Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
13:01
Asked by
Lord German Portrait Lord German
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current pathways for newly recognised refugees to integrate and establish themselves in the United Kingdom.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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First, I thank all those who have put their names down to speak in this short debate and cover an area that is somewhat neglected but of great importance to all of us. This debate is about people who have the legal right to be in the United Kingdom: people whom our Government have decided require our protection. No matter how they arrived or which country they are from, they should all receive the support they require to establish themselves in the United Kingdom. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole that we harness the skills and talents of our new residents; it is also our duty as serious members of the international community to give refugees every chance to flourish, as they have suffered persecution and fled their homelands.

Refugees are a wide-ranging cohort: professionals; academic; medics; engineers; university students; men; women; children and young people. There will be those without schooling in their home country, those suffering physical and mental ill-health from the impact of trauma they have experienced, those with years of work experience, those starting out in the world of work, those with digital skills and those without, and adults caring for family members. Support therefore needs to reflect this range of needs.

The ability for refugees to establish themselves and flourish in the United Kingdom is crucial to their well-being and future prospects and those of their families, and to the strength of our communities. It is also crucial that they can begin swiftly to contribute to the economy of our country. This is in their interest but, crucially, it is also in our interest. As recent arrivals to the United Kingdom, they require support to thrive as we all would if we were attempting to navigate life in a new country. The support they require reflects the huge range of refugee profiles. Refugees are often resourceful, entrepreneurial, skilled and resilient. They want to be self-sufficient and to make a good life for themselves in the safety that the United Kingdom offers. I was pleased that, at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva last month, Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell committed to:

“Continued support around the integration of refugees in the United Kingdom".


What is the reality of the current situation? In 2019, an Oxford University study found that 84% of refugees reported that they did not have sufficient English language ability to get a job. The study found that refugees in the United Kingdom are four times more likely to be unemployed than people born here and earn about half the amount per week that UK nationals do on average. This is despite high levels of qualifications and skills: about half of all refugees have a qualification equivalent to a UK A-level and above. For example, 38% of refugees from Syria living in the United Kingdom have a university degree.

Non-EU migrants moving to the UK seeking asylum have a higher unemployment rate and a lower employment rate than other migrants. Differences in health status, especially mental ill-health brought on by trauma, are probably one of the dominant factors that explain these differences. Asylum seekers and migrants who are employees earn less and work fewer hours than UK-born workers and other migrants. Among those who are in employment, refugee migrants are more likely to be in self-employment than UK-born people and other migrants.

Last week I visited ACH in Bristol, a refugee-led support body. I discovered that, on average, it takes nine months for a refugee to obtain employment after they receive their refugee status. Clearly, that time gap needs to be shortened as best we can. We need to address the underemployment of refugees and the fact that they find it very difficult to access work that matches their skills, qualifications and work experience. Refugee talent is being wasted and, as a result, the UK is losing out. Refugee employment support needs an element of long-term progression, not ceasing at the first job that these people get in the United Kingdom. This must be reflected in language and training support that can fit around work hours.

The current provision that we have in this country falls into three broad areas. First, there is signposting from migrant support and help from third-sector organisations such as the Refugee Employment Network, and small loans are made available for short-term needs. Secondly, we have the Refugee Employability Programme, which started in September 2023 and lasts two years so it is difficult to know what its outcome will be. However, it does not include housing support, and only one of the contractors is in the third sector. I hope that the Government have learned the lesson from the now scrapped rehabilitation of offenders scheme, where they put large private sector companies in place and then had to remove them and scrap the whole system because it could not deliver locally through local partners. What efforts is the Refugee Employability Programme making to match business needs and the skills deficit in the workforce with refugee skills? Why does the programme not include a housing element, as was the case with the refugee transition outcomes fund? What lessons are being learned from Operation Warm Welcome’s attempt to connect employers with refugees?

The third area is the refugee transition outcomes fund that I just mentioned, a pilot fund which finishes in March 2024, having started in 2022. It was focused on jobs and training but also included housing and integration support. In replying, will the Minister provide us with more information on the lessons learned from this programme? Will it now be rolled out across the country? Will it be seen as an addition to or expansion of the Refugee Employability Programme?

Accessible English language training is key to refugee integration. What plans do the Government have to increase availability of English language classes to ensure that they are accessible around work and caring responsibilities? The STEP Ukraine programme provided a strong model for making that happen.

