Before we come to the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement. I understand that at least one individual has been charged following the incident at Knowsley. Once charges are brought, the case in question is covered by the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be referred to. However, I accept that there are important wider implications raised by the events in Knowsley, and I am prepared for the House to discuss them, but I request that Members do not refer to any specific cases where charges have been brought.
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the wider implications of the violent incident in Knowsley on Friday 10 February 2023.
The incident at the asylum accommodation centre in Knowsley on 10 February was totally unacceptable. As the Home Secretary and I have repeatedly made clear, there is never any excuse for violence. A substantial police response was deployed to the incident, and I offer my thanks to the officers involved on the night and subsequently for their service. A number of arrests were made, and the police investigation is ongoing. The Home Office remains in close contact with Merseyside police.
The Home Office takes its responsibilities to those in temporary asylum accommodation and to local communities extremely seriously. Alongside the police and Home Office accommodation providers, we are closely monitoring the situation around the country and the activities of relevant groups. Security at our accommodation sites has been enhanced and is kept under constant review.
We will always defend the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech, but we will not tolerate violence, intimidation or attacks on the police. The police have a range of powers to deal with unlawful behaviour, and anyone taking part in criminal activity can and should expect the full force of the law. I have met senior Home Office officials and the police to discuss the lessons to be learned from this and other incidents and to ensure that appropriate steps are being taken.
The unprecedented number of illegal, unnecessary and dangerous small boat crossings has pushed our asylum system to breaking point. We share the frustrations of the British public about the abuse of our generosity by human traffickers and illegal migrants, who are leaving the evidently safe France and entering our country in flagrant breach of our laws. Just as everyone has the duty to obey the law, they have the right to expect that the law, including our immigration laws, will be enforced.
The enduring solution is to break the business model of the evil people smugglers and to stop the boats. The system we will build is one where if someone comes here illegally via a safe country, they will not have a route to life in the UK, and we will bring forward legislation to that effect in due course. That does not mean we are abandoning our country’s instinct and history of generosity and compassion. We will continue to assist those in genuine need of our protection. To do that, we must address illegal migration, and that is what this Government’s reforms will do.
May I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for contacting me following the appalling incident that occurred on 10 February at a demonstration outside a hotel in Knowsley? A further smaller scale demonstration took place on Friday evening. The scenes that unfolded were truly shocking, with three people, one of whom was a police officer, receiving minor injuries and a police vehicle being vandalised and set on fire. I should point out that the demonstration was attended by a substantial number of residents, many of whom conducted themselves peacefully and lawfully. Unfortunately, some did not, as the number of arrests regrettably illustrates. This is not, however, typical of the people of Knowsley or Kirkby, who are not bigoted, racist or unwelcoming.
I do have concerns, as the Minister is aware, about the involvement of far-right groups from outside of Knowsley, such as Patriotic Alternative, Yorkshire Rose and Britain First, in promoting that event and seeking to stir up racial hatred in our community and others.
Before concluding I would like to put some questions to the Minister. First, does he share my concern about the involvement of those far-right groups in such incidents, and will he consider proscribing them? Secondly, will the Minster undertake an urgent review of the use of hotels to house refugees and report back to the House? Thirdly, as part of such a review, will the Minister look at alternatives to hotels, taking into account the housing needs of local residents, and work with local councils to arrive at more suitable options? Will the Minister agree to meet me and officials from Knowsley to discuss what can be done to address the local situation?
Fourthly, can the Minister at some point make a further statement to the House about how the Government propose to fix the asylum system? Finally, does the Minister agree with me that in these circumstances, some social media sites are used as platforms for poison and misinformation? Will he urge the companies that own them to ensure that the platforms are used more responsibly?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the experienced and measured manner in which he has led his community in recent days. I associate myself with his remarks regarding the people of Knowsley.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number of groups have been involved in the protest in his constituency, as well as those elsewhere in the country, and that the behaviour of those groups is at times disgraceful and vile, and should be stamped out. We have been monitoring those groups closely, and I have asked my officials at the Home Office and police colleagues, including the National Police Co-ordination Centre, to continue doing so and to step up that activity. If we need to take further action against those groups, we will. We will be monitoring them very closely, including the social media content that they and their supporters are perpetuating.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the social media companies and their involvement in such activities. There have been some vile posts in recent days, including some about Members of this House, for no good reason. Again, we are monitoring that social media content; we raise it with the police and they raise it with social media companies through the appropriate channels.
