Select Committee statement
We now come to the Select Committee statement. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), representing the Home Affairs Committee, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Dame Diana Johnson to respond to these in turn. I should emphasise that the questions should be directed to Dame Diana Johnson and not to the relevant Government Minister. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may also take part in questioning.
I would like to start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this statement today. On Monday this week, as the Home Affairs Committee report, “Channel crossings, migration and asylum”, was published, the number of people who had made the dangerous journey across the English channel from France to the United Kingdom rose above 15,000 this year. Last year the figure was 28,500, and this year the Home Office predictions suggest that as many as 60,000 people could arrive on our shores on makeshift, leaky dinghies hardly worthy of the name of “boat”, wearing lifejackets more likely to drown them than save them.
In Dover recently, members of my Committee and I saw the arrival of two such vessels crowded mainly with men, but also with women and small children on board these potential death traps. At least 166 people have lost their lives in the channel since the Committee began its inquiry into channel crossings, with 27 of them drowning on a single awful day last November, yet despite the risk of dying, people still come. The day after those 27 people died, 40 more came. Witnesses we spoke to talked of making two, three or four failed journeys from the French coast, turned back by leaking boats or wind and waves, before finally reaching the British coast or being escorted to safety by British vessels, including the Navy and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Those journeys are fuelled by evil, criminal traffickers trading in human misery. Those who risk their lives, and sometimes those of their small children, are so desperate to come here that they are willing to take any risk.
Stopping those dangerous journeys must be one of the highest priorities of a civilised society, and the Committee supports national and international action to stop the criminal gangs preying on vulnerable people. The Home Office has asked for ideas on how to do that, and our report seeks to provide some clear proposals for a way forward.
Before I set out a few of our key recommendations, I want to thank the staff of the Home Affairs Committee for their sterling work, particularly our Clerks Elizabeth Hunt and David Weir. I also want to thank all the members of the Committee. Our membership has changed quite a few times over the course of the inquiry, including the previous Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I also give a very big thank you to all those who contributed by providing evidence and personal testimony to the inquiry.
In the report, we conclude that there is no single magic solution to the problems posed by irregular migration, in a world where millions of people have been displaced from their homes by war, famine, local terrorism and economic necessity. We are clear that detailed, evidence-driven, properly costed and fully tested policy initiatives are by far the most likely to achieve sustainable, incremental change, rather than headline-grabbing initiatives lacking in a rigorous evidence base and with unclear costings. We agree that safe and legal routes for those in search of secure homes are essential to breaking the business model of the criminals who prey on vulnerable people. The UK spends £1.5 billion a year on its asylum system. We house asylum seekers and refugees in hotels at a cost of nearly £5 million a day. We agree with the Home Secretary that the asylum system is broken and unsustainable, but we do not agree that it was those who sought safety by crossing the channel who broke the system.
The Home Office urgently needs to reduce the asylum backlog. The number of people coming to the UK each year is relatively stable—around 48,000 last year—but the time taken to grant asylum or make another determination has steadily risen. We recommend addressing the work in progress caseload of 125,000 as a priority. That means hard, invisible grind; having enough trained staff who remain in their posts long enough to make a difference; effective IT systems; and swifter and better decision making. The most cost-effective way to cut the cost would be to have fewer people in the asylum system, and the most effective way to do that is to get people out of it more quickly through faster decision making; 449 days for the average decision is far too long. No child should wait 550 days—the average time taken—to find out what their future is in the foreign country they have come to.
International co-operation is also needed to tackle what is a worldwide problem. For us, that means better and more co-operation, especially with the French, stepping up joint working. However, we also recognise that the French themselves need to do more. One of the Committee’s key recommendations is to seek a deal with France to process asylum claims to the UK on French soil in reception centres, possibly on a pilot basis, and with a guarantee that those not granted asylum here would remain in France. We already have juxtaposed passport control, so the French are at Dover and the UK authorities at Calais, so such an arrangement does have a precedent, but we accept that it is politically contentious. The Home Secretary has, in the past, suggested that such a plan might draw more migrants to France in search of asylum in the UK. However, we believe that it should be seriously considered as one of a suite of policies, which, together, could make an impact on the current dire situation. It could prevent people from feeling the need to cross the channel unsafely in unseaworthy boats, and it could save lives.
