Before I call the Minister, I want to express my disappointment that copies of the statement were not given to the Opposition in good time. The rules of the House make it clear that copies should be supplied at least 45 minutes beforehand: 10 minutes before we start is not acceptable. I am also disappointed that the shadow Secretary of State will have to try to respond to a statement of which copies have not been provided in good time.
There are no officials in the Box at present, but may I say, through the Minister, that officials need to recognise the rules of the House? If they do not understand the rules, we can help them with a training programme, but I say to the Minister now that I do not want to be disappointed again on behalf of the Opposition. I only received my copy of the statement 10 minutes ago as well, but that does not matter; I am more worried about the Opposition.
May I extend my apologies, on behalf of the Department, to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—and, indeed, to you, Mr Speaker—for the delay in providing a copy of the statement? With your permission, however, I will now make a statement about the public health considerations in asylum accommodation.
As the House will know, on the morning of 19 November an individual who had arrived in the United Kingdom on 12 November, and who had been staying at the Manston processing site, sadly died in hospital. Initial test results for an infectious disease were negative, but a follow-up PCR test was positive. We must now await the post mortem results to determine the cause of death, and our thoughts are with the individual’s family.
There has been speculation about the wider health implications across the asylum accommodation system, so I wanted to come to the House to set out the facts, to outline the steps that have already been taken to protect migrants and the general public, and to reassure the public about the additional precautionary measures that we are now taking.
The control and testing of infectious diseases is led by the UK Health Security Agency and the Department for Health and Social Care. The Home Office continues to work closely with both, taking their advice on all these matters and following it. As part of our ongoing dialogue, the Home Secretary and I were updated on the situation over the weekend by Dame Jenny Harries of the UKHSA, who confirmed to us that 50 cases of diphtheria had been reported in asylum accommodation. It is important to emphasise that the UKHSA has made it clear that the risk to the wider UK population from onward transmission of diphtheria is very low, thanks in no small part to our excellent childhood immunisation programme, and also because the infection is typically passed on through close prolonged contact with a case. The UKHSA confirmed that it considers it likely that these cases developed before they entered the UK.
The Home Office has worked closely with the NHS and the UKHSA to identify and isolate anyone with a diphtheria infection. That includes providing diphtheria vaccinations and moving confirmed cases into isolation. While these robust processes and plans for a situation of this type are already in train, it is absolutely right for us now to be vigilant: that is what the public would expect, and that is what we are doing. There are, for instance, robust screening processes on the arrival of individuals at Western Jet Foil in Dover to identify proactively those with symptoms of diphtheria; “round-the-clock” health facilities at Manston, including emergency department consultants and paramedics; guidance in multiple languages on spotting the symptoms of diphtheria; and an enhanced diphtheria vaccination programme, offered to all those arriving at Manston. I can confirm that of those who arrived at the facility this weekend, 100% took up that vaccine offer. There is testing for those presenting with symptoms and for close contacts, and those testing positive are being isolated in a designated place.
Today we are going above and beyond the UKHSA baseline by instituting new guidance on the transportation and accommodation of individuals displaying diphtheria symptoms. From today, no one presenting with symptoms will progress into the asylum accommodation system. They will either remain at Manston, isolating for a short period, or they will travel to a designated isolation centre in secure transport, where they will be treated until deemed medically fit. This is a well-practised protocol from covid times.
We will also continue to ensure that all asylum accommodation providers are given access to the very latest public health advice from the UKHSA, and we will ensure that they are aware of their responsibilities for testing and isolating cases of infectious disease. We will continue working with the UKHSA to ensure that arrangements are of the highest standard and that the UKHSA has everything it needs from the Home Office. We are engaging with French counterparts to assess the state of infectious disease in the camps in northern France.
I fully understand and appreciate the concerns that have been raised, and I assure the House that the Home Office is acutely aware of our responsibility both to those in care and to the British public. For me, the Home Secretary and the Government as a whole, public health is paramount. We will take all steps necessary to ensure that the public are protected. I commend this statement to the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your words about the difficulty of responding to a statement with just 10 minutes’ notice.