With regard to accommodation more broadly, none of us wants to see hotels being used in this manner on an ongoing basis. They are an emergency, temporary solution to a serious national emergency. The number of individuals crossing the channel illegally in recent years has been on such a scale that the Home Office had to resort to options that are clearly undesirable.
The Prime Minister set out at the end of last year our intention to end the use of hotels as swiftly as possible. Better forms of accommodation will include dispersal accommodation, where we work closely and constructively with local authorities—including that of the right hon. Member for Knowsley—to find suitable properties, consult the local community and then house asylum seekers for as long as is necessary. That plan is now moving forward, and we have reached regional agreements with local authorities. It is for the Home Office and those local authorities to ensure that it is implemented as swiftly as possible.
More broadly, as I said in my opening remarks, hotels are a symptom of the problem. The cause is the number of people crossing the channel. That will be resolved only by breaking the business model of the people smugglers and deterring those people from crossing the channel. It is for that reason that we will bring forward further legislation very soon.
The Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are all doing everything they can to stop this sort of incident from happening elsewhere. It must not happen in places such as Herefordshire. Can the Minister explain why the permanent secretary is still in post, and why no small boats Bill has appeared before the House?
On the legislation that I have mentioned, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I are working closely as we finalise those plans. It is absolutely right that we take time to ensure that this legislation is as effective as possible. As my hon. Friend knows, this is one of the most litigious areas of public life. It is an area where, I am afraid, human rights lawyers abuse and exploit our laws at times, and where the courts have taken an expansive approach in the past. That is why we must get this right, but we will be bringing forward that legislation very soon.
I call the shadow Home Secretary.
The scenes outside the Suites Hotel in Knowsley 10 days ago—violence, intimidation and a police van smashed up and set on fire—were appalling and shameful, and all of us should support Merseyside police in its response to keep people safe. It comes just a few months after the appalling terrorist attack at Dover, when someone who had been engaging with far-right and extremist groups online attempted to use a petrol bomb on a centre. In the last year, the number of so-called migrant hunts organised by far-right groups has doubled, and there has been an increase in far-right groups organising protests and intimidation and attempting to increase and inflame community tensions.
All of us have a responsibility to take this issue seriously, and there is an important debate about asylum accommodation and asylum policy. We have disagreements, and we have criticised the Home Office for the collapse in decision making on asylum, which has led to an increase in delays and in the backlog. People should not be spending a long time in hotels—they should not be put in hotels in the first place—and we should be targeting the criminal gangs, seeking new agreements with France to prevent dangerous boat crossings, and ensuring that the UK does its bit to help those who have fled persecution. We can have that debate, but we all—Government and Opposition—have a responsibility to do so calmly, with common sense, and in a way that does not inflame tensions or divide communities. The Minister will regret the fact that some of the Home Secretary’s language has appeared on some of the placards. On all sides, we need to have a calm debate.
Let me ask the Minister some specific questions. What is being done to co-ordinate the monitoring of far-right activity around asylum accommodation? What is being done about the hateful extremism that has grown and that can radicalise people into violence? The former commissioner for countering extremism has said that the Government have actually reversed some of their action on this. Will he now revisit the downgrading of the response to far-right extremism as part of the Prevent strategy? Serious concerns have been raised about the links between some far-right extremist groups and people who have been exploiting these issues, as well as some links between them and National Action, which has been proscribed because it was so serious.
Does the Minister agree that, nationally, the responsibility is on all of us to be calm and to promote community cohesion and a sensible response to all the challenges we face, rather than divide and inflame tensions that the police and local communities then have to deal with?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her closing remarks. It is absolutely incumbent on all of us to treat this in a respectful and serious manner, and ensure that we do nothing to inflame tensions within our communities. I hope she will appreciate that that is the way in which I have always conducted myself in this role.
The Home Secretary has condemned unequivocally the violence we saw in Knowsley, and that is absolutely right, because there is never any excuse for violence, intimidation or attacks on the police. That does not mean that we should not seek to understand the level of public frustration that lies behind wider concerns about our asylum and immigration system. To understand is not to condone, and there are those who treat those frustrations as a phenomenon to be managed, rather than as a warning to be heeded. We in Government take the approach that this is a serious concern for the British public, and that is why we need to take all appropriate steps to stop the illegal channel crossings as quickly as possible.