The Committee also recommends seeking closer co-operation with the EU. Brexit meant an end to the Dublin arrangement for returning people to other EU countries when their claims were unsuccessful here. It was not perfect, with fewer returns than successive Governments wanted under that arrangement, but there are now hardly any such returns. The Minister told us that only five people who had crossed in small boats last year between January and November were returned. The Government’s hope of bilateral deals with individual EU countries has clearly not been realised.
Clearly, provision of safe and legal routes for refugees, a realistic recognition that the UK is neither the least nor the most generous host in Europe or in the wider world, and a willingness to co-operate fully with our nearest neighbours by sharing intelligence and equipment to identify and undermine people smuggling criminal organisations may not offer the eye-catching headlines, but they are most likely to work.
I wish to say something about unaccompanied children. The practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels has resulted in an unknown number of children disappearing either temporarily or, in some cases, permanently. We recommend that the Government confirm urgently who is responsible for safeguarding these children and tell us what they are doing to prevent children, alone and potentially vulnerable, simply vanishing from sight into unknown hands and unknown futures.
We also make recommendations about the need to review the experience and the process that children go through when claiming asylum. Key recommendations include: concerns around age assessments; the right to legal advice; an adult to support a child through the process; and the rules around family reunion to be expanded.
Finally, I turn to Rwanda. We have not yet come to a firm conclusion on that policy. We expect to return to it as and when anyone is relocated to Rwanda. There is, though, yet no evidence that the Rwanda policy is deterring crossings. Last week, according to figures very helpfully published on the Ministry of Defence website, a total of 1,474 people in 39 boats came to the United Kingdom, and the trend is up over the past three weeks. There is also no clear idea about how much this policy will cost, or how many people could be relocated to Rwanda under it. Should it survive its ongoing legal challenges, we will return to it, but it is a very good example of why a fully worked out policy might work better than one that is announced before detailed planning has been done to work out how a policy will work and succeed. That is why the Committee recommends that the Home Office undertakes detailed policy work ahead of announcing such policies and plans.
We are also very mindful of the unusual step of a ministerial direction having to be issued in this case—one of only two in 30 years in the Home Office—as the permanent secretary was not satisfied with the evidence of the deterrent effect of this policy being value for money.
In conclusion, our report is the result of more than two years of evidence gathering in which the numbers crossing the channel irregularly rose from around 2,000 in 2019 towards, as I said, an estimated 60,000 this year. Urgent action is needed to stem this dangerous tide, and I commend the report to the House.
As one of the members of the Committee who has sat through every evidence session over the very prolonged period of this report, I welcome its findings. I did not disagree with anything the right hon. Lady said until her peroration. May I pick up on just two points? It was, indeed, unfortunate that the Home Secretary was, yet again, unable to come before our Committee so that we could discuss some of the findings and the Home Office’s latest policy.
On the question of Rwanda, as the right hon. Lady has said, the investigation happened well before the Rwanda policy was actually produced, and yet the headlines of the report seemed to focus on the Rwanda scheme not appearing to be working. Can she confirm that we did agree within the report that it is too early to judge in any case, and that there is evidence of people smugglers encouraging potential migrants to get on with the crossing, which has caused something of a spike because of the changes that the Government are bringing in. Therefore, the jury is absolutely out on that, and it should not be construed otherwise.
Secondly, will the right hon. Lady reiterate—I think this was one of the most important parts of the report—our recommendation that there should at least be pilots for the return of better safe and legal routes, including for a limited number of asylum seekers who are more likely to be successful in coming to the UK? That would enable applications to be made in France, or other European countries, but on the strict understanding that if they failed, the French authorities would take action to remove those people, so that they do not just return to the Calais beaches to make another attempt, as happens currently. Those are the two important points I wished to highlight in this otherwise exceedingly welcome report.
