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Asylum Seeker Accommodation: RAF Manston

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021

To ask the Minister to tell the House of his proposals to accommodate asylum seekers at the former RAF Manston barracks.

As the House knows, there has been an unacceptable rise in the number of small boat crossings. It is absolutely right that the Government take all necessary steps in response to what is an ongoing challenge. A new triage facility is being established on part of the Ministry of Defence site at Manston in Kent. It will provide safe and secure accommodation for migrants while the Government carry out the necessary checks. Used alongside existing reception arrangements at the port of Dover, the site will enable the processing of large numbers of arrivals simultaneously. We take the welfare of migrants seriously and will ensure that they receive basic welfare provisions, including hot food, fresh clothing, and, where necessary, medical care.

In the new year, we intend to expand activity at the Manston site to conduct more detailed security and initial asylum screening in parallel before people are dispersed. Arrivals will be expected to remain on-site for a maximum of five days while the security and initial asylum processing checks are undertaken, until they leave to go into further, appropriate accommodation. Our aim is to make our processes more efficient and to reduce pressure on the overall asylum system.

However, this is only one part of a wider process. The Government remain committed to bringing an end to dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings. We are overhauling our asylum system to ensure that people-smugglers cannot profit from human misery. The tragic deaths in the channel last month underlined in horrific fashion just how dangerous these journeys are. Our new plan for immigration will reform the system and build one that is fair on those who play by the rules and firm on those who do not. It will reduce pull factors by making it more difficult for migrants to remain here where they have no lawful right to do so. The British people want to see change, and the Government are firmly committed to delivering that change.

The former RAF barracks at Manston is about to be released by the Ministry of Defence and is required, once the site has been cleared, by local people for housing. It lies adjacent to Manston airport, which we hope to see reopened in the near future as an airfield once the long-awaited development consent order has been determined. This is not an appropriate site for the proposed purpose.

On Friday 10 December, I received an email from the executive officer of Kent Wing informing me that 2433 Air Training Unit had been given until today, 15 December, to vacate premises at the former RAF barracks and fire training school

“in order that an Immigration Centre could be established there”.

This was described as

“not for us to debate; it is an order to us”.

That was the first that I had heard of this Home Office-instigated proposal. There had been no consultation with me, as the Member of Parliament, with the leader of the county council, with the leader of Thanet District Council, or, I believe, with the county constabulary. I spoke to the Minister of State on that day and was promised a full briefing, with civil servants present.

The leader of Thanet District Council was called by Home Office officials at 5 pm on Monday, two days ago, and the leader of Kent County Council at 6 pm. Again, there was no consultation, and to date, Kent’s senior health officer has not been consulted or even informed officially that the Home Office, which has known of the developing cross-channel people trafficking issue for months, and of the developing crisis for weeks, was proposing to create a screening and processing centre at the unsuitable Manston Road site. Neither were proposals for a phase 2 transfer and triage facility from Tug Haven to Manston discussed; nor was a further proposal for a phase 3 expansion of facilities, to handle the still-to-be-determined number of migrants over an unspecified length of time, consulted on. All we were told by the civil servant leading the project who, as I understand, was working from home and has not visited the site, is that the Home Office is establishing a processing centre—not might be, is establishing—before Christmas.

When I met the Minister of State yesterday, I asked that a stop be put on the project and that proper consultation be facilitated, with a degree of courtesy that from the Home Office has been signally lacking to date. From reports of phone calls made last night, it is clear that officials have ignored that request and are blundering on—hence my request for an urgent question, Mr Speaker. It appears to me that the Home Secretary and Minister of State have been blindsided by officials into yet another knee-jerk reaction to a problem that ought to have been foreseen, and should have been avoided.

As it stands, the current dog-whistle proposal appears to transfer arrivals securely from Tug Haven to Manston barracks, where they will be accommodated, in mid-winter, in marquees, and detained securely while they are being processed. There is no indication as to how the site will accommodate those human beings, how they will be made secure, or what facilities will be made available, other than statutory on-the-site medical services. These are real people who have been subjected to great misery as a result of circumstances that we may discuss on another occasion. As a result of the lack of foresight and preparation, it is now proposed that people should be processed under largely unsuitable conditions, simply to satisfy a perceived demand that can, and should, be met by other means.

I have identified at least one clean, comfortable, and secure operational vessel that can, if commissioned, meet the immediate and longer term need, and I am advised that others are available. I would be grateful if the Minister would now instruct the team to do as I have already requested, put this unacceptable and unworkable proposal on hold, and properly, thoroughly, and swiftly examine the viable alternatives. Perhaps while doing so he could conduct the consultations that ought to have been held weeks ago. Trying to railroad a bad idea through the shelter of the Christmas recess can only have unfortunate and undesirable consequences for the communities and people affected, and for the Government.

