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Asylum Seekers: Bournemouth West

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2023

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

It is approaching 13 years since I stood in this spot, where Lady Thatcher delivered her maiden speech, to deliver my first speech in the House of Commons. On that occasion, I spoke of something of profound local interest and great national importance: the situation around student visitor visas. I was delighted to have the support of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), on that occasion, and I am glad to see him in his place again today.

I would like to commit what I am about to say to the memory of a remarkable young man called Tom Roberts, who was brutally slain on the streets of my Bournemouth West constituency by a knife on Saturday 12 March last year. I will have a little more to say about Tom and the circumstances of his death a little later on.

I have been conducting a parliamentary survey in my Bournemouth West constituency in recent months. The strength of feeling of my constituents on the situation regarding those seeking asylum and awaiting a decision on their asylum status is incredibly profound. Often when we talk about asylum in the debates we have, we focus too much on the process and not enough on the principles. We have a proud track record in the United Kingdom of offering genuine refuge to those who are fleeing in fear of their lives, but the reality is, Madam Deputy Speaker, that if you are fleeing in fear of your life from a war zone or a humanitarian disaster, you would claim asylum in the first safe country you reach. You would not pass through multiple safe countries to get to the United Kingdom.

We must absolutely acknowledge that it is not those coming here seeking asylum and looking for a better life who are at fault. These people are being exploited by evil traffickers who are taking their life savings from them in the hope of offering them a better life. The way in which they are being exploited is cruel and vindictive.

The situation in my Bournemouth West constituency and across the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council local authority area is unsustainable. There are currently, as of yesterday, some 666 asylum seekers across the conurbation. Four hotels in my constituency are full, and have been full for quite some time, of those waiting for their decision to be made. The pressure that puts on the local council tax payer and local residents, and on the council to deliver services, is profound.

I want, for a moment, to focus on the number of children who are within that number of 666 people waiting for a determination. As of January this year, the BCP area had 56 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in care, or 10.7% of the total number of children in care—massively higher than both the national and regional averages. We have 16 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children of school age, with eight in local schools and three in schools outside the area. One my real concerns, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address this point, is the decision to send these people to my constituency and our local authority area when the Ofsted inspection of the local authority’s children’s services found that overall the service provided by BCP Council is inadequate. Its judgment states:

“The impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families—inadequate; the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection—inadequate; the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers—requires improvement; overall effectiveness—inadequate.”

The Ofsted report goes on to state:

“Thresholds for interventions are not applied consistently, and the oversight of managers is too variable in quality. Multiple changes of social workers and managers in some teams also contribute greatly to the lack of focus and urgency for many children. There are still serious and widespread weaknesses in the quality of children's services that leave vulnerable children at risk of harm. Specialist services aside, the core business of reducing the risks to children in need of help and protection is yet to have a consistent and effective impact.”

Point 37 of the report identifies that

“Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have mixed experiences. Mostly, once they are clearly the responsibility of the local authority, they are helped with somewhere to stay, interpreters, tracing their families and legal support. For a small number, a debate about their age and entitlement leads to delay in them securing suitable accommodation and support.”

The experience across the four hotels in my constituency over the past 12 months is that up to 10% of placements, having said that they are adults, present themselves on arrival to staff, state that they are under 18 and therefore claim to be unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That means that the local authority has a legal duty to place them in care and they cannot remain in the asylum hotels. I submit to the Minister that the financial pressure that that places on BCP Council, and therefore on my constituents, is just not acceptable. To place those individuals in a local authority area in which children’s services are deemed inadequate is, I contend to the House, actually irresponsible.

We need to return to fundamental first principles. If someone has a right to be here, they will be supported and looked after and funds will be allocated.

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

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

If someone does not have the right to be here, they should not be here. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s express commitment in his five-point plan to dealing with the situation more generally.

I said that I would return to Tom Roberts and the circumstances around his death. I want to use this opportunity to apologise to the family of Tom Roberts. They, and he, were profoundly let down by multi-agency failures. The man who is now serving a life sentence for the murder of Tom on Old Christchurch Road last year should not have been in the United Kingdom. Subsequent to his stabbing of Tom, it emerged that he had been found guilty of two murders in another country. Norway had denied his claim of asylum.

It subsequently emerged that although the man had told the authorities that he was 14 when he arrived, he was in fact 18. Dental records and reports suggested that he was an adult. He was placed with children at Glenmoor and Winton, a local secondary school in my constituency. His foster carer reported to social services that he was regularly carrying knives and was engaged in street fighting for money. The police were also made aware, yet he was allowed to go on and stab young Tom to death—a man who wanted to give his life in service to this country in our armed forces.