I thank the Minister for the information he has given us, but why is the Home Secretary not here? This is supposed to be her top priority. In the past few weeks we have had two urgent questions, a debate and this statement on the chaos, and she has not done any of them. I have to ask: what is she for? She obviously does not have a grip, and she has made this chaos worse.
The Government have failed to stop the proliferation of criminal gangs in the channel, are still refusing to adopt Labour’s proposal for a new National Crime Agency unit to target the gangs, and have failed to sort out the chaos in asylum decision making. They are taking only half as many as they were six years ago, even though they have more staff. Just 2% of last year’s small boats cases have been decided, creating a backlog of nearly 100,000 people waiting more than six months for a decision, compared with just 4,000 when they took office. All of this has led to a completely inappropriate use of hotels, at the last minute, with no proper information for local councils or public health officials.
Then, of course, there is the chaotic handling of the situation at Manston. The Minister has just said that there are 50 diphtheria cases. Can he confirm that that compares with just three cases last year? Can he tell us when Ministers were first told of diphtheria cases at Manston? When were they warned? By mid-October, the Home Office admitted publicly that there were cases at Manston, but Home Office officials told the Home Affairs Committee on 26 October that they had sufficient health arrangements in place to address diphtheria. Clearly they did not.
The Government still kept thousands of people in overcrowded conditions, described by one person as “huddled around fan heaters, thousands of people in overcrowded conditions trying to stay warm.” These conditions clearly make it easy for infectious diseases to spread. The processes described by the Minister are important, but why on earth were they not put in place many weeks ago? It took until 11 November, after thousands of people had been held there for weeks, for diphtheria screening and vaccinations to be recommended for everyone passing through Manston. What on earth were they doing in the meantime?
Even then, on that same day, the Home Office was moving people who had been in Manston into hotels across the country, without even telling councils or public health officials. In one case, the council was specifically told that people were not transfers from Manston even though they were. In other cases, councils were told nothing at all, and there was no information for public health officials about whether people needed further diphtheria screening and vaccinations; this included leaving people to seek treatment for themselves for diphtheria symptoms at local accident and emergency departments.
The Health Secretary has said that 500 people have now been screened and vaccinated, but what about the other several thousand people who have been in Manston? Wherever they now are in the country, have they been screened or vaccinated for diphtheria as well? If not, why on earth not, because that was the public health recommendation nearly three weeks ago and that was already late? Have all those with possible symptoms now been given precautionary antibiotics? Again, if not, why not? We are told that diphtheria is an easy infection to treat and to vaccinate against, which is why we have a universal vaccination policy in the UK. But that needs proper information for health officials to be able to use and the Home Office to get a grip.
Clearly, the Government have ignored health advice and legal advice. The Business Secretary said publicly that when he was a Home Office Minister he was advised that he had to act as he was breaking the law. The permanent secretary has now said that the Home Secretary was given the same legal advice, so why did she not act, either on the legal advice or on the health advice?
I am sure that the Immigration Minister is working really hard to try to sort this out. The problem is that everyone else is struggling to clear up the Home Secretary’s chaos and she is not even here. It is chaotic. This issue is too important not to have a grip in place, and if the Home Secretary is too frit to attend this House and take responsibility for her decisions, she should get out the way and let someone else do the job.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for those questions. She asked how long we have been aware of diphtheria cases. When I addressed the House for the first time, on 1 November, I reported that there had been four cases. I am able now to say that that has increased to 50 cases, and I will continue to update the House as this issue develops.
The right hon. Lady asked whether Ministers have followed the advice of the UK Health Security Agency throughout. To the best of my knowledge, they have. We have always sought and followed the advice of Dame Jenny Harries and her colleagues. In fact, the measures I have announced today go beyond the UKHSA’s baseline advice, because we want to take a precautionary approach. For that reason, we will be ensuring that further individuals who have any symptoms are not transported around the country; they will either remain at Manston or go to specialist accommodation. That accommodation is readily available, because we made good use of it during the height of the covid pandemic and we will be making sure it is brought into use in the coming days.
