we have faced, we have consistently met our statutory obligations towards destitute asylum seekers. That has included, at times and where appropriate, continuing to provide accommodation when support would, in normal times, have ceased. We have also recently increased support payments for people in dispersal accommodation. Support maintenance payments are calculated using a methodology that the courts have considered sound, and the most recent increase of around 5% is above general year-on-year inflation of 0.8%.
However, as mentioned during oral questions, we need further commitment in this area in communities not only across Scotland, but across the rest of the United Kingdom. Put simply, passing motions, making statements of solidarity and sending letters does not provide the Home Office with options to house people seeking asylum. I was interested to hear the comments from my SNP shadow, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). In that regard, discussions between the Home Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government continue—work that I hope will be strongly supported by Members from Scotland who contributed today. That action forms part of and supplements the ongoing work of the Glasgow joint partnership board.
Across our United Kingdom, some very welcome progress is being made. I reference in particular the renewed commitment to providing dispersal accommodation in Wales. As I have noted, that is important because it helps to reduce our reliance on temporary, contingency and initial accommodation, allowing us to exit some sites we have been using, including Penally barracks.
All asylum seekers and refugees can access mainstream health services wherever they are in our United Kingdom, in line with the resident population, with these services being mostly devolved matters, alongside other aspects of health policy, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the asylum process, we take all possible steps to identify potential safeguarding risks at the earliest opportunity, while acknowledging that, because of their journey and history, asylum seekers are not always ready or particularly willing to declare mental health issues to Home Office officials. When they first encounter the Home Office, asylum seekers are given the opportunity to declare any vulnerabilities that might impact on the way we manage their claim.
We also fund a charity-run help line, managed by Migrant Help, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for all those in the asylum process to seek advice and guidance, including when they are concerned about their own health or the health of a family member. Migrant Help will also provide an interpreter if required and escalate any issues of concern to the Home Office asylum safeguarding hub, which provides a link to the organisations with statutory responsibility for asylum seekers’ care, such as medical professionals and social services. That helps to ensure that there are clear, straightforward means through which concerns can be raised with the Home Office, and then with relevant professionals as required, case by case.
For those destitute asylum seekers who are supported by the UK Government in accommodation, our providers are contractually obliged to deliver welfare support, including staff appointed as welfare officers. They will also engage the emergency services where an immediate risk exists to the health of the individual or another person and deliver ongoing support while they are accommodated. Supported asylum seekers also receive a comprehensive induction in a language they understand, which details local and national support services available to them, as well as information to help them to settle into the UK.
Wherever we accommodate asylum seekers, we support their mental health and wellbeing through close working with local health services and, where practical, the provision of on-site activities such as sports and language training. We understand that some asylum seekers need more specialist support for their mental health. We therefore established a mental health forum, bringing together colleagues from across the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and NHS England, alongside several non-governmental organisations, to discuss improved access to health pathways and alternative opportunities to support wellbeing throughout the asylum journey. We are looking at extending that group to involve counterparts in the devolved nations. We are keen to continue supporting vulnerable service users to prevent harm to them or others, and our ongoing engagement with civil society and broader health services provides that opportunity.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West under- standably highlighted the situation in Glasgow. It is right that I put on the record how grateful I am for the support that the whole community in Glasgow provides through their continued participation in the asylum dispersal scheme. As has been mentioned, Glasgow is the largest local authority dispersal area anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it is playing a key role in enabling us to meet our legal obligations.
I thank in particular Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Refugee Council for the support they provided to those who were affected by the tragic incident at the Park Inn hotel on 26 June last year. A significant amount of work has taken place to ensure that we are doing all we can to minimise the risk of a similar incident taking place again. An internal evaluation was commissioned and undertaken to determine whether asylum seekers accommodated in Glasgow were in accommodation that met their needs, in line with the contract, and whether appropriate wellbeing and mental health support was in place during the covid-19 pandemic.
The review looked at whether the accommodation provided to asylum seekers during covid-19 was suited to their circumstances. It explored moves from other contingency accommodation to hotels, including how specific needs are identified and addressed. It also looked at training needs, risk, and safeguarding, as well as considering whether any systemic issues extend beyond the arrangements made to accommodate asylum seekers during covid-19.
The report makes 20 recommendations and identifies key areas for improvement. I am pleased to say that significant progress has already been made in relation to the recommendations, including a review of catering arrangements in hotels, cash payments being made to those in hotels and section 4 and section 95 support, and individuals involved in the incident receiving bespoke support.
Several of the report’s recommendations require collaborative working between the Home Office, Glasgow City Council, COSLA, and Mears, the accommodation provider for the region. My officials advise me that fortnightly meetings take place between those organisations, when the key issues discussed in the report are taken forward, such as hotel moves and use, and the safeguarding and wellbeing of asylum seekers in Glasgow. I would expect Glasgow MPs to receive feedback on that work. If they do not, I will ensure that they do.
This area is complex. As I mentioned, my officials have already approached the Scottish Government and COSLA on a number of occasions about widening dispersal and opening up further areas to dispersal, to help to ease the pressure on Glasgow and the hotels in that city. We certainly look forward to taking that work further over the coming months.
The United Kingdom, particularly the city of Glasgow, has a proud record of giving refuge and sanctuary to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people. The UK Government remain committed to ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees receive the support and care that they need, even in the challenging circumstances of a global pandemic. Our focus, as we take forward our new plan for immigration, will remain on supporting the most vulnerable, ensuring their fair and humane treatment, and working with all our partners on matters relating to asylum seeker health, and mental health in particular. Ultimately, we want to build a system that is firm against those seeking to abuse or game it, but fair in offering the support that this country should offer to those who genuinely need to flee war and persecution.
I thank all Members who have taken the time to contribute to the debate. Some of the very personal testimonies that we have heard are important—people need to hear more of them. A phrase that I thought was quite useful came from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who talked about people being considered guilty until proven innocent. That is something that many of us who deal with asylum seekers in our communities would recognise.
The Minister spoke of his concerns about the system being gamed or abused. Well, there are many things that the Government could do to ensure that the system was neither gamed nor abused, but they are not doing them. One thing they could do is allow swifter decision making, using accurate information. The Minister also talked about criminal people smuggling. If we are tackling criminal gangs, we must recognise that there are innocent victims of those gangs, and if there are innocent victims, we must put in place support for them, but that is not happening just now.
Finally, I again thank all the organisations working throughout the UK to support refugees and asylum seeker communities, particularly here in Glasgow, where we have such a lot of asylum seekers. Glasgow is a city that is very strong and it will always state that refugees are welcome, but we need the Home Office to support us on this, so that we can help those who need our help.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health.