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Vulnerable Asylum Seeker Services: Stockton

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

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

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. Before I start I would like to put on the record my thanks to local organisations Asylum Matter North East and Justice First for the vital work they do supporting asylum seekers in our area, and for the constructive and helpful engagement we have had over the years, which has ensured that problems such as the one I am about to discuss with the Minister are brought to my attention.

The asylum accommodation system has been run by the Home Office through private contractors for the past 20 years, without enough investment in local communities or adequate consultation with them. The outsourcing of these contracts with little oversight from or accountability to the Home Office, coupled with poor planning and ever-lengthier delays in decision making, has meant the accommodation system has lurched from crisis to crisis. The backlog of asylum claims waiting to be dealt with is at a record high, with 67,547 people waiting for even an initial decision and more than 125,000 either waiting for a further decision or due to be removed from the UK. A total of 37,562 applications were made in the year to September, which is more than were made in any 12-month period since the year to June 2004.

As a result of the Government’s failure to deal with processing in a timely fashion, on multiple occasions the Home Office has had to rely on contingency accommodation which, as the Minister knows, means the use of hotels, hostels or other institutional settings on an emergency basis. There are currently around 6,000 asylum seekers in hotels but, contrary to the views of some, they are not living in five-star accommodation.

Stockton’s experience of hosting supposedly “short-term” contingency hotel accommodation over the past two years has demonstrated how unsuitable this institutionalised accommodation is for people seeking sanctuary. Despite the huge efforts of people and organisations across Stockton to welcome and support the women and children accommodated, I have no doubt that they have suffered both physical and mental health harm.

I wish to paint a picture for the Minister of the current circumstances of some of the most vulnerable women in the country, who we as a nation are forcing to live in appalling conditions. I will focus in particular on certain asylum accommodation in my hometown of Stockton. Because of the vulnerabilities of many of the women who find their way to Stockton, I will not closely identify where they are accommodated, although I expect the Minister will be aware of the one establishment that I am going to discuss more fully.

For the benefit of the House, I confirm that I am aware of the place to which the hon. Gentleman refers but, like him, I think that in this forum it is best not to specifically identify the property.

That is very helpful.

Some of the women housed in so-called hotel accommodation in Stockton are pregnant and some have their young children with them. I am told that many of these women are particularly vulnerable because they are victims of human trafficking, brought here by the very worst of people and exposed to sexual exploitation. They are modern-day slaves, abused, beaten and controlled, with little hope of the kind of life we would want for ourselves or our children. It is important, then, that when they escape their abusers and are able to claim asylum, we honour our duty of care to them—a duty to protect them and keep them safe, to provide somewhere for them to live while their asylum applications are being considered, to ensure they are able to eat, and to give them access to the healthcare that many of them so desperately need.

Let me return to the image I was illustrating. The place in which these women are being accommodated is totally unsuitable and is the subject of much concern among those who work with asylum seekers in our area. I remember that, before it was used as asylum accommodation, it was a low-budget hotel, part of a large chain that has long since abandoned it as few people wanted to spend the night there. I dropped by again on Friday and saw the security man guarding the door at the front and the tatty grounds that double as an outside and play space for the residents and their children.

I confess that I have not been inside the building, but for years I have heard at first hand from those who have. The rooms offer only a very few square metres of accommodation and do not even have a private toilet, never mind a shower or proper washing facilities. The shared facilities have become a particular source of concern during the pandemic as, realistically, no person in the accommodation is able to self-isolate. There is nowhere to cook and no proper place to do the washing. The residents have to rely on the food provided, which they often find they are unable to eat, whether for cultural or dietary reasons. I have heard there are frequent complaints about the inability to access nutritional food, which is important for all but especially vital for pregnant women.

In addition, as the Minister will know, pregnant women deal with all manner of difficulties throughout their pregnancy and can experience nausea and problems with certain foods, which makes the lack of cooking facilities even more problematic. Indeed, there have been reports of pregnant women suffering from malnutrition in the accommodation and of women with babies having to use the communal toilet areas to sterilise their babies’ bottles. I have been told about rubbish piling up without being regularly cleared, which means flies and other pests are attracted to the complex. This particular accommodation is also especially poorly situated. It is a mile or more from the nearest homes, nearly two miles from the nearest school, and half a mile from the nearest shop. It is in the middle of an industrial estate, which means that any kind of integration into a wider community is extremely difficult.