On the right hon. Lady’s specific questions, we are co-ordinating with police colleagues to ensure that all police forces have the correct and up-to-date advice on how they can support asylum accommodation and manage protests should they happen in the future. The National Police Co-ordination Centre is assisting us in monitoring the activities of relevant groups, including on social media, and we will take such steps as are required if there is content that constitutes a criminal offence. We have also worked with our asylum accommodation providers to ensure that they put in place enhanced security where appropriate, and have the best possible advice from the police as to how they can protect the people working in the hotels and other centres, and, of course, the residents.
With respect to the right hon. Lady’s question about the review of Prevent conducted by William Shawcross, the findings of that report were not that there were no far-right activities in this country, but that we must follow the facts and take a balanced view as to where to deploy our resources. That is exactly what we will do: we will tackle Islamist extremism with all the robustness it deserves, but we will also address far-right activity, including by the groups concerned in this protest.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his engagement with me on issues connected with far-right politics. Given his response to my representations, I can tell the House that his concern about these matters is genuine.
Will my right hon. Friend deconstruct the point he is making about the fact that we must tackle the organised criminal activity that sits behind all this, as that should redouble the effort to tackle detention in hotels? I have been advised by police representatives that some slave masters are targeting some of these hotels, where they try to entice young men to work on their various businesses. The suggestion that arriving here from a safe country is made illegal would drive people who arrive by small boats back into the hands of the slave masters because there would simply be no incentive for them to give themselves up to the authorities. What representations has my right hon. Friend had on those matters? Does the situation not underline the fact that we need to get the hotels emptied and the Home Office working properly?
I agree that we need to ensure that the operational side of the Home Office performs, but there is no easy way to build our way out of this problem; we have to stop people crossing the channel illegally in the first place, because the numbers crossing the channel today are of an order that will always place our asylum and immigration system under enormous strain.
We are working very closely with the police and the National Crime Agency to bear down on organised immigration crime. We have doubled the budget of the NCA in that regard, and are working with it across Europe and beyond to tackle the gangs upstream in every respect. Here in the UK, we are increasing the number of immigration enforcement visits, including raids on illegal employers, by 50%. That activity started at the beginning of the year.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s premise that if we pursue a policy like Rwanda, we will see people escaping into the broader community, although I understand where she is coming from. In fact, almost 99% of people crossing the channel in small boats are apprehended by British law enforcement authorities—mostly when we save them at sea and bring them to Western Jet Foil and Manston—so we do meet people who arrive on our shores. The key thing is to stop them arriving in the first place.
It is clear that putting people in hotels in this large-scale way has allowed right-wing extremist groups to target groups of vulnerable people. It is Home Office policy, therefore, that is putting people at risk—not just vulnerable asylum seekers, but our police, who have to protect everybody in such situations. Does the Minister agree that a lot more needs to be done with social media companies? He said that there is some kind of monitoring and conversations with the police regarding social media companies, but what meetings has he had directly with social media companies? It is very clear that these right-wing extremist groups are organising on social media platforms. I saw some of it myself—was offered it by an algorithm—at the weekend; I do not want to see that kind of hatred on any social media site.
Will any asylum seekers who have been badly impacted by the attack on the hotel, or who still feel at risk, have the option to be moved somewhere else where they feel safer, and will they get additional support if that is required? Will the Minister tell me what additional security measures have been put in place at all sites where asylum seekers are being held in such accommodation, and does he agree with the statement from Merseyside police that,
“Social media speculation, misinformation and rumour can actually damage the outcome of investigations and cause unnecessary fear and consequent behaviour”?
We are working closely with the social media companies, and in fact are stepping up that activity. We supported a recent proposal to amend the Online Safety Bill by putting extra duties on the social media companies in respect of tackling organised immigration crime and abuse of this kind. We monitor social media content closely and the police will raise that with the social media companies through the appropriate channels.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s accusation that the Home Office has stoked far right activities is both wrong and deeply offensive; the issue here is the number of people crossing the channel illegally.
No, it is the backlog.
It is not the backlog; that is a fantasy. The way to tackle this issue is not by making the UK a more attractive destination, but by tackling the illegal gangs and changing the incentives. We will only do that through having the most robust approach to illegal migration, including by ensuring those who come here in this manner are removed to a safe third country.