I welcome the comments from the hon. Member, who is of course the Committee’s longest standing member. He is absolutely right that the Rwanda policy came about towards the very end of our deliberations on the issue. He is also right, as I think I said in my speech, that we have not yet come to a conclusion on the Rwanda policy. What we are very clear about, however, is that the evidence for the Rwanda policy has not been forthcoming. We have asked the Home Office to provide modelling and cost estimates, but we have not had any of that. He is absolutely right that we need to wait and see. I quoted the figures to see what has been happening in the past few weeks and months, and at the moment—I understand what he is saying—it does not look as though the policy is having that deterrent effect. I am very willing to concede that. I think the main point we were making was really that the policymaking was poor in this regard.
On the hon. Member’s second point, about pilots undertaken on French soil to determine asylum claims there, the Committee absolutely thinks that would be a good way forward; to test out that model, get the evidence and see whether it would work. Of course, that is dependent on the French agreeing to it. Like the hon. Member, we think that is a conversation that should be had with the French.
I thank the right hon. Lady and her Committee for a typically thorough and well-reasoned report. It is an important contribution to this area of policy. Just this morning the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration reported that the Home Office response to dangerous channel crossings is
“both ineffective and inefficient, exposing gaps in security procedures and leaving vulnerable migrants at risk.”
At the heart of the problem in the Home Office is its basic mechanical inability to process applications, with a backlog of 125,000 and a shortage of staff, when it previously said that it would be employing 1,000 case workers—in fact, at the time of the report that figure was as low as 820. Does she have any view on whether even the figure of 1,000 would be sufficient to meet the current backlog and growing demand?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I, too, have seen the chief inspector’s report, which actually we have been waiting for—it was delayed for some time. The Committee is very concerned about the backlog in the Home Office. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the figures show that by the end of last year there were supposed to be up to 1,000 case workers, and it has not reached that. We are also aware that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had offered to help the Home Office to triage the backlog, by finding ways of speeding up the process. We think that it would be very useful for the Home Office to take up that good advice. He is absolutely right; unless the Home Office has a workforce that is of the right number and it retains that workforce, because it takes a while for people to be trained up to make good decisions, this problem will carry on, unfortunately.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her Committee’s report. I have raised before the appalling human rights record of the Rwandan Government. From recent disclosures in High Court proceedings, it appears that Government officials and diplomats share those concerns and advised the Home Secretary accordingly, including of accusations that refugees are being recruited to conduct armed conflicts in neighbouring countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK Government, in abdicating their responsibility to refugees whom they propose to send to Rwanda, both damage our reputation—I think the report mentions a significant reputational risk to the UK—and set a terrible example for other countries to follow?
The documents that came out of the court case came to light only after our report had been published. We were very much hoping that the Home Secretary would be able to attend the Committee’s meeting yesterday. Unfortunately, she was not available. Sadly, she was not available the week before either, even though that was a very long-standing date in the diary. Therefore, we have not had the opportunity to talk to and ask questions of the Home Secretary or Home Office Ministers about what has happened in the last few days. However, members of the Committee are very alive to the issue of human rights and to the concerns of the UNHCR and others, which have been raised with the Committee, and we will return to this issue. As I said, the issue is before the courts and no one has been removed yet, but we will want to follow very closely what happens in the weeks and months to come.
I thank my right hon. Friend and her Committee for their work on this significant issue and for highlighting a lack of coherence and compassion on the part of the Government. Paragraph 48, in particular, is very significant; it talks about announcements being made prematurely, before issues have been properly worked through. Events at Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire, which I appreciate have been announced since the inquiry, show yet again how the lack of a strategy to deal with the backlog of asylum claims is causing the Government to announce initiatives prematurely. When the Home Secretary does eventually attend the Committee, will my right hon. Friend ensure that she raises the point of Linton-on-Ouse and the fact that there needs to be a coherent strategy rather than initiatives that are more about headlines than resolving the issue?