In a recent submission on asylum service providers in the pandemic, Tees Valley City of Sanctuary said:

“The size of rooms vary, and double rooms can be so small as to have bunk beds. There are bathrooms shared by around 10 women, no communal areas, just two small rooms where meals are served and a small reception foyer. There is a car park with a few picnic tables outside. This means that during the pandemic there is virtually nowhere for the women to meet with each other or anyone else if they are to keep to rules about social distancing.”

Organisations in Stockton report that the women in the hotel are at serious risk of deteriorating mental health. People do not know how long they will be there, and where they will be sent next. Many women, once they have spent months in Stockton and managed to make some contacts and friends in the town, are then sent elsewhere in the country with very little notice.

Does the Minister agree that this is no place for vulnerable women to be placed—a slum hotel in the middle of an industrial estate with food that they cannot eat and completely shut off from the rest of society? Is he content that vulnerable women who have been abused are even safe in the accommodation that I have described? The fact that anyone has been housed in such a place is truly disgraceful, let alone the vulnerable victims of heinous organised criminals.

This experience mirrors that of communities across the UK. We have seen clearly over past years that putting people in institutionalised accommodation—be that hotels or barracks—causes them harm. People seeking asylum belong in our communities, where they can rebuild their lives. They should not be warehoused and isolated.

Before I discuss my further concerns about what is happening to young women and their children in our asylum system, I am pleased to say that, after much haranguing of Mears, which provides this particular accommodation on behalf of the Home Office, it has finally served notice on the owners of the so-called hotel and will quit using it by the end of next month. I received news of this development just after Mr Speaker granted me this Adjournment debate.

We have been in a similar place previously. I met people from Mears many months ago and they agreed with me then that the accommodation was not fit for purpose—accommodation that had been approved by the Home Office for housing extremely vulnerable women, as I have described. They said that they would stop using it within three months, but, nine months later, not only was it still in use, but more vulnerable young women had been accommodated there. That is certainly a failure on its part, but it is also a failure on the part of the Government who authorised the use of such a building in the first place.

Can the Minister explain to the House what criteria the Home Office uses when approving a hotel for this sort of use? Does anyone ever attend and check these places to see whether they are fit for purpose? It is deeply concerning and upsetting that the Government have overseen such schemes. I could go on for some time about the issues with this specific accommodation, but what I really want are solutions for these young women, who deserve so much from the country in which they have found themselves stranded. To anyone out there who would suggest that these vulnerable women and children should be removed from the country, I say that they need to understand that that would be all but impossible. Indeed, many of these women would find themselves back in the hands of the very gangs that forced them to travel here in the first place. The Minister knows that and so do I.

I recognise and understand that any Government need to get value for money for the public services that they provide and that of course includes asylum seekers’ accommodation. It is true that providers can only work within the budget provided, but what checks are in place to ensure that they are delivering on what they have promised? What checks does the Home Office do when agreeing a contract with a new provider to ensure that they have enough capacity to fulfil it?

I was not the only person who celebrated when G4S and its subcontractors, Jomast, lost the contract to provide accommodation and other services across the north of England, including in Stockton. I well remember the plastic plates provided to people, and will never ever forget the bed quilts that were so thin that a whole one could be stuffed into a pillowcase with plenty of room left. It was left to charities, such as Justice First, to provide people with quilts to keep them warm at night. I pay tribute again to the amazing work of all those who work to support asylum seekers in the Tees valley, such as Justice First, but it is not right that such basic provision has to come from charitable donations rather than the Government.

I remember the awful scandal, when Jomast painted all the doors of houses with asylum seekers in residence the same colour, with a job lot of paint. On the face of it, that was a simple oversight, but the trouble and abuse that those people got as a result was horrendous. Even when the issue was pointed out, Jomast would not change the doors, and we had to push and push and push until it eventually agreed to repaint them.

Along with people across the sector, I was keen to hear how Mears would handle and fulfil the new contract. I always remember one of its executives telling me how the company differed from those it was taking over from, and that it ran housing services, not prisons. I understood exactly what was meant by that and I shared the high hopes of many that things would get better, and they did—to a point. But Mears appeared to have overstretched itself. It did not have sufficient accommodation to fulfil the need and could not reach agreement with a third party that had the required supply. I know that that was about quality rather than price; I understand that Mears wanted to do better, and to end the need for people who were often from different countries and cultures to share bedrooms. I am pleased that over time good progress has been made, but more needs to be done, particularly for the group of people I have been talking about this evening.