Like me, the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister believe that hotels are the wrong place to put people seeking asylum, but on Saturday in Skegness another protest is planned against the use of these hotels and, while there are legitimate concerns, I hope the Minister will agree that the shameless use of people’s concerns by far-right groups is to be deplored and stands in the way of our having a sensible conversation that will in the long term allow us to move beyond the use of these hotels. Will he join me in appealing to the people of Skegness to focus, rightly, on those issues but not to join hands with far-right groups?
I know my hon. Friend’s constituents are frustrated by the use of hotels in Skegness—as are we in Government—and want to see action to tackle the small boats issue. They want to see our laws enforced and those coming here illegally apprehended and removed to other safe countries, but I know also that they will not want to join with more pernicious elements such as far-right groups and to stoke disorder or community tensions in his town. I applaud him for the work he is doing with his community; he held an important public meeting recently to listen to community concerns and raise them with me and the Home Secretary as we formulate policy.
The Minister knows that there is a backlog and that hotels are having to be used because of it. He might not want to admit it from the Dispatch Box, but that is the reality.
My constituency is about 10 minutes away from where this incident in Merseyside happened and the Minister mentioned the asylum accommodation providers; may I urge him to work closely with them to ensure that wherever they are placing asylum seekers, they are working closely with the communities, the local authorities and the police there now, and they are ensuring that the accommodation that people are being placed in is able to handle and support them?
The backlog is a contributing factor; it was a contributing factor when we came to power in 2010 and found a backlog of 500,000 cases, three times more than the level today. Simply processing those claims faster and making claiming asylum swifter and easier will not solve the problem, however; the problem will be solved by preventing people from reaching our shores in the first place.
On the situation in Merseyside, we are working closely with Merseyside police; we are in regular contact with them and with local authorities. We hold multi-agency meetings, which include the police, prior to standing up any new forms of accommodation so that these issues can be discussed. Where protests are planned, and we have extensive intelligence about that, we work closely with police forces so that they can make sensible preparations to keep the local community safe.
I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the use of violence and in thanking the police for their response, and I categorically agree with him that we must stop the people smugglers, stop the small boats and end illegal immigration into our country. I hear him on the need for further legislation down the line, but in the meantime can he assure me that every single one of the huge suites of powers that this Parliament granted to the Home Office in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 is being used to solve the problem quicker?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We passed that Act, which was opposed by the Labour party, and we are implementing every measure in it as swiftly as possible. Many of those measures are already making a difference, as seen in the number of arrests now being made of those people with their hand on the tiller of small boats when apprehended by Border Force and our partners in the English channel. That is important, but we will follow that up in due course with further, even more robust legislation, which I am sure my hon. Friend will support and hope the Labour party will too.
What specific liaison occurred between the Home Office and Knowsley Council prior to the block booking of the hotel for the accommodation of asylum seekers? Did the Minister’s Department anticipate problems such as the ones that occurred? What steps will he take to prevent a recurrence of such problems at other similar sites?
Shortly after taking up this role, I changed the Home Office’s engagement procedures to ensure that when accommodation is stood up, unless it is a grave emergency or we are ordered to stand it up by a court, we will provide at least 24 hours’ notice to a local authority, and that there will be extensive consultation with such a local authority. I am pleased to say that today that level of consultation happens around three to four weeks in advance of standing up a site. There are usually multi-agency meetings prior to doing so and opportunities for Members of Parliament to meet either me or senior officials, but of course if any right hon. or hon. Member feels we are falling short of those standards, I encourage them to bring that to my attention.
I absolutely support my right hon. Friend the Minister and Members throughout the House in calling out and condemning the violence that took place and any far-right activists and groups operating in that area. They have no place in our society, as far as I am concerned.
But I am also clear that I totally agree with the Minister that we have to stop the small boats and stop the illegal immigration coming to our country. On 7 November last year, the Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) that he accepted that the significant number of people taken into our local area is disproportionate. On 13 December last year, the Prime Minister made the point that the use of hotel had to end soon. It is 20 February 2023 and the hotels of Stoke-on-Trent have yet to be emptied. When will this happen? Will the Minister commit to Stoke-on-Trent being the first place in the country to have its hotels emptied?
My hon. Friend has been an assiduous champion of his community and he wants his hotels back and to be put to good use, for the benefit of the local economy, for tourists and for visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. We agree, which is why we have set out our plans, including mandatory dispersal, working with local authorities throughout the country in a constructive and productive manner to find suitable accommodation that is not hotels. That is why we are also exploring a small number of larger sites that will provide decent but not luxurious accommodation at good value for money for the taxpayer. I reiterate that this challenge will be resolved only by reducing the flow of individuals coming across unnecessarily on those dangerous boats. Without that happening, we will be living with issues such as hotels for some time. That is why we are going to bring forward further legislation.