The right hon. Lady asked about screening arrangements. Those have been in place for some time. All individuals arriving at Western Jet Foil are screened. That is, by necessity, a relatively simple screening, because on occasion thousands of illegal migrants arrive in the course of a single day, but screening is followed up at Manston and we have asked the UKHSA to advise us on whether further measures are required to ensure that that screening is more sophisticated. Dame Jenny and her colleagues will advise on that.
We have had the vaccination programme in operation for a number of weeks. It is a voluntary programme; we do not compel migrants to take it up. It began at a relatively low level of acceptance—about 45%—but that is now increasing; as I said, I am pleased to say that we have reached 100% for those who came over the weekend. We will do everything we can to maintain it at or around that level, because that clearly is a very important line of defence.
For those individuals who have already left Manston and have flowed into asylum accommodation elsewhere in the country, we and the UKHSA are now going to work closely with local directors of public health to ensure that they have the right guidance to protect those individuals. Those local public health directors will work with local NHS partners to ensure that the individuals have treatment under the NHS and that they isolate in their rooms within those hotels or other forms of accommodation. The outsourced partners will ensure that the people have food and laundry brought to the door, so that there is no reason whatsoever that they should leave their room until they are well again and can re-enter broader society.
If there are further measures that we need to take, we will do so. Dame Jenny and her colleagues are meeting directors of public health this week, as they have been doing repeatedly in recent months, to hear their concerns and ensure that these procedures are progressively improved as required.
Earlier this year, I informed the Home Office that some 30 Albanian asylum seekers had absconded from the Thwaite Hall facility in my constituency. The then Minister for Immigration, the Minister’s predecessor, informed me in his reply that asylum seekers
“are not prevented from leaving it, or legally required to stay within its confines.”
He might as well have said, “Not my problem, Guv.” Considering the reports that there has been an outbreak of a highly contagious and dangerous disease at the Manston processing facility, how can the Minister square this laissez-faire approach to asylum seeker dispersal with any serious concern for public health?
It is for those reasons that I took the decision today that no asylum seeker will leave Manston if they are displaying any symptoms whatsoever of diphtheria, or indeed of other serious infectious diseases. They will either remain there or, more likely, be taken to one of our secure isolation hotels—the type of hotel that we used during the covid pandemic. They will remain there and will not leave while they are being treated. Hopefully, they will make a full recovery and then they will be transported to other accommodation elsewhere in the country. I think that is the right approach. It goes beyond the advice that Dame Jenny and her colleagues at the UKHSA have provided to us, because I want to ensure that we are doing absolutely everything we can to take this issue seriously.
I thank the Minister for bringing his statement to the House, but it is another day and another very disturbing development. Our thoughts and condolences must go to the family and friends of the man who died at Manston.
The Minister is right that it is important to emphasise that there is a very small risk to the UK population, but the converse is that, to those from nationalities that do not have an extensive vaccination programme, this is a very dangerous and contagious infection that can be fatal, as we have just seen.
On the rate of the response, the Home Office seems again to be in crisis mode, having waited until we are in a really serious crisis. Were there no indications from colleagues on the continent that there were rising cases of diphtheria there? It was only a matter of time before cases arrived on these shores, so we should have had plans in place much further in advance. I welcome the work to improve the medical facilities at Manston, which we saw when we visited it as the Home Affairs Committee. The Association of Directors of Public Health has accused the Government of putting
“asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk”.
Its president says that an offer to help Ministers cope was rebuffed, making the situation
“far worse than it could have been.”
Does the Minister want to comment on those assertions? He spoke of robust screening but, as far as I can tell, it is still only of people presenting with symptoms. Is there not a case for at least some degree of asymptomatic testing, so that the Home Office has an indication of whether a boat-load would be worth further investigation before onward movement?