In the Chamber on 18 December, a Home Office Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe—was asked about the current challenges for refugees in moving from asylum support to mainstream support once they get their legal status. He said that

“most of the people we are talking about have been in this country for a very long time, and one would hope that they at least had some English”.—[Official Report, 18/12/23; col. 2039.]

We cannot live on hope; we need intent to solve this issue. At the very least, we must not produce policy which effectively makes it harder for refugees to progress in the United Kingdom once they get legal status.

My visit to Bristol last week demonstrated how difficult it is to manage these top issues of finding a home, language training and a pathway to work. The competition for rented accommodation is huge, and landlords will often take the easier route of agreeing a tenant who does not have the need for background checks on status. Language training was available from local colleges, but the waiting lists to get on them are very long indeed. Consequently, the jobs that people found provided no progression route to match their skills and qualifications.

Thankfully, there is a wealth of good practice to build on. I was pleased to hear of ACH’s new programme, working with the regional hospitality sector to provide jobs with progression opportunities. I must tell noble Lords that I was even more pleased to meet Nesrin, a former refugee who now has a successful catering business, Nessi Cuisine—I recommend it. We need a national refugee integration policy framework to help to integrate refugees and reap the benefit of their contribution to our society and our economy, a framework with a focus on the needs of this cohort. Such a policy must be delivered locally, bringing together the full range of providers—business owners, language training providers, local jobcentres, community developers, landlords, local authorities—as well as the refugees themselves. No one size will fit all, but a non-silo policy solution with funding streams attached would meet the diverse needs of tailor-made provision.

My major ask of the Government today is whether they accept the need for a policy framework, negotiated with Wales and Scotland—they also have major powers in this space—and that will stand the test of time. If so, what would that look like? It is in all our interests that we improve the journey to integration and that we celebrate the contribution that refugees can and do make to our communities and to our economy. It would be foolish not to do so.

13:11
Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome this debate. There is a temptation, when focusing on specific granular issues such as housing and benefits, to ignore the wider context, which is whether we, as legislators, are discharging our obligations and duties to all British citizens to protect our borders and safeguard our people.

No one voted for record levels of unassimilated, irregular immigration or mass controlled immigration, and no one voted for this House to seek to frustrate the Government’s mandate to properly limit and control immigration. No one voted for a foreign legal entity to undermine our sovereign Parliament in so doing. Our asylum and immigration system is a shambolic mess and an embarrassment—and a costly one, at that. I urge noble Lords to look at Iain Martin’s column in the Times this morning about the human consequences of the mistakes that are being made. The international legal regime is outdated and in need of urgent review, as the Foreign Secretary stated in the House on Tuesday, when he said that it was a law “written for another age”, in specific reference to the 1951 refugee convention.

We as a country—the British people—are decent, warm, tolerant and generous. You need only look at the various schemes over the last number of years: we have welcomed 20,000 people under the two Afghanistan schemes, 185,000 under the Hong Kong partnership, 270,000 under the Ukrainian families schemes and 22,000 Syrians between 2014 and 2021, and that is not to mention 22,000 Vietnamese and Ugandan Asians between 1972 and 1974. There is an argument, however, that integration has failed. Diversity is a shibboleth, a cult that means that a shared sense of community cohesion, values, principles, beliefs, social tenets and a unity in belief in our country are often dismissed and ignored.

In the wider context, I have some specific questions for the Minister. Why has the refusal rate for asylum seekers decreased precipitously since 2010, from, for instance, 88% in 2004 to 24% now? Why are we granting asylum to many more people who passed through safe countries which have much higher refusal rates, such as France and Belgium? How many cases are currently in the asylum seeker caseload? What is our strategy for the 41,000 who are subject to removal and have not been removed?

For all that, I have a positive spin on where we are at the moment. I welcome the Integrated Communities Action Plan, the New Plan for Immigration: Policy Statement and the Refugee Employability Programme because it is our duty to support law-abiding, decent asylum seekers to become good British citizens. We need to bring back integration from the devolved Administrations. We need a robust template for citizenship ceremonies focusing on British history, culture, values and beliefs. We need to put more money into removals and to speed up the process, particularly the appeals process. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord German, that we need to look at more work with civil society to give asylum seekers skills, work preparation and language skills not to work before their application is determined but to volunteer and receive support as putative British citizens. We certainly need to expand the social impact bond models beyond the four pilot schemes that we have now, with clear targets and demonstrable objectives.

Millions of people want to come to Britain for a better life, and that is laudable. We have a right to choose which ones we accept, but we also have an obligation to help them to be good, honest, patriotic British citizens.