Another concern that is regularly raised with me is that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in these accommodation centres. Some organisations in Stockton have flagged that they are aware of people living in deeply inappropriate accommodation, such as the type that I have described. They report that the systems by which people living in asylum accommodation can complain and resolve issues is via Migrant Help, and that the Home Office is opaque and difficult to access and navigate.

People have to log an issue or the need for a repair with Migrant Help. However, organisations and people seeking safety in Stockton report that the current waiting times for Migrant Help to answer the phone are far beyond contractual requirements, and that some requests for repairs are not recorded or passed on to the accommodation provider. Too often, this translates into people being left in limbo, unsure how to resolve urgent issues, and being forced to continue living in inappropriate or even unsafe accommodation.

Despite these clear issues, information about how the providers are performing and meeting the terms of the contracts in Stockton, regionally and nationally remains closely guarded by the Home Office. Only three key performance indicators are published for each provider, making scrutiny and accountability almost impossible. Some contracts are run by multi-billion-pound companies, and while they make a profit, people in the asylum system are left in severely substandard accommodation. Will the Minister commit to the regular publication of detailed performance management information on both the asylum accommodation and support services contract, and the advice, issue reporting and eligibility contract? This should ensure that the performance management regime is open and accountable, and designed to assess whether services are genuinely meeting the needs of people in the asylum system.

I am pleased to tell the Minister and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the borough of Stockton-on-Tees is welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers, and I am proud that it is. Our churches run drop-ins, organisations such as Justice First provide all manner of support, and our schools and health services have done a grand job in giving education and support to many. Although there is a small number of people who take issue with our area’s refugees and asylum seekers, generally our people want fairness and justice. They want to see individuals, families, women and children treated with compassion, to be given a chance and to be safe.

As the welcoming and dedicated people of Stockton have shown, local communities, charities and faith groups often step in to support people seeking asylum when Home Office provision falls short. Again, as we have seen in Stockton, statutory duties and safeguarding obligations mean that at times local authorities are obliged to step in, and many have dedicated staff in their teams to support and welcome people seeking asylum. Despite this, no funding is allocated to dispersal areas to support them and their communities.

The Home Affairs Committee has on multiple occasions recommended that the Home Office must give due regard to the financial and capacity constraints placed on dispersal authorities and provide dedicated funding—in part to give non-participating local authorities the confidence that they would be supported if they opted to become a dispersal local authority. Will the Minister consider the costs and impact of local dispersal with a view to directly funding areas that take in new arrivals in order to support them and their communities? The experience of women and children asylum seekers in Stockton brings into sharp focus the cruelty of the Government’s plans in the Nationality and Borders Bill to massively expand the use of institutionalised accommodation by setting up “accommodation centres”. I worry that these centres will enact more harm on people seeking sanctuary on an unprecedented scale.

While I recognise that Mears has said that it will deliver on its promise to me and cease to use the accommodation I have described, I ask the Minister for some help to ensure that this time Mears does deliver and that this dreadful accommodation in Stockton is taken out of use by asylum seekers once and for all. I ask him to mount a review of the quality and delivery of accommodation and services to the vulnerable women and children I have spoken about, not just in Stockton but across the country; to reassess the criteria for approving accommodation for use by Home Office contractors with a view to improving standards so that accommodation as poor as this cannot be approved again; to urgently address the long-standing structural issues in the management and monitoring of contracted provision, and significantly invest in improvements to the current stock of dispersal housing; and, finally, to give hope to these women and children that while we may not be able to provide all that they want, we will make sure that they are safe, secure, fed and healthy for as long as we need to fulfil that duty of care to them. It is what we would do for our own.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this debate on services for asylum seekers in his community. As he has demonstrated, he is a passionate advocate on this issue and the work being done by his local community to support those who we, as the Home Office, look to support. I welcome any opportunity to hear the views of the House on this important subject, not least given the vulnerability of those involved. I will come on to talk about the specific issue he raised but, like him, I will not reference the exact locations, given the vulnerable nature of these service users. I am sure that he appreciates that that is not about me not wanting to be open with the House, but because it is not appropriate in a public forum to confirm those types of details.

