My Lords, throughout the pandemic, the asylum system has faced significant pressures, and it has become necessary to use additional temporary accommodation to ensure that we meet our statutory obligations at all times. The Government provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation that is fit for purpose and correctly equipped in line with existing asylum accommodation standards and contractual requirements.
My Lords, since I had a brief discussion with the Minister a few days ago about this issue, I have learned far more about what is going on. Surely it is unacceptable that asylum seekers—some of whom have suffered dreadfully, including from torture—should be held in conditions where Covid sufferers cannot self-isolate, where there is inadequate medical attention or support, and where there is a lack of hot food and hot water. Surely the Home Office should not be opening more barracks but should be finding decent accommodation for such vulnerable people.
My Lords, I would reject the description of “decent accommodation” —this accommodation has served our Armed Forces. We are manging any outbreaks in line with Covid guidance, and everyone staying at those barracks has a decent standard of living, including heat, food and accommodation.
My Lords, the health of those accommodated in the barracks obviously must be paramount. Can my noble friend confirm that Public Health England has been closely consulted throughout this period? Can she also agree that the use of these barracks will be a temporary facility only, and that they are not really suitable for long periods? Perhaps she will share my hope that, with a reformed asylum system, the swift processing of applications will enable us to avoid using this type of facility in the future.
I repeat the point I just made to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the accommodation being good enough for our Armed Forces. I underline that the accommodation is safe, warm, fit for purpose and of an appropriate standard, with three meals provided a day. To put the current demand for asylum accommodation into context, back in 2019 the accommodation asylum population was broadly static at about 47,000, but, as of December last year, we now accommodate in excess of 61,000 people.
My Lords, I fear that the Minister has been misinformed for her responses, as the information on the ground is very different, but that is not her fault. It seems that the Home Office is planning to use disused Army barracks such as Napier increasingly to house traumatised and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, often tortured asylum seekers for whom prison conditions—as conditions in Napier are described—induce untold suffering, mental health crises and, indeed, suicide attempts. Can the Minister tell the House when Napier will be closed, as it needs to be, and assure the House that barracks will not be used as accommodation to house traumatised asylum seekers in the future?
I must say to the noble Baroness that the people at Napier are not being detained. I must underline that point very clearly: they are not being detained. I have been through the standards of the accommodation with noble Lords already. In terms of trauma, the access to healthcare in the barracks is of a very high standard. We have a nurse on call from Monday to Friday, nine to five, and out-of-hours healthcare, dental provision and emergency healthcare are available as well. I would reject some of the statements being made by noble Lords.
My Lords, Churches Together in Folkestone is providing invaluable support to residents of the barracks. The local MPs of all parties and the Bishop of Dover—well known to Members of your Lordships’ House—have all expressed concerns about the appalling conditions at the barracks and called for its closure. Two judgments have been made recently whereby residents have been extracted from the barracks because of their vulnerability. When were the barracks last inspected independently or visited by a Minister? If this has not occurred, can the Minister, who we know is concerned about these issues, assure us that such an independent inspection or visit will soon take place?
My Lords, I am not sure when a Minister last went in. I would suggest that at this current time, during a pandemic, it might not be the best thing for a Minister to go into the premises. But I can assure the noble Lord that HMIP is going in to do an inspection.
My Lords, I have never been to Napier barracks but, in the past, I have seen accommodation we have provided to our servicepeople in other parts of the United Kingdom. In many cases, it is not of a very high standard, which is very disappointing. Can the noble Baroness justify to the House how we can be sure that this is good-quality accommodation? Do we not have here a public health disaster made in the Home Office?
I can say to the noble Lord that, first, we are working very closely with public health authorities. Secondly, on the various aspects by which you might judge how people are living, there is drinking water, including bottled water, and three meals a day, two of them hot. I have gone through the healthcare provisions, and legal advice is also available. There is wi-fi on site, and everyone has a phone.
The Minister has outlined the very large increase in the number of people in this sort of accommodation, and I accept that the Minister and the Government are doing their best. The one thing that they are failing on is the number of people who are getting into the country as illegal migrants. What I would like to hear from the department is that Napier barracks is closed because we have got a grip on illegal migration. Can the Minister promise us that that is also a priority?
I can echo the words of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has said that the asylum system is broken. Over the next few months, we will see how we will change the immigration and asylum process to be firm and fair, while ensuring that it absolutely clamps down on those facilitators of illegal migration, who are criminals.
The 600-plus people in Napier and Penally are only the unacceptable tip of an unacceptable iceberg of over 60,000 asylum seekers now waiting for an initial decision on their case. They are not allowed to work, they are expected to survive on less than £40 a week, and three-quarters of them have been waiting for more than six months. It is not just the virus; the numbers more than doubled in the two years before the virus struck. As the Minister said, it is the system that is broken. NGOs such as the Refugee Council—I declare my interest as a trustee—try to mitigate the consequences, but only the Government can mend the system. Can the Minister assure us that the Government now intend to act to make the asylum system fair?
On 28 January I asked the Minister what conditions in the barracks were like, and she assured me that they were fit for purpose. In the last few days and weeks we have seen articles in the newspapers and on the news—these barracks are not fit for purpose and we should do our utmost to find other accommodation, remembering that at some point these asylum seekers will become citizens of Great Britain, or they will go elsewhere. What will they think of us as a nation and the way we have treated them?
I think I have probably answered the noble Baroness’s question but, absolutely, there has been additional demand on the system, and we have accommodated it. However, to go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, we need to process those claims as and when it is safe to do so and either grant people asylum or return them to their country of origin.