I gave some leeway to the right hon. Member for North Thanet, because I knew how important it was—in case people are wondering why I allowed the urgent question to go beyond its normal time.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tone in raising this issue on behalf of his constituents, and I fully appreciate the sensitivities he has expressed. I know, not least because he chaired the Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, that he understands and appreciates the pressures that the Department and Government are currently experiencing in relation to the small boat challenge.

I appreciate that the current pressures are real and challenging for our staff on the ground, and we must be responsive to the issues and challenges they face in going about their work. Of course, this issue has come about directly in response to the high numbers of crossings we have seen, which have been so vivid, and about which I know people across our country are concerned. Safety is very much at the forefront of our consideration, not just for the arrivals, but for our staff in the way I have alluded.

My right hon. Friend has raised a number of points that I want to pick up in responding. It is fair to say that consultation is ongoing—I make the point again that we are having to respond to these challenges at pace—including with local authorities, the NHS, him as the constituency Member of Parliament and the police, for example. We have had to move at pace, and the most recent inspection confirms how important it is that we take the steps we are proposing. As I say, my officials spoke about our plans with local political leaders, their officials and the local police at the first opportunity, and they will continue to do so. I welcome their constructive engagement so far.

My right hon. Friend asked when activities at this facility will start. We are planning to have potential overspill facilities in place over the next few days. In terms of volumes, we will keep that under review. At the moment, we are assessing the capacity and capabilities of the site and what is appropriate to it, and there will of course be times when the site is empty, when crossings are not happening. He asked who will go there. This is an overspill site for Tug Haven and initial processing. We would expect men, women and children to go there as necessary, but for a maximum of five days. We will manage unaccompanied asylum-seeking children separately under the existing arrangements with social services.

My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a permanent arrangement. We will keep our use of the Manston site under review, but we expect to continue to use it for some time. He has suggested some alternatives. If he would like to share those details with me, I would be happy to take that away and look at what he is suggesting, but I go back to the key point in all of this, which is that the Government’s objective is to end these channel crossings. That is the objective we continue to work towards, and it is what the British people expect. We have a comprehensive plan of action—I have set it out many times in this House—for how we achieve that. Of course, getting that right means that there would not then be the need for facilities such as the one he has concerns about.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has had to say, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for having secured this important urgent question. Tomorrow will be a year to the day that the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) secured an urgent question in this Chamber on the Government’s rule changes, which gave the Home Office the powers to deem asylum claims inadmissible. We described the proposals as unworkable then. Here we are, a year on, and people are becoming trapped in our asylum system by the Home Office, having had their claims deemed inadmissible, but without any functioning agreements in place to move anyone through and out of the system. The Minister has said that 4,561 notices of intent have been served, yet only five people have been returned.

The Minister has said that this site is an attempt to improve the efficiency of the system, so can he explain to the House why the Government passed these inadmissibility rules when the consequences are that thousands of people have endured longer stays in the asylum system than necessary? That is to the detriment of a person’s wellbeing and makes no sense for the Home Office at all. The initial asylum decisions taken by the Home Office have dropped from 28,623 in 2015 to 14,758 now, which is contributing to the backlog. Some 64% of those waiting for a decision on their asylum claims are waiting longer than the six-month target, so the backlogs in processing times are crippling the system. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why progress on the rates of decision making has collapsed.

The Minister says that RAF Manston barracks will be used more as a reception centre than long-term accommodation, but we know that public health and fire safety advice was ignored by the Home Office prior to Napier and Penally barracks opening as asylum accommodation. We have heard once again about how consultation with local agencies has sadly been absent.

Given what we know about the new variant, dormitory-style accommodation must be avoided if we are to protect those accommodated there, staff and the wider community. Can the Minister confirm whether RAF Manston barracks will have an advisory committee? Can he rule out that children will be held there, and can he provide assurances that this is a temporary measure?

Given that this Government have promised the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, why has the scheme still not been established, and why has eligibility for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme been tightened overnight? I would be incredibly grateful for some insight on that decision.

Finally, in September 2020, the Home Office was by the inspectorate about the inadequate facilities at Tug Haven for dealing with vulnerable people, especially children, who may have experienced dangerous journeys. What assurances can the Minister give us that Manston barracks would be a significant improvement on the current situation?

I am very grateful to the shadow Minister for her various questions and of course the assiduous way in which she always goes about these matters. We spent quite a lot of time together debating the Nationality and Borders Bill in the Committee that considered it in great detail. The point that I would make initially is that what we are talking about here is a very considerable number of arrivals. Of course, it is right and proper that we have appropriate and safe facilities in place to process those arrivals in a manner that is fitting and of course has safety at the forefront. We believe that the steps I have set out today are necessary to achieve that and to make sure that we have the capacity, with the ultimate aim of course of stopping these crossings from happening in the first place, which is something that we are continuing to work towards.