We let Tom down. There was multi-agency failure. I would like the Minister to use this evening’s debate as an opportunity to recommit the Government to making sure that we adequately test people who say they are children, and that we work out whether they are or not before we let them loose on the streets of our country. I hope that the Minister will feel able on the Government’s behalf to join me in saying sorry to Tom’s family for how his young life, with all his future opportunities and everything he could have given our country, was snuffed out in its prime when he was slain.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of his constituents and mine. There are some very real issues here and I am proud to be sitting next to him on these Benches.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. We all come to this House to do right by those in whose name we serve, but I am highlighting tonight how I think we failed. There are very serious lessons to be learned by local authorities, social services, the police, Border Force and so on.

I am incredibly proud of our country’s record of offering hospitality and welcome to those in need. I would not want my remarks tonight to be in any way misinterpreted as meaning that I want us to walk away from that generosity of spirit—that offer of hope and opportunity to those who are genuinely in need. However, we cannot escape the fact that too many people are exploiting that good will to come here as economic migrants.

Our constituents are demanding that the Government take action. Ministers on the Treasury Bench, led by the Prime Minister, have confirmed the Government’s absolute determination to reduce and then eliminate the small boat crossings. Too often, constituents in Bournemouth West look at hotels that have hitherto supported the vibrant tourism economy on which much of our local area across Bournemouth and Poole relies. They see that area filled with people who are without hope, and who, I have to say, are waiting for more than a year for their claims to be processed—and that is before we even acknowledge the additional burdens that this places on my parliamentary team, who receive dozens of requests every day for updates on claimants’ status.

We must not be treated like mugs in this country, and I hope that the Minister will now reiterate the Government’s driving commitment to getting a grip of this situation.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) for securing the debate and for speaking so powerfully on behalf of his constituents. First and foremost, I want to pay tribute to Thomas Roberts, a young man with a bright future ahead of him whose life was cut short, and to extend my sympathies and those of the Government to his family and friends for their profound loss. This was an horrific crime which has robbed a young man of his future and caused intolerable suffering to his loved ones.

In any such case, justice must be delivered and the perpetrator punished. I welcome the life sentence that has been handed down by the Crown court, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that Mr Abdulrahimzai will be considered for deportation so that removal coincides with the end of his custodial sentence. As my right hon. Friend said, that individual abused the generosity of our country, and exploited our asylum and immigration system with terrible consequences. However, when a crime as abhorrent as this occurs, we must also confront the difficult questions posed by the case and ensure that our systems and processes are as effective and robust as they can be. That is what my right hon. Friend and his constituents would expect and what the broader British public would expect, and I can also assure my right hon. Friend, and indeed all Members, that the Government recognise the need for this case to be comprehensively examined. I have already asked the Home Office to conduct an investigation of the circumstances surrounding it.

While I completely understand the desire for immediate answers, I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand if I refrain from going too far into the detail while that investigation is ongoing, but I can provide some immediate reflections on the circumstances surrounding the case. All asylum claimants should be subject to robust mandatory security checks against their claimed identity, including criminality checks on UK databases. This happens when we intercept individuals such as those who arrive on small boats at Western Jet Foil in Kent and are subject to checks at the Manston centre. However, we need to strengthen ties with international partners to make vital intelligence- sharing more seamless, for instance through the sharing of criminal conviction data. Individuals attempting to cheat our immigration system using multiple names—or aliases—and ages must face decisive action. It is unacceptable that we place foster carers, schools and others who support individuals in intolerable and dangerous positions because we do not have access to sufficient data.

Another issue on which we should reflect, which my right hon. Friend rightly raised, is the need for robust age assessment measures. The age of a person arriving in the UK is normally established from the documents with which they have travelled, but that has proved challenging because so many arrivals who claim to be children do not have any definitive documentary evidence to support their age claims. Under the current process, when an individual claims to be a child without documentary evidence, and when there is reason to doubt their claimed age, immigration officers are required to make an initial age assessment to determine whether the individual should be treated as a child or an adult. If doubt remains about whether the claimant is an adult or a child, they are referred to a local authority, such as that of my right hon. Friend, for further consideration of their age and treated as a child for immigration purposes until that further assessment has been completed. Clearly this case illustrates why we need a more consistent and robust approach.

Given the difficult task of accurately assessing someone’s age and the serious risks when we fail to do so, the Home Secretary and I are considering introducing scientific age assessment methods at the earliest opportunity. This is being done in fellow western democracies such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden. It is essential to widen the evidence available to decision makers and improve the accuracy of their decisions. It will also act as a deterrent to those who flagrantly abuse the system and put others at risk by posing as children. The report from the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee was published by the Home Office on 10 January, and we will now consider the recommendations. We will bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity.