13:16
Lord Green of Deddington Portrait Lord Green of Deddington (CB)
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My Lords, I agree broadly with much of what the noble Lord, Lord German, said, but it is no surprise that I will take a slightly different approach because I also agree with quite a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, said.

There is a prior phase before we get into how we handle refugees, and that is the main point of this debate. We need much more confidence among the public that applicants for refugee status are genuine and, if they are not, that they will be refused and removed. The second part of that is, frankly, very weak at the moment. We have to convince the public that the number is satisfactorily under control. I suspect that there is growing public concern on both counts. The public are aware that roughly 75% of applicants are relatively young men who have nearly all destroyed their documents and who have nearly all—certainly those who cross the channel—come from a safe country. We cannot focus on the treatment of genuine asylum seekers unless we take account of this public feeling, which is strong and well based.

By way of illustration, I shall address one group of applicants on which the Government seem to be making a serious mistake. I refer to the so-called streamlining of applications from six Middle East countries announced on 23 February 2023, namely Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. I know most of those countries and have served in three of them. In the past five years, about 23,500 applicants and dependants from these countries have been granted asylum, but thousands of these applicants are now having their applications processed on paper and the “vast majority” are given the green light to stay in the UK without an interview. It is extraordinary. What is the reason? It is that their grant rate in recent years was 95% or higher. The system cannot be working effectively if it gives 95% approval to any group of people. What message does that send to their compatriots at home and how much does this matter?

A glance at the United Nations population statistics will show that the number of males aged between 20 and 39—the likely age group—from these six countries comes to a total of 23 million. Obviously, they are not all coming, but the word will spread rapidly, especially as all these countries are in chaos and many people in them live in poverty. It is surely only a matter of time before the numbers start to rise sharply.

This is just one example of the Government’s frankly limp and short-sighted policies in this field. The costs are enormous. Robert Jenrick, until recently Minister responsible for all this, has just said that it costs £500,000 to integrate and support one migrant. I put to the Minister that, if the Government are serious about pathways to integration—I hope that they are and I suspect that everyone here is—they will first need to get a grip of the process and to constrain the numbers.

13:20
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is absolutely right that we have the aspiration of fully integrating all those granted refugee status into UK life. I appreciate the application of thinking of the noble Lord, Lord German, about how we can do that, how they can provide for themselves and settle in, and so on. But, however short this debate is, we cannot ignore a broader political context and the contemporary problem of cultural integration.

Whether we like it or not, the status of refugees has become tarnished in the eyes of the public, discredited by the loss of faith in the process of determining who is legitimately here and the loss of control of our borders. The catastrophic backlog in assessing asylum claims means that there are worries that some are arriving in small boats, being waved through and so on. That causes resentments, which is not a good plan for integrating people. We have to be honest: integrating new refugees when the public are sympathetic to them escaping horrendous wars and brutal regimes is one thing, but it is different if they have a suspicion of status. There is a difference between integrating new refugees into a dynamic and self-confident country with a generous invitation to become part of British society and today’s reality, which is a combination of a polarised society, economic stagnation and all sorts of toxic things going on. We have failing public services, councils on the brink of bankruptcy and a housing crisis affecting all British citizens, so we cannot expect this to be all smooth sailing.

We need to take a step back. I refer noble Lords to recent events in Ireland over the last week or so. On Tuesday, Mayo County Council unanimously, in a cross-party resolution, passed a motion calling on all council staff to cease co-operation with the department of integration—aptly named for this debate. The issue is about housing asylum seekers and agreed refugees in the county. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors declared that non-co-operation would continue until

“an agreed strategy is put in place to properly co-ordinate the provision of additional services for the communities hosting refugees”.

This comes after violent clashes between the gardaí—the Irish police—and protesters outside a hotel in Roscrea in County Tipperary on Monday night, again in relation to housing asylum seekers and refugees.

It was interesting that Mayo councillors emphasised that, as much as anything else, they were acting to ensure that refugees would not be blamed for the scramble for scarce jobs, services and housing. They do not want scapegoating. As one councillor noted, the Irish state could be seen as discriminating against those already living in County Mayo, including migrants and earlier refugees who have been based there for years, sometimes decades. Such sentiments are reflected here in the UK.