The Minister told us a few minutes ago that part of the problem here is human rights lawyers who abuse and exploit our laws. That is obviously very serious, Mr Speaker. Any lawyer doing that needs to be stopped, so could the Minister tell the House how many solicitors, advocates and barristers have been reported by the Home Office in the last 12 months to the regulatory authorities?
We are monitoring the activities, as it so happens, of a small number of legal practitioners, but it is not appropriate for me to discuss that here. The wider point I was making stands, which is that the British public are looking on askance at the fact that individuals, mostly young males, are setting off from a demonstrably safe country, France, and soliciting human traffickers to ferry them across the channel, and they are invariably throwing their documents into the sea, so that they can exploit our human rights laws. That needs to change. The British public are angry and frustrated at that situation. We understand that and that is why we are taking action.
The best solution to an end to the use of hotels and to protect our communities is to stop the boats, stamp out the human exploiters and people smugglers, and increase deportations. What steps are the Government taking to increase and speed up deportations, and to get the Rwanda scheme going? May I make a suggestion to the Minister? Doncaster Sheffield airport recently closed down. Will he consider using it to fly out illegal immigrants and deport them quickly?
It is absolutely right that, as a deterrent, we increase the number of illegal migrants removed from this country, so that it is clear that anyone who comes here in breach of our laws in this manner will not get to stay in the UK. We have taken a number of steps recently. One has been our communiqué with Albania, a safe European country from which it should be extremely unusual for anyone to come here and successfully gain asylum. That communiqué is now in force, with updated country guidance, and individuals are now being removed from the United Kingdom on weekly flights to Albania. We are working very well with the Albanian Government. That is one example of how we can tackle this issue.
Just months apart, our country has seen two attacks on innocent people from right-wing extremists. First, a terrorist firebombed an immigration processing centre, and now we have seen an angry right-wing mob attack police outside a hotel housing asylum seekers. We are seeing more and more vile incidents that are fuelled by a far-right ideology. Does the Minister agree that it was a mistake for William Shawcross to say Prevent places too much emphasis on far-right extremism?
No, I do not. William Shawcross conducted a very rigorous review over a long period of time which looked at the facts, and the facts are that there is extremism and violence in this country from both the far right and the far left, or Islamist extremists. We need to take action against both, but we need to apportion our resources in a manner that is proportionate to the challenge. That is the point that William Shawcross was making. I fully support what he suggested. The Home Secretary, in her statement to the House, made clear that we will be implementing that as soon as possible.
Liverpool has a very proud history of chasing fascists off our streets or locking them into left luggage cupboards at Lime Street station. Does the Minister agree that the so-called independent review of Prevent failed to recognise the threat levels of far-right groups? What action is being taken to prevent serious incidents, such as that which took place in Knowsley?
It is disappointing that the hon. Lady attempts to draw conclusions from these events with respect to Prevent. The Government have been very clear: extremism of any kind, whether from the far right or from Islamist extremism, is unacceptable and we will bear down on it with the full force of the law. With respect to the groups that were involved in Knowsley, as I said in answer to previous questions, we are monitoring them closely and we will take action, with the police, wherever we need to do so.
Earlier, the Minister mentioned the importance of observing the law. The European convention on human rights is, of course, still part of our domestic legal system, and human rights are not a dirty word; they are, in fact, universal.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, is currently conducting an inquiry into the human rights of asylum seekers. We have heard evidence that a number of rights under the convention are engaged: the right to life, the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security, the right to dignity and respect for private and family life, and the right to be free from discrimination in the enjoyment of convention rights. Can the Minister tell me what steps the Home Secretary is taking to ensure that the human rights of asylum seekers are respected in the United Kingdom?
We take our responsibilities to those in our care extremely seriously. While there will of course be occasions when we fall below the standards that we would expect, and we should learn from and correct those errors as quickly as possible, in general we care for asylum seekers well in this country, and we should be proud of that.
I have had the opportunity in this role to visit a range of facilities—difficult places such as Western Jet Foil, where we meet those people whom we have saved at sea; Manston, where we house them while we conduct security and health checks; and the child hotels where we house unaccompanied minors while we find local authority care for them. In general, the standards of these places are high, and the staff who are working in them are doing a good job on behalf of all of us, but if there are ways in which we can improve those services and ensure that we continue to meet our legal obligations, we can and should do so.