Turning to the wider issue of hotel accommodation in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, we currently accommodate around 650 supported asylum seekers in Bournemouth, mostly in temporary hotel accommodation. There are 10 supported asylum seekers in longer-term dispersal accommodation, and there are no bridging hotels currently housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Let me perfectly clear that I share my right hon. Friend’s deep frustration, and I acknowledge the impact that this is having on his local community and on the business community in his constituency. It is a vibrant and beautiful tourist destination that wants to make use of its hotels for better purposes.

By national standards, those numbers are low. There are more than 150 local authorities that support larger populations of dispersed asylum seekers and 50 local authorities with larger overall total supported asylum seekers. Taking account of the overall population in Bournemouth, supported asylum seekers account for 0.16% of the local population. There are more than 110 local authorities that have a higher concentration of supported asylum seekers. This is not to diminish the burdens; it is merely to contextualise them and to show the scale of the challenge that now confronts us, to which we as a Government must find answers.

We need to ensure that there is proper engagement with the local community when we stand up this new accommodation, and I have made that point on numerous occasions. We must ensure that the Home Office now implements better procedures to let local authorities, and indeed Members of Parliament, know in good time that we intend to take up this form of accommodation. My officials are now running regular engagement sessions with local authorities to try to improve this process. We take steps to try to minimise the impact of any hotels on the local community. Our service providers have a model to ensure that many on-site facilities and amenities, such as recreation, food and laundry, are provided and that specialist support and security guards are provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

None the less, it is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend has raised this on behalf of his constituents. I hope he has seen, in the statement that the Prime Minister set out in December and in subsequent ones that the Home Secretary and I have made, that we are absolutely clear that the mission of this Government in this respect is to end the use of these hotels and to return them to local communities and businesses for their rightful purpose. They are not right for local communities. They are expensive and a waste of money for the taxpayer.

We have committed to clear the backlog of legacy outstanding initial decisions in the asylum system by the end of 2023. To this end, we are doubling the number of asylum caseworkers this year and streamlining and modernising the end-to-end decision-making process. This should ensure that claims can be dealt with quickly, whether because the individual has a high chance of being granted asylum or because they have a very low chance of it, including those from safe countries such as Albania who can be removed forthwith. We will reduce the number of asylum seekers in contingency accommodation as a result. I am pleased to say that that work is not only under way but is already bearing fruit. The legacy backlog is falling as a result of the work now undertaken.

We are also trying to increase the supply of dispersal accommodation, which is a cheaper, less visible and more appropriate way to house these individuals, by working with local authorities across the country to ensure a fair and equitable spread. We are also looking at a small number of larger accommodation sites, the purpose of which will be to ensure that there is decent, but never luxurious, and good value-for-money accommodation, of the kind the public would expect. I hope we will be able to set out more on that in due course.

In the long term, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, the enduring solution to this problem is not procuring more hotels or more sites such as dispersal accommodation but stopping the illegal small boat crossings. It is for that reason that the Prime Minister has made this one of the five priorities by which he wishes this Government to be judged, and it is why the Home Secretary and I are firmly focused on implementing the reforms needed to grip this problem once and for all.

In the coming weeks, we will bring forward new legislation to restore deterrence and to stop the small boats crossing the channel, which I know will have the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West. It will be based on the simple principle that people who come here illegally should have no right to remain here, and that we will fulfil our historic duty as a country to support those genuinely fleeing persecution and human rights abuses around the world, not by enabling people to abuse our system and jump the queue but by working with those in greatest need to pursue targeted resettlement schemes of the kind we have recently done so well as a country with respect to Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Hong Kong.

We have presented a comprehensive plan for tackling illegal migration and stopping the boats, with deterrence suffused throughout our approach. A critical element of that is the Rwanda plan, which my right hon. Friend has always supported and which we hope to implement at the earliest opportunity. Putting that plan into action is a first-order priority for this Government.

I finish by repeating my thanks to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. He is right to raise these issues, and I hope I have given some reassurance about how seriously the Government take them. On the case he highlighted, of a life tragically cut short, my thoughts are with the victim’s loved ones. Protecting the public is the Home Office’s No. 1 priority, and this Government will do all we can to deliver it.

We are, as my right hon. Friend said, a big-hearted country that seeks to protect genuine asylum seekers and offer them a new life in this country, but we will clamp down with the full force of the law on those who choose to abuse our generosity. We will build a new asylum and immigration system that secures our borders and delivers our obligations in a way that the British public would expect.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.