Many people from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds feel uneasy about how best to integrate refugees here and about whether there is enough to go around. Perhaps even more challenging is the issue of cultural integration. Historically, refugees from all sorts of ethnic and religious backgrounds interacted and forged common bonds in British society. However, we have a problem with what the newly ennobled noble Lord, Lord Cameron, when Prime Minister, once called the doctrine of “state multiculturalism”, which splinters society into different cultural blocks, often competing identity groups, living parallel lives. This official policy has undermined national identity and fuelled disunity, all in the name of diversity. I fear that it will be the greatest threat that we have to properly integrating any new refugees.

13:24
Baroness Neuberger Portrait Baroness Neuberger (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Schwab & Westheimer Trust helping young asylum seekers and refugees access higher education and as a member of the Woolf Institute’s Commission on the Integration of Refugees—directly relevant. I also declare an interest as chair of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. This is particularly relevant with UCLH, because it hosts the RESPOND team, an integrated asylum seeker and refugee service, which has been so successful in treating asylum seekers and refugees, under the leadership of the amazing Dr Sarah Eisen, that it was highly commended for a Health Service Journal award last year.

Asylum seekers and refugees face multiple barriers in accessing health services, and a direct outreach service can work wonders. Sadly, the main outreach service is closed at present, due to funding and commissioning issues, but this work is directly relevant. The Woolf commission’s report will be launched in March and is likely to recommend that the NHS collaborate with the third sector to carry out joint strategic needs assessments to understand the composition and needs of local asylum seeker and refugee populations. Those needs assessments should then be used to plan, develop and provide integrated care systems that are relevant, inclusive and responsive to any issues relating to community cohesion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, just talked about, or to address health inequalities—exactly what RESPOND was set up for.

A further recommendation from the Woolf report is likely to be around the employment of refugees and indeed of asylum seekers while awaiting decisions. Once again, University College Hospital has tried to help, and not purely for moral reasons. Staff shortages are such that it makes no sense to have qualified health workers in our asylum system or newly accepted as refugees who cannot work with us. We started back in March 2022 in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University and recruited a mere four refugees. Two have since passed their OSCE, a test of professional competence required of anyone trained in another country who wishes to work as a registered nurse in the UK, and are now working with us, while two are finalising their training. It takes ages, as the noble Lord, Lord German, said, and it is expensive. However, this is exactly what we should be doing nationally on a far greater scale. It may be expensive to have such a system, but it is much more expensive if we cannot recruit at all. We have skills shortages while there are refugees who could fill the gaps and want to do so, but at present it is unbelievably hard to get into the NHS system, either as staff or as a patient, if you are an asylum seeker or even a refugee with status.

Can the Minister give us comfort that the Government are looking at this? Will they make it easier to work in the NHS as an asylum seeker or a refugee? Will they now fund outreach to asylum seekers and refugees from within the NHS to help deal with appalling illnesses and address shocking health inequalities? It is quite clear what should be done; the question is whether the Government will make it easier to do so.

13:28
Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register.

Successful integration into life in the UK is critical for refugees to rebuild their lives, enabling society to benefit from the valuable skills that they bring as a gift to this country. However, current policy makes integration difficult, leaving them with very little support, particularly in the early period.

My friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London raised the 28-day move-on period in this House last month and in a letter to the Home Office with other faith leaders. I echo her concerns. Current policy gives refugees 28 days from the issuing of a biometric residence permit until they can no longer access asylum support and accommodation. In practice, refugees are often given much shorter notice to find accommodation and means to support themselves.

Last week, I witnessed this in the north-east, when a refugee, whom I have known for some years, was given a matter of hours by the Home Office to find new accommodation—he has just recently been given his status. As a male whose family has not yet joined him in the UK, he was not considered a priority for housing, so private rental was his only option. He is in full-time paid work as a social carer. Fortunately, the local authority agreed to provide a week in a guest house as he found a more permanent solution, but he was left in need of a guarantor, a deposit and a first month of rent. Had it not been for the generosity of local connections that he had made, plus the willingness of the local authority and charity sector to provide support and guidance, it would have been a very different story.

The 57% of refugees who end up sleeping rough, or in a hostel or night shelter, when they leave asylum accommodation are not as fortunate. Those who need to access universal credit when granted refugee status must endure the five-week wait for their first payment. Considering that the move-on period is 28 days yet the wait for a first universal credit payment is five weeks, how will the Government prevent those who have recently been granted refugee status but not yet found employment experiencing homelessness and destitution? Will they extend the move-on period to 56 days, so that it is compatible with the universal credit processing time or, as a minimum, correctly and clearly implement the current policy to ensure that all refugees truly have 28 days from receiving their BRP to leave their asylum accommodation?