The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that there are people going around claiming to be journalists who are actually stirring up hatred and fear of asylum seekers. I watched one of their reports recently. It was directed at a building in my constituency which, it turns out, is not being used and will not be used to house asylum seekers. That broadcast was designed to create fear, and for the life of me I do not understand why it is still available on YouTube.
Let me ask the Minister this question. Does he think it is better for the Government, or the police or the Home Office, to ask the social media companies to take such videos down, or does he think—given that there is a law against inciting racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986—that the prosecuting authorities should look at the videos and decide whether the threshold for prosecution has been met?
I think the right hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, in that some of this content is vile and quite probably criminal, and in those instances the police should take action using the laws that are available to them. When we at the Home Office find such content we raise it with the police, and the police then raise it with the social media companies; but if the police feel that it meets the threshold for prosecution, they can and should be prosecuting.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right in saying that there are a small number of cases of so-called citizen journalists visiting hotels. Of course we all respect the right to protest and the right to free speech, but these individuals need to be careful to ensure that their actions do not stir up community tensions or spread disinformation, as is often the case.
Like many others, I am heartbroken following the incidents in Knowsley. I stand in this Chamber as a proud product of immigration: my ancestors fled the great hunger in Ireland, as did those of so many of my fellow Scousers, which is why these events have caused such shock in Liverpool.
This is a wake-up call for those of us who want a society in which all are welcome. The words and the tone of hon. Members in this place and the media matter hugely, so will the Government commit themselves to ensuring that there is an end to the hateful rhetoric that demonises and dehumanises people? Will they put resources into communities to foster hope and understanding, and, crucially, will they provide resources for safe, welcoming and suitable community-based accommodation for all people seeking asylum?
I am proud that the United Kingdom is one of the most generous and welcoming countries in the world. Since 2015, 440,000 people have come to our country on humanitarian grounds, and last year more humanitarian visas were issued than at any time since the end of the second world war. That is exactly the right approach, and we see it with great schemes such as Homes for Ukraine and the schemes applying to Afghanistan and Syria. It is true that the British public can see the difference between that and those people who are coming here illegally, abusing our generosity and our laws, and it is for that reason that we must take action to ensure that the illegal channel crossings end as swiftly as possible.
The Government’s politicised language on asylum seekers inevitably stokes division between communities and people in hostels, but Wales has shown that things can be different. Last year, the national youth organisation, Urdd, provided welcome centres with dedicated support services for refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine, and everybody benefited. Does the Minister agree that when the history books are written about his Government’s sorry record on asylum, it will be recorded that people in Wales strove to act with humanity and for community harmony?
I hope that when the history books are written about this Government, people will point to some of the fantastic schemes that we have created and that have commanded such broad support, including Homes for Ukraine and the Syria and Afghan schemes, all of which collectively have brought hundreds of thousands of people to our shores, where they have been welcomed into the homes of British citizens. But it is right that we make the distinction between those people—many of whom we have geographical, moral and historical obligations to—and the young men in safe countries such as France soliciting human traffickers to ferry them across the channel and to exploit our laws. This is an important distinction that we can see and that I think the British public more broadly can see, and the British public want us to address it.
The Home Secretary was warned by Government lawyers last November that inflammatory immigration rhetoric risked inspiring far-right terror attacks. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with her Ministers about what is appropriate language?
The Home Secretary was very clear that the violence we saw in Knowsley on 10 February was completely unacceptable, and she stands squarely with the brave officers from Merseyside police who responded to that incident. I pay tribute to them again today and to all those who work in our asylum system more broadly who do such a good job, often in very difficult circumstances.
Earlier, the Minister mentioned that there was a level of frustration and concern among the British public. The people who are fleeing such horrors and trying to seek asylum are frustrated by the fact that they have been living in hotels, in some cases for coming up to two years. They are concerned about the backlog in Home Office applications, and they are concerned and frustrated when they are contacting MPs across the House to try to get their cases resolved. Does the Minister understand that accommodating people in hotels will not work? Can he guarantee that there will be a safety review assessment before people are put into those hotels, to protect them and the staff in the hotels?