Finally, the Minister has spoken about procedures being put in place today, but does that mean that people were moved to new accommodation even though they were known to have diphtheria, or to have been awaiting test results, and how was that managed? What notification was there for health authorities in places of dispersal? Have people with diphtheria been sent to hotels without anyone being told? What protocols are in place to ensure that public health leaders have the information they require, because some have been complaining that there is zero information coming from the Home Office?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those important questions. The most important point to stress is that the advice of the UKHSA has been followed throughout. With any emerging health issue, the response has to be dictated by medical advice and the response has to increase along with the issue and the challenge. That is exactly the approach we have taken. When there were a very small number of cases, the approach of the UKHSA was that we screened individuals, that we provided medication and support for those who had symptoms, and that we ensured that the directors of public health in the community knew how to treat those people who responded later on with symptoms. Now that the number of cases is somewhat higher, it is clear that we have to up the response, which is why we are now ensuring that no one with symptoms leaves our care at Manston or at the accompanying secure hotel. It does mean that we need to ensure that the right data flows with the individuals—I think that is the point he was making—so that, if migrants arrive in a particular location, the directors of public health and the local NHS know as much as is possible about their pre-existing medical conditions, given the cohort of people.
Now that we are operating Manston in the way that I would wish, meaning that individuals flow through it within a matter of hours, fewer people will be detected at Manston because they will be there for far shorter periods. It is important that we work with directors of public health to put in place the correct procedures in the community so that they can identify people, get them the treatment they need, vaccinate them where appropriate and ensure they are properly isolated.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked a valid question that I too have asked of our advisers: is there a simple test we can apply to all those with diphtheria? It is the advice of Dame Jenny and UKHSA that there is not a lateral flow-style test that could be applied to all individuals while they are at Manston that would provide any degree of accuracy. However, we will be screening people thoroughly and, if there are any symptoms, they will be put into this new procedure.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the assurance he has given to the House today, particularly on the appropriate isolation. I sympathise that he is on the horns of a dilemma here, because if we were to hold people longer in Manston, we would have the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) coming to this place saying that people had been held for too long. To contrast that with what this House did during the covid period, we enforced vaccinations and we almost enforced PCR tests, so I do not think it would be unreasonable for all of those coming through Manston to be appropriately tested. Thankfully, the incidence of diphtheria is now very low in the background of our population, with very early weeks vaccination, particularly the 6-in-1 vaccine, but we do have a growing number of people avoiding vaccinations—very sadly and very sillily, in my view—so we must make sure that we keep a lid on this disease and that it does not spread. I am relying on his Department to do all that is necessary in this time
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his constructive approach to this difficult issue. We will be ensuring that correct screening is in place; as I said earlier, I have asked Dame Jenny whether there are even more screening procedures that we need to put in place, what those might be and how we can do that as quickly as possible. At the moment, we are following the UKHSA advice to the letter.
I have also asked Dame Jenny to work on monitoring other infectious diseases prevalent in northern France and in the countries from which some of the migrants are coming, and on whether that should guide the further vaccination or screening procedures put in place. My hon. Friend is right to draw the parallel with covid, in that the public will rightly expect that individuals entering the UK should be kept in close quarters while they have infectious diseases, and not be released into the broader population. That is why we have implemented these measures. If we need to go further, he can be assured that we will.
The Minister has been very energetic in clearing the backlog at Manston, particularly before the Home Secretary appeared before the Home Affairs Committee last week. However, I am very disappointed by the statement from Professor Jim McManus, the president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, saying that,
“we have had no direct engagement from the Home Office, and although we have offered our support, we have not yet received a response”.
I want to ask the Minister about Manston, which he has confirmed is a holding room for just 24 hours, with an extension of up to five days in exceptional circumstances. We know the Home Secretary was warned on several occasions that she was breaching the law and that a potential Windrush scandal could be on the cards. Can the Minister confirm that the Home Office has already tasked officials with assessing and calculating compensation for those illegally detained, and tell us what they have estimated to be the initial compensation amount that they may have to pay for those who are held in excess of 24 hours?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her kind words. It has always been my approach, from day one, to ensure that Manston is brought into a legal and decent state. I am pleased to say that that is, broadly speaking, where we are today thanks to the hard work of Border Force officers, immigration enforcement and our partners at Manston.