Before I turn to some of the specific points raised, I want to emphasise that the United Kingdom has a proud record of helping people facing persecution, oppression and tyranny, and we stand by our obligations to help those fleeing persecution. Support is provided to destitute asylum seekers until their claims are finally determined, and to failed asylum seekers if they are destitute and unable to leave the UK immediately due to circumstances beyond their control. The support provided includes accommodation, an asylum support allowance, and access to our advice, issue reporting and eligibility provider, Migrant Help. Many local authorities play an important role in supporting asylum seekers, including, as has been well outlined, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, through participation in the asylum dispersal scheme and provision of key support services. I gratefully acknowledge all the Members of this House who represent their local communities and actively work with their local councils in this area of work, not just by talking in the House about supporting those seeking asylum but by actually doing it in their own area and local community.

The asylum system does face some challenges, and the pandemic, combined with the arrival of a significant number of small boats, has increased the numbers of people within the system. That has meant that, in addition to delays in the time it takes to consider a claim for asylum, the demand for support has increased at a time when local authority housing services are already stretched. To put this in context, published data in September 2021 showed that there had been a 35% increase in demand for accommodation since the start of the pandemic, resulting in more than 68,000 service users being provided with accommodation while their claims are considered.

We cannot let this go on. Therefore, through our new plan for immigration, we will seek to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum while deterring illegal entry. It is particularly vital that we put an end to dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings from safe and democratic countries with functioning asylum systems. As the tragic loss of life in the channel last month has underlined, we need to do everything we can to stop people making perilous journeys with sometimes tragic consequences.

As I touched on, the demand on the asylum accommodation estate has meant that we have had to secure contingency hotel accommodation across the United Kingdom, including in Stockton, as has been highlighted in this debate. Hotel accommodation should only ever be a short-term measure to meet our immediate statutory need and not part of our long-term plan for accommodating service users. We are therefore working closely with our accommodation providers to increase the amount of dispersed accommodation available to us to allow us to exit the hotels we are using as a contingency for this purpose.

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

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

Recent conversations have been positive, and we are exploring all the options to ensure that people are moved on from hotels as quickly as possible, including through the very welcome conversations we have had with our local partners in Stockton. We have also been working collaboratively with colleagues across Government, particularly in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to identify empty homes across the UK that could be utilised for this purpose now and potentially as affordable accommodation more widely in future.

Furthermore, we are taking a number of steps to increase the part local authorities play in helping us meet our statutory obligations towards asylum seekers of all ages. I make clear from this Dispatch Box that it is only right that we all do our bit, and not just a small number of areas. We have therefore recently issued the relevant notice to mandate all local authorities to participate in the national transfer scheme, to ensure that the responsibility for caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is shared fairly across the entire United Kingdom. I am grateful for the continued and invaluable support of local authorities across the country, which continue to provide crucial placements to vulnerable young asylum seekers. It is right we do all we can to protect unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, many of whom have been exploited by people smugglers during their journey.

The high number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children over recent months, alongside limited local authority participation in some cases, has placed unprecedented pressure on the national transfer scheme. Out of necessity, and with the children’s best interests in mind, we accommodated these children on an emergency and temporary basis in hotels while placements with local authorities were vigorously pursued. Intake remains very high and the situation remains extremely challenging. Hence, as I have already outlined, the Government have now taken the decision to mandate local authority participation in the scheme, although we are still in the period when local authorities can make representations about their individual circumstances.

I place on record that coming from an area where we have almost the maximum recommended number of people, in Middlesbrough and Stockton, we very much welcome the fact that the Government have taken the step to mandate all other areas, because we are at saturation point, as I think they say. It is only right and proper that other communities also welcome refugees.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. There are other parts of this policy area where we will not agree, so it is pleasing to hear that this is one where we do. My own local authority has participated in the voluntary rota and is taking its share. As he touches on, it is only right that all local councils are doing their fair share unless there are circumstances that mitigate against their being part of it, and are not, for example, not taking part and therefore requiring others to do even more than their fair share of this work.

We have not taken this step lightly, but we believe it acts in the best interests of the children concerned. The main focus of the mandating is to end the use of hotels for accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. For clarity, we aim to return to a voluntary scheme in future, but only when the use of hotels is ended and the system is on a sustainable basis in terms of capacity and likely participation in a voluntary rota.

Alongside the moves to increase participation in the national transfer scheme, we are also working to increase participation in the asylum dispersal scheme to ensure that the local authorities working with us, including Stockton, are not unduly pressured as the high demand continues. We continue to work with local authorities to identify opportunities to increase the number of areas that accommodate asylum seekers across the UK, and we have produced a change plan designed in conjunction with local councils and the local government associations across the UK to achieve a more equitable distribution of service users across the UK.