We have safeguarding procedures in place to support people going into the hotels and the staff who work in them. The hon. Lady’s broader point was about the backlog. As I said earlier, the backlog was three times higher when we came to power in 2010, but that does not mean that we should not take action to get it down and return to a position where we are processing claims in a sensible and swift manner. I have put in place, with the Home Secretary, new measures, and we are in the process of recruiting a significant number of further decision makers. We are already seeing significant progress in bringing down the legacy backlog, and the hon. Lady will start to see that flowing through in the numbers that are publicly reported and in the cases that come to her surgery. I am confident that we will meet our objective of eliminating the legacy backlog of initial decisions over the course of this year.
The vast majority of those who turned out on the night of 10 February were not hardened veterans of the organised far right; they were ordinary people whose frustrations had been fostered by this Government’s decade-long neglect of their communities and whose fear had been stoked into hatred by the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that we hear all too often on the Government side of the House. Does the Minister accept that stranding refugees in hotels in left-behind communities such as Knowsley risks leaving these vulnerable people divorced from vital community support networks and means that they become a target for hatred? Will he explain what steps the Home Office is taking to find community-based alternatives to the use of hotels as contingency accommodation?
As I have said, we are pursuing a strategy of replacing hotels with dispersal accommodation, which is agreed constructively between the Home Office, providers and local authorities and provides better value for taxpayers’ money. That is the way to avoid this situation, other than addressing the root cause by preventing people from coming across the channel in the first place.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to support our further steps over the coming months to bear down on individuals crossing the channel and to create a system whereby people who come here illegally will not find a route to remain in the UK, because that is the enduring solution to this problem.
The truth is that this is not the first time we have seen violence and intimidation directed towards refugees in these hotels. Indeed, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) outlined his fear of a further protest coming this weekend.
Hope not Hate has documented hundreds of incidents involving Patriotic Alternative, Britain First and so-called migrant hunters. The Minister says the Home Office reports to the police incidents that it feels may breach the Public Order Act 1986, perhaps in the same way it is monitoring these lawyers, yet nothing is happening. He says these groups are being monitored closely. For the avoidance of doubt, will he set out the threshold for prosecution? This will keep happening until we are clear that free speech does not involve 50% of participants in the conversation being in fear of their life. This is harassment and terrorism on our doorstep, and it needs to be dealt with properly. What on earth is he doing to prosecute these people?
I have spoken on a number of occasions in recent days to Home Office officials, the national police co-ordination centre and operational policing colleagues. They are monitoring this activity very closely, and they are keeping a close eye on these groups. Where they believe content requires further action, they will take it, but it is for the police to take that action rather than the Home Office.
The anti-Muslim group Britain First has activists in my constituency. The group is known to have carried out more than 80 visits to asylum accommodation sites and to have distributed leaflets containing Islamophobic narratives in those areas. The language of Britain First is only a few steps of escalation from the anti-migrant sentiments expressed by the Home Secretary when she claimed there was an “invasion” by migrants on the south coast. Does the Minister regret the Home Secretary’s use of such inflammatory language, which feeds into and enables far-right groups? Will he explain what proactive work the Home Office is leading to get a grip on far-right extremism?
I usually have great respect for the hon. Lady, but it is wrong to equate the actions of far-right groups with the comments of the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary has condemned the violence we saw in Knowsley, and she is working with the police to ensure it is properly investigated and that the police have the resources and the support they need for that investigation. We will bear down on far-right extremism, just as we care about Islamist extremism. There is no place in this country for any form of extremism, and we will ensure the police have the resources they need.
When the Government use language closely associated with the far right, it only provides encouragement. We know these far-right groups are trying to stoke local problems around the hotels in which asylum seekers are being housed. Has the incident in Knowsley inspired the Government to review how they assess the safety of these locations and the powers that the police and those investigating online activity need to deter the people who are trying to exploit this situation?
We have reviewed the security at these hotels and other asylum accommodation centres. The national police co-ordination centre will be issuing updated guidance to our providers and local partners on how they should ensure correct levels of security at each site. Security is based on risk, so procedures will vary depending on intelligence. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take this issue very seriously.
The disorder at Rotherham and Knowsley was instigated by fascist goons such as Patriotic Alternative, and the Home Secretary must take a share of the blame for using rhetoric that helped to create the environment that normalised these racist thugs. The Erskine Bridge hotel in my constituency is planned to be the largest of these hotels in the UK, and we have seen this group incite and inflame local sensitivities for its own racist and divisive ends. I have made urgent suggestions to the Home Office to address legitimate concerns. Will the Minister chase a response, so that we can drive the far right out of Erskine?