It is a difficult task managing a site such as Manston because of the sheer numbers of people crossing the channel and the irregularity with which they come. Even in my short tenure in the Department, I have seen that we can go for days in which no one comes, and then we can have two or three days in which 2,000 or 3,000 people come. That means that ensuring the appropriate checks are conducted, and that individuals flow out of Manston into appropriate accommodation within 24 hours, is very challenging, and we need to consider whether that is the right approach. But it is absolutely right, of course, that we abide by the law and that is what I have tried to do while I have been in the Department.
I will not get into discussing the legal advice that we have received or the judicial reviews that the right hon. Lady refers to. I would say, however, that people coming to this country illegally—whose lives we invariably save at sea, and whom we then clothe, feed, water and send to hotel accommodation—deserve of course to be treated with decency and humanity, but there are limits to that and we should not shirk from the fact that the UK is doing everything in its power to support these people.
I have often raised concerns about health-based security at the illegal immigration points of entry at Dover. People who come into close contact with people who may be infected—including with diphtheria—include those who work in Border Force, the volunteers at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, members of the coastguard and many others who are involved in those operations. Can my right hon. Friend provide assurances about the extent to which additional health measures, including potential booster vaccinations, will be provided for people in that situation, for their safety and security and that of their families? May I draw his attention to the NHS guidance? It states that it takes two to five days for symptoms of diphtheria to become apparent, and that someone who had a booster more than 10 years ago may be at additional risk if they are in a situation with a high incidence of diphtheria. Will he consider that?
The UKHSA’s advice to me is that the risk to the broader UK population is very low because of the high prevalence of our vaccination programme—over 90% of the British public has been vaccinated for diphtheria. But my hon. Friend, who represents so many people who work at Western Jet Foil and Manston, is right to say that we should be particularly careful to protect people who do that difficult and important work. I will follow up with my officials, and indeed with the outsourcing providers that run our hotels and other asylum accommodation, to make sure that we have all the right procedures in place to protect those people, who are doing an absolutely fantastic job and impress me on every occasion that I meet them.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming before the House with his statement, but does he not agree that it should not have taken a death to make Ministers focus properly on issues relating to infectious diseases at Manston? It is not as if the possibilities relating to infectious disease have not been raised and written about. Does he not agree that it is quite wrong that it took a death for him to come before us and talk about new guidance: new guidance that nobody presenting with symptoms will be progressed on; new guidance about ensuring that asylum accommodation providers get the very latest public health advice; and new guidance about co-operating with the French about infectious disease in northern France? It took a death for the Minister to come before us with that new guidance.
The Minister has also said that there is no risk to the wider population and the House is grateful to hear that. However, does he not accept that, whether these people are deemed to be legal or illegal, we have a basic responsibility for their health? It should not have taken Ministers so long to focus on the well-reported dangers of infectious disease.
I respect the right hon. Lady’s point of view and experience, but it has not taken a death for the Home Office to focus on this issue. This individual’s death is deeply regrettable, but we have been working on, and alive to, this issue for many months—indeed, for years. The Home Office has had in place procedures to deal with covid since the start of the pandemic. The hotels I mentioned earlier, which we will use to transfer people with diphtheria symptoms, were the locations the Home Office used for those who tested positive for covid.
The UKHSA has been publishing guidance on the treatment and support of asylum seekers and refugees for many months—it may even be years. The latest guidance on this issue was published by Dame Jenny Harries and her colleagues two weeks ago, prior to the sad death of this individual. I am afraid that the connection that the right hon. Lady seeks to draw is not correct. We do not take this issue lightly, and we will continue to follow it and to put in place whatever measures we need to.