On the point about inadmissibility, as I have explained several times in different settings in this House, that is very much about our future policy and where we are hoping to get to. We believe very strongly, and I know that Opposition Members have different views on this, that people should seek asylum or claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. That is of course the quickest route to safety. The shadow Minister will also know that we are continuing to look at what more we can do on the issue of returns along those inadmissibility lines, and upholding that very long established principle under successive Governments of both sides that people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. Those negotiations and discussions are ongoing, as she would expect.

On asylum processing, of course one thing that I very much want to see, as do my ministerial colleagues, is cases decided more quickly. We want to provide sanctuary to those who need it as quickly as possible and to return those with no right to be here without needless delays. That is what our Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration are all about. We are getting on: that Bill is passing through the House, and we will operationalise the measures in it as quickly as possible on Royal Assent. I think that is what the British people want to see. It is the right and responsible thing to do, and that underpins the entirety of our policy.

On Napier specifically, we have been responsive. Again, we have set out many times the improvements that have been made to that site. It is right that, for example, when the inspectorates come in, look at these sites and offer recommendations, those are considered properly and thoroughly, and acted on as appropriate. That is why we respond formally to those reports and set out the steps that we intend to take to address any of the issues raised.

On the point about Afghanistan, what I will do—if I may, given that today we are debating the issue of Manston specifically and the triaging facility—is ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Afghan Resettlement to provide an update to the shadow Minister.

How many hotels have now been contracted to deal with illegal migrants and with asylum seekers under Government contract, what is the current year’s budget for all this work and will the Minister promise that, in future, MPs in any constituency where new facilities are going to be procured will be consulted first?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course, as is standard practice, budgets are agreed formally with the Treasury in the usual way. I think it is fair to say that, as Ministers, our door is always open to talk to colleagues about concerns they have about particular circumstances in their own constituencies. I think it is fair to say we are facing very considerable pressures at the moment in this space and it is important that all parts of the country do their bit to help to address some of these challenges. I would encourage local authorities that are not currently assisting with that work to look at how they can help, particularly along the lines of the dispersal model. But to be clear to the House, we want to get away from this reliance on hotel accommodation. We are working towards that objective and that is the right approach.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing this urgent question. His point about the lack of consultation with himself, the local authority and health services is frankly appalling. I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. A cross-party report on the all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention called on the Government to end this military-style accommodation for asylum seekers, which it described as “fundamentally unsuitable” for survivors of war, torture or serious violence. So why is the Home Office ignoring these warnings from parliamentary colleagues? The Home Office previously ignored warnings on the use of Napier barracks from the Red Cross and Public Health England, with the inevitable result of a covid outbreak among those being held there. With the pandemic now entering another dangerous phase, will the Government commit to listening to the experts this time and to following their own health guidance?

Can the Minister confirm that parts of the Manston estate are currently condemned as a result of asbestos being found on the site? We know that there has been very little consultation—in fact, none at all—with the local authority and other key partners such as the health services. Will he tell us what consultations have taken place with the non-governmental organisations that work with torture survivors and victims of trafficking and other trauma? Or is there, as with Napier, a lack of proper planning processes? Finally, the Minister mentioned illegal migrants. When will the Department commit to ending this dog-whistle language? There is no such thing as an illegal migrant. Seeking asylum is not illegal, so when will the Government put an end to this language and to pandering to the lowest common denominator?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his questions. I do not consider that we are ignoring the concerns that are raised. As I have set out to the House, we have consistently been responsive to the reports of the inspectors, for example, and when they make recommendations, we consider them and act appropriately. He will recognise that there is a need for accommodation, and that the system is under acute pressure at the moment, given the number of arrivals. He will also recognise that we are seeking to reform the system. We are bringing forward the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is all about driving reform, processing cases more quickly, providing sanctuary to those who require it and removing those with no right to be here. That is a firm but fair system, and one that I would argue is right.

In response to the hon. Member’s point about there being no consultation with local partners, that is simply not true. As I have described to the House, that engagement is ongoing. He also asked about areas of the site having asbestos. We will of course act entirely appropriately with safety at the forefront. I have made that point several times. Assessments are ongoing in various parts of the site, and it is right that we always act with safety at the forefront of our minds.