We have pencilled in a date in September when we hope the Home Secretary will be able to join us, and I am certain that we will ask about the process for engaging with communities, local authorities and MPs when the Home Office is making decisions that will be important for local areas. I very much hear what my hon. Friend says. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), is on the Treasury Bench and will have heard that too, because we have had conversations about communications between the Home Office and key local stakeholders about decisions such as where to house asylum seekers.
I commend the right hon. Lady and the Committee for all their hard work and their recommendations. It is clear to all of us here that a lot of effort has been put into the report. As the report states, some 28,500 people came on small boats last year; this year, the figure is estimated to be some 60,000. In terms of public safety, we are all concerned about what more can be done to prevent launches in France and the traumatic impact on the staff who have to deal with them. The right hon. Lady referred to discussions between the United Kingdom and France about what steps can be taken on the French side of the channel to prevent launches in the first place. Can she tell us where those discussions have got to? What are the obstacles? Are the two Governments talking? Are things happening at all?
Ministers are probably in a better position than I am to answer the final part of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I am not party to those discussions with the French—but he is absolutely right about the importance of co-operation between the UK and France. We recognise that there is already some work going on, but we think it could be stepped up. We are also mindful that the French, at times, have not done as much as they could to stop the launching of these boats. We think that needs to be addressed, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: without co-operation, this will not stop. It is not just the French any more; other countries, such as Belgium, need to be part of these conversations too.
I thank the right hon. Lady and the Home Affairs Committee for the work that went into the report. I do not agree with it all—some of it does not go far enough for me—but I agree with many of the Committee’s findings. In particular, I agree with its call for the Government to prioritise fixing the current system that people are living in now. They broke it; they need to fix it instead of lashing out at those who are languishing in it.
I question the emphasis in the report on deterring people from coming here. We all want to deter people from coming here unsafely, but we rank pretty badly among other equivalent European nations in terms of our responsibility to people exercising their legal right to claim international protection. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on expanding and increasing the safe and legal routes, to which the right hon. Lady referred, to enable to people come here safely. Given the fact that there is evidence that that would reduce the number of dangerous crossings, does the right hon. Lady see scope for a future piece of work looking specifically at how we could develop more and better safe and legal routes?
It is obviously a cross-party report and so had to be agreed by Committee members from all parties. I think we were quite clear about the need for the Government to address and expand safe and legal routes. It is worth mentioning that we are somewhere in the middle of the table: we are not the most generous and we are not the least generous country in taking asylum seekers. That is worth remembering. As I say, the report has cross-party support, and I actually think it is fairly hard-hitting about the situation in the asylum system and in respect of small boat crossings in the channel. I hope we will get a positive response from the Home Office in due course.
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her Committee’s excellent and vital work. The report that we are discussing is just one of three reports published this week alone that have strongly condemned the Government’s approach to our broken asylum system. The Downer report identified serious failings in the Border Force, and the report published today by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration describes the Home Office response to the small boats crisis as “both ineffective and inefficient”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary’s failure to attend the Select Committee is essentially an admission that the Government are utterly failing to handle and grip this issue? Does she agree that it is completely unacceptable that this House is not going to have an opportunity to question Ministers about the deeply troubling findings in the damning Neal report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, and that the Government’s sneaking that report out today is a clear attempt to avoid scrutiny, which is completely unacceptable?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and questions. This statement is obviously about the report and the work that we undertook as a Select Committee over the past couple of years. It is fair to say that we were very disappointed that the Home Secretary was not able to come last week or this week to answer questions on a variety of issues. The Home Office will have to respond to our report: it has to do so within eight weeks—I think that is the normal timetable—although in the past that timeframe has been rather elastic and the Home Office has not always responded as quickly as we would have liked. This is an urgent matter, though, and the fact that other reports have come out this week will hopefully enable the Home Office, in crafting its response, to take a view about what is working, what is not working and what more it needs to do.