When the Home Affairs Committee visited Manston a few weeks ago, we met the medical team, who spoke about some of the challenges they face. Those are largely born from the fact that people spend the few nights before they make the journey to the UK in open camps in France. They arrive exhausted, their immune systems are depleted and they have lesions on their hands, so they could be carrying and picking up any diseases. What measures is the Minister putting in place to screen more widely for diphtheria and to extend language services so that the cohorts in Manston know what support is available on site?
My hon. Friend is right that those arriving at Western Jet Foil frequently present with conditions, some of which have been picked up in the course of their travels. For example, it is striking how many people present with severe burns that they have received through the combination of salty water and diesel fuel in the dinghies. Those are the sort of difficult situations that our paramedics and medical professionals have to deal with immediately when people arrive, even before they get to Manston.
We have already put in place a medical centre at Manston, which I believe my hon. Friend visited, and it is of a high standard. It regularly has doctors, paramedics and emergency department doctors, who are able to support people. We are in the process of building a larger facility, which will enable us to have better facilities still. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I have asked the UKHSA whether there are further screening measures that we should put in place. At the moment, we are meeting all the advice and guidance that it has provided, but if it makes further requests of us, we will of course do everything we can to facilitate those.
On 3 November, I tabled a series of written parliamentary questions asking Ministers to publish the protocols for screening, immunisation and prevention in relation to outbreaks of infectious diseases at Manston and other immigration centres, as well as the protocols for sharing information with directors of public health and local authorities. More than a week later, on 11 November—it took another week to publish advice—UKHSA said that antibiotics and vaccination would be offered to asylum seekers in Manston and in other places where they had been dispersed “where these are known”. It is now 28 November—more than three and a half weeks after my question—and my local directors of public health and general practitioners are asking how on earth they can deliver a vaccination programme when UKHSA appears not to know where these centres are and the Home Office does not tell them.
I would be happy to look into the example the hon. Lady has given. However, she may also have seen the advice I issued last week to Members of Parliament and local authorities, saying that no individual should be moved from Manston, or indeed now from one of the secure infectious disease centres, to a hotel or other form of accommodation in any part of the country unless the local authority has been informed of who is arriving and whether they have any pre-existing medical conditions. That information is now flowing. If the hon. Lady has examples to suggest that that is not the case and brings those to me, I will be more than happy to look into them.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out a clear plan for screening and vaccinations at Manston. However, as he just said, most asylum seekers spend only a very short period of time at that initial processing centre, so what additional support and resource is being provided to local GP services that take care of the health needs of asylum seekers when they are dispersed to hotels around the UK?
That is an important point, because we aspire to be in a position—indeed, we are now—where individuals spend a very short period of time at Manston, then rapidly move into other accommodation, which places a greater burden on the local NHS and the local authority in that area. We are providing further guidance, in addition to that published by the UKHSA two weeks ago, which will set out what we are asking of those communities. I hope there will be a two-way conversation, so if further support, information or resources are required from central Government to meet those requirements, then of course I will endeavour to provide them.
It is not only diphtheria; asylum seekers with other urgent health needs have been placed, without notice, in hotels in my constituency, and without proper clothing, such as shoes and winter clothes. I would like an assurance that those disgraceful practices will also stop. With all due respect to the Minister, I would like that assurance from the Home Secretary. Why is she never here to answer questions on what should be her No. 1 priority?
I am the Minister for Immigration, so it is perfectly logical that I come to the House and answer questions on this area. We provide clothing to migrants when they arrive at Western Jet Foil and while they are at Manston, so it is not correct that migrants would ever go to an area of the country, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman represents, without clothing. I have seen that clothing and it is perfectly acceptable. I am not quite sure what he is expecting us to provide to migrants over and above that—we look after people to the absolute best of our ability.
On a number of visits I have gone into great detail about the quality of care that we provide to migrants and seen incredibly hard-working people, from Border Force and our agencies, going above and beyond, providing Aptamil baby milk and powder, so that young mums can look after their children, providing a broad range of sanitary products for women, and ensuring that men have all the necessary items they need to shave and look after their health and wellbeing. The quality of care is good.