We should always remember that it is criminal gangs that are ruthlessly exploiting vulnerable people and bringing them to this country. Can the Minister clarify some issues relating to the site? Will it be used for new arrivals straight after they arrive? He said earlier that they would be there for no more than five days. Following the questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), there was a question about how they would be accommodated. Will they be in marquees, in tents, or in barracks accommodation with proper facilities during this, the coldest period of the year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the criminal gangs responsible for these crossings are evil, and I would like to think that the whole House would share in that message. As I have said, the intention is for this to be an overspill site for Tug Haven. Work is ongoing on site to assess which areas are appropriate to be used for accommodation, and there will of course be appropriate accommodation on site that is safe and that meets our legal obligations.

The people who are going to be taken into this facility are desperate people arriving from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and many other places, and suffering from the most intense trauma. Everything that the Minister has said, and everything that the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) asked, sounds awfully like a repeat of the appalling behaviour of the Home Office over Napier barracks. Can the Minister assure us that people are not going to be kept there at all, and that some better, more suitable accommodation will be found—at the end of the five days, where are they supposed to go? Has the Minister consulted? Many local people in Kent are welcoming asylum seekers and are prepared to support them. Has the Minister discussed the matter with local non-governmental organisations, or is this just some immediate reaction to get through a problem for the moment, never mind the appalling conditions that these poor desperate people are going to be forced into?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his various questions. This is an overspill site for Tug Haven. At the end of the period spent there in the processing phase, people would enter the dispersal and initial accommodation phase, and would of course be appropriately accommodated.

I have said this to the right hon. Gentleman before, but I will say it again: no one has cause to get into a small boat in order to seek safety. People should seek asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

Several hundred asylum seekers are currently being housed in a completely inappropriate location in central Blackpool. The Minister will be aware of my concerns about this placement. Does he agree with the people of Blackpool that the plans for an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers simply cannot come soon enough?

As my hon. Friend knows, in the Nationality and Borders Bill we reserve the right to enter into an offshore processing arrangement. I hear the point that he makes on behalf of his constituents about how strongly they feel about this, and of course we want to operationalise the Bill as quickly as possible.

We have heard a great deal about the pressure on accommodation, but surely that pressure could be relieved if the Home Office were to act more quickly and fairly in processing claims. Will the Minister tell us what action has been taken to ensure that that can happen?

Perhaps the hon. Lady could help us in Edinburgh: perhaps her assistance would enable the dispersal process to take place more readily. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), would be keen to have that conversation with her. Let me also reiterate that our firm objective is to increase and improve the processing of cases in the way that I have described.

Stoke-on-Trent is the fifth largest contributor to the asylum dispersal scheme. We have heard from my hon. Friend about the strain on the system caused by hundreds of thousands of illegal economic migrants crossing the English channel from France. Does he agree that the pressure on the system could be relieved if more local authorities, such as Labour-run Islington Council or the 31 out of 33 Scottish authorities, stepped up and played their part in the national effort?

My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate for the work that his local authority has been doing in this regard. I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to them for everything they have been doing. I think it fair to say that many local authorities around the country could learn a lot from Stoke.

I thank the Minister for his answers, and I commend the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his spirited account of the situation at RAF Manston. As others have said, this is about more than secure accommodation. Can the Minister outline further what measures are in place to deliver education and training for the refugees and their families at Manston and across the United Kingdom so that they can assimilate well into local communities?

As this is about short-term processing, we would not necessarily expect facilities of that kind on site, but of course they will be a key consideration when it comes to dispersal and initial accommodation.

I must say I have some sympathy with the need to act quickly bearing in mind the scale of the problem, so I do not really have concerns about the lack of consultation. Does the Minister agree with me, though, that if individuals are concerned about the quality of the accommodation, the simple answer to that is to not come over here illegally and actually apply for asylum in the safe European country in which they are present? They are not from Afghanistan; they are in France. It is hardly surprising that the Opposition opposes this—I know you would like them all to be in four and five-star hotels; you have made that quite clear—but will the Minister promise me that offshore processing is being looked into seriously?

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not refer across the Chamber to the shadow Minister as “you”. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows by now that when he uses that phraseology he is referring to the Chair, so I ask him to observe the conventions. I call the Minister.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The point I make in response is that nobody should be getting in a small boat to find safety—nobody has any cause to do that. That is why we are so committed to safe and legal routes, for the very reasons he outlines: when people come through such routes, we can provide proper accommodation, support and services to support those individuals.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the Minister suggested that there was a good level of consultation with local authorities in Scotland. That is not consistent with the view from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which, I understand, is told after asylum seekers are accommodated—there is no engagement in advance. I wonder whether the Minister might reflect on the comments he made.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point of order, which is more like a continuation of the urgent question. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister wishes to make a response.

I hope that is helpful. As I say, this is really not a matter for the Chair, but I hope we have had some clarification.