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Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent destitution among newly recognised refugees in the light of the British Red Cross Report Still an ordeal, published in December 2018.

My Lords, the Government are working on a number of important initiatives to ensure that refugees are able to access benefits and housing promptly, once their Home Office support ends. These include provision of a biometric residence permit with a national insurance number on it and arranging an appointment with their nearest Jobcentre if they confirm that they want assistance to make a benefit application.

My Lords, it has been three years since this House was promised action to ensure that refugees have enough time to claim social security before their asylum support is stopped. The British Red Cross report shows that the actions mentioned by the noble Baroness have not solved the problem. The refugees surveyed who had claimed universal credit were left up to 72 days in destitution. Will the Minister therefore undertake, first, to publish the evaluation of the mitigating scheme, which was expected over a year ago, and, secondly, to meet with me and the British Red Cross to discuss the calls made for a long time by organisations on the ground to extend the moving-on period so as to end the ordeal and misery faced by this uniquely vulnerable group of people?

My Lords, I acknowledge the report that the noble Baroness mentioned. There were something like 26 people interviewed, but that is not to dismiss it at all. I can confirm that the evaluation work that she mentioned on the impact of some of things that we are doing has been undertaken, and the results are to be shared with the Work and Pensions Select Committee and NGOs thereafter.

Have the Government undertaken discussions with the banks? The problem is that universal credit is paid to banks, but refugees cannot prove residency and therefore need an alternative system to prove that they are refugees when opening a bank account.

I certainly recognise that bank accounts are a difficulty for refugees. Local authorities were doing a pilot in 19 local authority areas, appointing 35 local authority liaison officers. They are there to give just that type of support, because we recognise that that is an issue.

My Lords, is it not the 28 days that people have to make arrangements, when they change from being asylum seekers to being refugees, that is the difficulty? It takes me more than 28 days to open a bank account if I am on good form, and there are lots of other things that they have to think about. Could the period not be extended beyond 28 days? Universal credit often does not kick in for at least 35 days. The 28-day period is just too tight for people in these circumstances.

I certainly recognise the point that the right reverend Prelate makes about 35 days for universal credit, because the move-on period is 28 days but the post-grant appointment service contacts the refugee at the start of the 28 days. The early findings are actually very positive on this new initiative. The majority who attend appointments get benefits before the 28-day period and, actually, on the subject of the 35-day universal credit payment, the advance UC payment as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the number of rough sleepers whose last settled base was asylum accommodation has increased over the past three years? If the Government’s declared aim of ending rough sleeping is to be achieved, is it not essential that the move-on period be extended to 56 days, which is in line with homelessness legislation, which would give time for migrants to access financial support and for local authorities to take preventative steps?

Our view is that elongating the move-on period does not necessarily solve the problem. What has been shown to be very effective is when the refugee is contacted right at the beginning of that period, so that the process of accessing universal credit or housing or other services can begin straightaway. Indeed, for universal credit, advance payments can be made ahead of 35 days.

My Lords, noble Lords will know that most asylum seekers are not permitted to work during the period awaiting the decision on their application. They will have received just £37.70 per week from the Home Office. They are therefore absolutely without money when the decision finally comes through. Homelessness and destitution seem almost unavoidable in that situation. They have no chance of obtaining rented accommodation. Does the Minister accept that there really is a need for urgent steps if we are to eliminate destitution, particularly among this group? Will she take back to the department the need to allow asylum seekers to work during the period of waiting for their decision?

The noble Baroness highlights the complex arguments around permitting asylum seekers to work, which the Government are certainly listening to very carefully. But it is also important to distinguish between those who need protection and those who are actually seeking to work here, who can apply for a work visa under the Immigration Rules.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that the present arrangements, as highlighted in this report, can plunge the asylum seeker accepted as a refugee into destitution?

I certainly accept that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that measures and interventions are put in place during the 28-day period to ensure that the person who has been granted asylum gets the help they need in a timely fashion and that they do not have a gap in which benefits are not paid. But I certainly think there are all sorts of situations, including this, where people can be brought into destitution inadvertently.

My Lords, can I return the noble Baroness briefly to the question of the moving-on period and refer her to a letter that I wrote to her on 18 February? This detailed the experiences of the asylum and refugee community ARC Project Blackburn and the Lancashire Sanctuary Homes Project, giving details of the circumstances that newly recognised refugees have been unable to resolve during the 28-day period. These included things such as unscrupulous landlords and the condition of the accommodation they had been offered. Surely that gives more force to the argument advanced by other noble Lords in the House today that the period of grace should be longer than the current 28 days, perhaps by one month more.

I did receive the noble Lord’s letter, and it is now with the Immigration Minister—that is not to fob it off on to the Immigration Minister, but the noble Lord will definitely get a response from the department. I do not accept the point about 56 days, but I accept that people should be given help, advice and the interventions that they need promptly so that they can get the support that they need.