Of course, there are things that we could do better, but we should not make the UK out to be a villain here. In fact the advice from the UKHSA is that the vast majority of the individuals who have infectious diseases contracted them overseas. It may well be the case that many of them picked them up in the genuinely disgraceful conditions in some of the camps in northern France.
Peterborough City Council and I were given merely hours’ notice before single men from Manston were transferred to the Great Northern Hotel, a flagship hotel in my constituency. I remain strongly of the view that that is the wrong hotel, in the wrong location, but I did at least have multi-agency meetings that I could attend and listen to healthcare professionals and others talk about the services we were offering. But last weekend I was told that I was no longer welcome at those meetings and that that was standard practice for MPs across the country. I do not want a post-meeting briefing or to be treated like a stakeholder; I want to listen to healthcare professionals on the ground talk about conditions in those hotels in my constituency. Will the Minister, right here, right now—no ifs, no buts—instruct those responsible for organising those meetings to adopt some flexibility and, God forbid, some common sense, and get the local MP at those meetings, listening and contributing? My constituents would expect no less.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern and am happy to look into it. From my prior experience in local government, I think it is not unusual for multi-agency meetings to be official meetings; that is how, for example, a local resilience forum would operate in the case of floods or other serious incidents. It is not ordinary practice for the political leaders of local authorities—or indeed, Members of Parliament—to be part of multi-agency meetings. That does not mean that we should not adapt those processes. As far as I am aware, the instruction that my hon. Friend has received has not come from the Home Office—it certainly has not come from me. I will look into the issue, and if I can change that, I certainly will.
On 2 November, nearly a month ago, I, as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, together with the Chairs of the Home Affairs, Justice, and Women and Equalities Committees, wrote a long and detailed letter to the Home Secretary posing various questions about the conditions at Manston. We asked for a reply by 16 November, but still have not had one.
When the Home Secretary was before the Home Affairs Committee last week, she said that there was a processing issue at the Home Office and that we would get our response very quickly. We are still waiting. Can the Minister give us an indication of when the Home Secretary will deign to respond to this important letter from the Chairs of four Committees of this House?
I was not aware of that, but if the hon. and learned Lady gives me a copy of the letter—I think she has it in her hand—I will ensure that there is a swift and full response to it.
On the conditions at Manston, I have said this before and will say it again—this is not in any sense to diminish the concerns that the hon. and learned Lady may have set out in the letter. The greatest service that she and her colleagues in Scotland could do on this issue would be to encourage more Scottish local authorities to take asylum seekers into their care. Scotland takes a disproportionately lower share of the burden of this issue in each of our resettlement and asylum schemes.
My right hon. Friend knows that it is unlikely that I would ever call this country a villain on this matter—actually, I think we have been too soft. We need to be much more robust. Does he agree that the way to tackle the problem is to make these tens of thousands of illegal journeys a year unviable? That would deal with overcrowding and all the other issues.
I have promised my constituents that at every opportunity—even every week—I will raise the Ipswich Novotel, which my right hon. Friend knows about. Is he closer to giving us a time scale so that we can move away from the use of four-star hotels to basic and cheap accommodation and, potentially, deport a large number of the individuals who have broken our law and illegally entered our country?
My hon. Friend is right. My approach from the start has been, first, to ensure that Manston is a legal and decent site; that has involved taking on other accommodation elsewhere in the country to meet our legal obligations. Secondly, it has been to ensure that we begin to exit those hotels and move asylum seekers to better accommodation, which would be simple and decent but not luxurious, and that we never find ourselves again in the position of using three and four-star hotels, stately homes and so, on for this purpose—
The right hon. Lady says not stately homes. Unfortunately, there are stately homes being used for this purpose. That is an outrage and we need to change it. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) is absolutely right: these are the symptoms of the problem, but the cause is that far too many people are making these perilous journeys. We need to tackle the gangs that ensure that those journeys continue.