We are in the process of reviewing the change plan through a number of dedicated forums, and I look forward to confirming more details of the changes we plan to make shortly. Those changes will recognise the points made by local authorities that have been part of the system for a long time—in many cases, they first volunteered to be part of it in 1999 or 2000—about funding and the wider impact of having larger numbers in certain communities. As I say, we are very much engaging with them and look forward to confirming some changes that we believe will address many of the points that have been raised and will actively encourage other authorities to take part.

Despite the challenges that we have faced, we have consistently met our statutory obligations towards destitute asylum seekers. We expect the highest standards from our service providers, including while utilising hotels, and we monitor them closely to ensure that they meet those standards. Where essential living needs are not already provided for in hotels, a cash allowance is provided. Extra assistance is provided for those who can show that they have exceptional needs, and additional support is also available for special cases—for example, further top-ups are available for families with pregnant mothers or very young children.

All asylum seekers have access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to the advice, issue reporting and eligibility service provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help, through which they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services and get information about how to obtain further support.

The Minister heard my concerns about the level of service provided by Migrant Help, including the time it takes to answer the phone and that it often does not even pass on particular complaints. Will he review what is happening there to ensure that it delivers the standards that he expects?

I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman again on those points, and I am happy to review that. We welcome feedback about how the service is performing, particularly from Members of Parliament who represent constituencies where a larger number of service users are likely to be accessing it. We certainly encourage hon. Members to come forward if there are particular problems or issues. I appreciate that some service users may not necessarily want to approach the Home Office directly, but we welcome it when they make representations to alert us to issues via a local Member of Parliament.

I turn to the specific situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. While I am at the Dispatch Box I take the opportunity to thank Julie Danks, the managing director of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, for the progressive and collaborative approach taken in working with us to help to understand the local issues and to raise the standard of services delivered.

I will not name it, but one of the hotels that we have been using in Stockton has been used exclusively for women and women with children, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. We have agreed to move away from that hotel and to move women with children as a priority to our community-based dispersal accommodation. Single women will also be moved to an alternative location within the community. I thank the council again for the constructive engagement that we have had about providing an alternative to the use of that particular hotel.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why, for obvious reasons, given the vulnerability of those people, I will not go into the details of those arrangements on the Floor of the House. I would be happy to brief him separately about the arrangements being made, if he is not already aware of them. I hope that that is acceptable to other hon. Members present and that they understand why I make that offer separately rather than detailing them in this speech at the Dispatch Box.

We believe the changes we are putting in place will significantly improve access to the specialist support services available for all those in need. As background, our standard services include health and wellbeing screenings, an on-site resident welfare manager during business hours, appropriate contacts available outside business hours to ensure any urgent issues are resolved, and an induction pack in a number of languages that is made available on arrival. Alongside our standard support services, a range of on-site activities has also been available in the facilities we have used, and these include classes for mothers and babies, playgroups for toddlers, language lessons and careers support, recreational activities and wellbeing classes. Pregnant women have been supported and then, where possible, moved into mother and baby units close to the hotels we have been using. However, as I have touched on, we do want to move away from the hotel to which the hon. Gentleman referred in particular.

While I am at the Dispatch Box, I would really like to highlight the community and charity organisations in the area that have been helping to support us. One of them, working in collaboration with our contractor, has provided additional items for service users and a range of activities and classes to help women access services and support. We will continue to work with all partners to ensure that mothers with young children are supported locally and are able to access local networks and services. We do not underestimate the importance of these services and the value they provide, especially to women with babies, who may find the first few months of motherhood challenging, and those with young children trying to adjust to life here in the UK. In all cases, we will seek to ensure that relocation of any individual is appropriate, and decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Let me conclude by again expressing my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue in the House. Again, I really want to thank all in Stockton—MPs, councillors and the wider community—for the commitment they are showing. I do encourage more local authorities from across the UK to engage with the Home Office, through the strategic migration partnership, to increase dispersal and relieve overall pressures on the system and the need to use hotels as contingency accommodation.

As I said earlier, the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge, sanctuary and support to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people, and the communities of Stockton North have provided us with invaluable support in doing just that. However, we cannot do this without the support—the active, engaged support—of local communities, and I believe the hon. Gentleman can be proud that this is something his community has provided for many years, is continuing to provide to this day and will I am sure go on providing for many years to come. With that, and having paid tribute to those who are doing their bit, we would now encourage others to step forward in this way and do theirs as well.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.