I am aware of the site in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the protests around it. I spoke to officials earlier today regarding it and they gave me an update. I would be happy to connect him with those officials so that he can raise his concerns and they can support him in any way.
The Minister speaks as though all of the issues were someone else’s problem. He has acknowledged some changes he is bringing into the asylum system. I am one of the top six customers of the Home Office for my constituents and it is the worst it has been in 18 years, but in truth what we are seeing here is the chickens coming home to roost in the impact on communities, the appalling situation that many asylum seekers are living in and the danger around these sites. When we will see a real change, a step change, as a result of the changes he is introducing? I cannot see it happening any time soon.
The Prime Minister set out a plan at the end of last year and I am working every day to implement it. We are already seeing significant progress on the asylum backlog, with cases falling significantly with every passing week, and we are recruiting more decision makers into the Home Office to do this. We are working intensively with local authorities to find better and greater value for money accommodation through the national dispersal scheme, rather than hotels. If the hon. Lady, as a valued Member of this House, has suggestions as to ways in which we can improve the quality of service, I would be happy to meet her to discuss them.
The Minister must be well aware that what happened in Knowsley is not an isolated incident; the far right is attacking hotels in other places and attacking asylum seekers regularly. We have a system that spends a great deal of public money to keep desperate people in absolute poverty and degradation in these terrible hotels—their use obviously needs to end. Will he say a word of humanity about the fear that many of these people must be facing? They are refugees from wars, famine and human rights abuses who are looking for a place of safety in this world. They are human beings just like the rest of us. Surely they deserve to be able to exercise their legal rights to seek asylum and not be constantly accused of being illegal when this is a legal right.
It is, just as a matter of fact, a criminal offence to cross the channel in a small boat, so those who enter the UK in that manner are in breach of our laws. The broader point that the right hon. Gentleman makes is, of course, absolutely right: irrespective of that, those people who come here should be treated compassionately and we should abide by our broader legal obligations. The hotels and accommodation we provide are of a good quality. They will vary and if there are poor instances, I will take action against the providers. However, generally speaking, they are of a good quality and they are significantly better than what we find in comparable European countries. Many of the people who arrive on our shores in small boats have spent a sustained period in camps such as those in Calais; the way in which we treat people in this country is far superior.
Two weeks ago, at departmental questions, I requested a meeting with a Minister about the continued use of hotels in my constituency and the broader Liverpool city region. In the meantime, a group called the Patriotic Alternative has started distributing leaflets in one part of my constituency. Again, I request that meeting.
I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise if there has been any delay. He raises a broader point of concern to us, which is the leafleting by far-right groups of the communities surrounding hotels. There have been examples of leaflets with faces of Members of Parliament and local councillors on them. Whenever I have seen those, I have raised them with local police and the Home Office’s dedicated counter-terrorism support. That kind of intimidatory leaflet is completely unacceptable on the streets of our country.
I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity when he rightly condemns right-wing extremism—indeed, all extremism—but it is now three years since the former commissioner for counter-extremism warned that the Government’s counter-extremism strategy was out of date because it did not have key measures to tackle online radicalisation. When can we expect to see those measures before the House?
I will take the hon. Gentleman’s question away and ask the Security Minister to write to him with a fuller reply. I have always taken extremism seriously. For example, I worked with Sara Khan in her work on tackling the victims of extremism. Extremism, whether from the far right or Islamism, is pernicious and needs to be tackled. We will do everything we can to address it.
The Minister will be aware that there are asylum seekers who have complex physical and mental health needs, and placing them in hotels can exacerbate those needs. Can he assure us that he will speak to the refugee charities, particularly the Scottish Refugee Council and the Refugee Council, about both the far-right activity and their concerns about placing asylum seekers in hotel accommodation?
The Home Office works very closely with non-governmental organisations, including the Refugee Council, and takes their views into consideration. I have been clear that no one in Government wants to see the hotel accommodation continue for one day more than is absolutely necessary. There are only two ways in which we will resolve this: first, and most importantly, by stopping the boats coming in the first place; and secondly, for as long as we have illegal migration, by working with local authorities, such as those in Scotland, to find better dispersal accommodation. If the hon. Gentleman can support us in that effort with respect to the Scottish Government and local authorities, I would be grateful.