Revelations that the Home Office allowed 50 cases of diphtheria to spread through Manston processing centre are truly shocking. This latest scandal is the unavoidable result of the Government’s endless demonisation of refugees. Will the Minister confirm what action he is taking to test and care for refugees in other processing centres across the country?
With respect to the hon. Lady, I did not say that the Home Office had allowed infectious diseases such as diphtheria to spread through the camp at Manston; I said that the clear advice from the UK Health and Safety Authority was that it was unlikely that those cases had been contracted at Manston and that in the vast majority of instances, if not all, it was most likely, although difficult to prove, that the individuals brought these infectious diseases to the UK as part of their illegal journey here. The UK has good procedures in this area. One only has to go and look at the camps in places such as Dunkirk to see the difference between the quality of care that the UK provides and that of some of our European neighbours. Manston, of course, can improve, but today we have a good medical facility, we are screening individuals and we are providing vaccinations. I have set out further measures that I will implement this week, and I will follow health advice if those need to be increased in future.
My local authority Cyngor Gwynedd is proud to work with groups such as Pobl i Bobl, Croeso Menai and Cefn to welcome refugees, but they cannot operate effectively at a time of increased demand on services and squeezed budgets if the Home Office does not communicate effectively. When I last raised the matter, the Minister told me that he had postponed a meeting with the Welsh Government to respond in this place. Can he confirm to me that that meeting has taken place? More importantly, did that meeting include a commitment to provide details of the number of asylum seekers and, more importantly, additional funding to the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and Welsh health boards?
I have now held a meeting with all local authorities in Wales and across the United Kingdom, and later this week I am rescheduling the meeting to which representatives from the Welsh Local Government Association are invited. That was the meeting I unfortunately had to cancel because the Opposition held an urgent question.
What assessment have the Government made of receiving communities with low vaccination rates? The 90% that the Minister commented on, which is basically the herd—all of us—masks some very low vaccination figures in certain boroughs, including the London Borough of Haringey. What extra resource can he give to Haringey local authority and the health trusts to get active and make sure, even though the risk is low, that we keep our own vaccination rates as high as possible?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. No doubt it is correct that there will be wide variances across the country, and I will raise that point with the Dame Jenny Harries and the UK Health Security Agency, if I may, and one of us will write back to her with our national strategy.
It obviously should have come as no surprise to the Government that these conditions would break out because the all-party parliamentary group on immigration detention, which I chair, found similar circumstances at Napier barracks, including scabies outbreaks in that accommodation. Can the Minister tell me in a bit more detail what exactly is being done to ensure that the widest possible screening is done, rather than sending people off into the world with conditions such as scabies and no treatment? At Napier, people were forced to share cream between them and did not have proper washing facilities for their clothes and bedding.
As I said in answer to earlier questions, there are thorough screening procedures, both immediately on arrival in Dover and then later at Manston. There is an extensive medical facility at Manston, where anyone presenting with symptoms of diphtheria or any other condition can get access to medical care. That is designed to ensure that they have good care, but also to put as little pressure on the local NHS in Kent as possible. It is frequent that individuals go to local GP surgeries or emergency departments in hospitals, and we make sure that they have access to the NHS, as any member of British society would do.
The Minister has previously said that he was left speechless by the safety problems at Manston. He also said on 27 October:
“We want to ensure that the site is maintained legally”.—[Official Report, 27 October 2022; Vol. 721, c. 403.]
In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), he said, “we are broadly there”. What does “broadly there” mean? Is the site maintained legally or not?
The site is operating legally now. The current law allows the Home Secretary to detain individuals for 24 hours, save in exceptional circumstances. At the moment, the site has few individuals present at all, and those people are processed, have their biometrics taken for security purposes and flow out into contingency accommodation very rapidly. As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), it is not simple when there are large numbers of people in a very short period. That is the nature of the problem. There is very little that the Government could do to plan a processing centre that was able to flow 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 people through its doors within a matter of hours. That is the challenge we have been grappling with. It is for that reason that we have made the changes we have already. If there are further changes to be made, I will make them in the coming days.