I commend the Government for adopting community sponsorship as a safe and legal route to the UK. Community sponsorship has proven to help refugees to successfully integrate much more quickly, with the sponsoring communities providing wraparound support. I ask the Government what plans they have to upscale and promote this scheme, so that more refugees can integrate into life in the UK.

Refugees, when seen as a gift not a problem, have so much potential to contribute to our communities and economy. It is vital that newly recognised refugees receive the support they require with housing, employment, language skills and building social networks. Only then can they successfully integrate, rebuild their lives and fully contribute to life in the UK, which is exactly what they want to do.

13:31
Lord Carlile of Berriew Portrait Lord Carlile of Berriew (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for raising this very important question before your Lordships. I support what he said in his excellent opening speech. I am glad that we are able to concentrate on a question that does not deal with the chaos of how refugee applicants arrive in this country. It is about what happens to people whose status as refugees is recognised; therefore, they are to be integrated.

Like my noble friend Lady Neuberger, I declare an interest as a member of the Woolf Institute’s Commission on the Integration of Refugees. It is a large commission, which has taken a vast amount of evidence. Its members are politically diverse and apolitical too. Some have lived experience. When it reports in March, I hope that the Government pay close attention to its recommendations. Given that we are in 2024, I hope that all political parties look closely at its provisions.

The Woolf Institute’s commission has taken a vast amount of evidence and it is becoming clear that your Lordships’ House and the other place do not have real visibility of what is happening with the integration of refugees. We need to introduce a new and much stronger governance process and a better and more clearly devolved structure for how refugees are dealt with, in the attempt to integrate and establish themselves in the United Kingdom.

My fervent belief—as a child of refugees—is that there is no real hostility to refugees in this country. Refugees who come here, work and participate in their communities are welcome. It is often the fault of us in this place that hostility arises. We need to move away from that situation by improving the governance of the refugee system.

How do we do that? I will give a couple of examples. First, we need a clearer statement of the strategy and goals for national refugee integration. Producing such a document is not rocket science. Secondly, we should ensure that we use those who are best at it already and give them the opportunity to improve what they do. Revising and upgrading the roles of strategic migration partnerships, as the key vehicles to implement the integration strategy, is absolutely essential. I used the word “devolved”; we should take into account the extremely important roles to be played by the devolved Governments, local authorities, the private sector and third-sector organisations, such as the many charities involved in this work.

To ensure that the work is done properly, in the coming years we should not face the sort of debates that we have had in the past couple of years about refugees and how they are integrated. To avoid that, we need a much stronger demonstration to Parliament of how these policies have been administered. I have a feeling that the Woolf Institute’s commission will suggest the implementation of a recommendation for an independent reviewer of how the refugee system works, so that there is a living instrument that deals with issues as they arise and reports independently to Parliament on the integration of refugees. Genuine refugees should—like my own parents, who were very successful refugees—have the opportunity to become full British people without losing their original national identities and ideas.

13:36
Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the organisations that sent us briefings; the material gets read even if one cannot refer to it in detail. I declare an interest as a trustee of the trust mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, which supports young people in higher education. The students I have met show an impressive intention to progress to worthwhile careers. They are the catalysts for renewal and innovation in our nation.

I do not like the word “integrate”. It suggests a one-way activity when it should be reciprocal because integration is valuable and enriching to the host nation. A charity in south-west London, Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, uses the strap-line “Supporting diversity, challenging adversity”. Differences are valuable—societies are not static. As the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said, several of today’s speakers—three of us sitting in a row—need look back only one or two generations of our own families. The noble Lord, Lord Jackson, used the description

“decent, warm, tolerant and generous”

of the British people. I agree, but will some of those who have benefited who are or have been in senior positions apply that? Would that the Government themselves showed leadership in acknowledging the benefits rather than scapegoating immigrants and, particularly, asylum seekers. All that does is stoke fear and hostility. I am sure we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Gascoigne, about the positives, but I suspect not where there are shortfalls, nor where there is a lack of a holistic approach, which means that refugees are perceived as a burden.

My noble friend focused on the failure to align immigration policies with the UK’s economic needs, and other points that I now might be able to go through rather quickly—I did not expect him to be able to do so. The first is employment. Restrictions on asylum seekers undertaking volunteering, never mind working, deprive them of social connections, which are part of integration, as well as experience and dignity. I will canter through some other issues. Language is essential for a rounded life, and essential for a refugee to practise his or her profession and use his or her skills. Some of the language tuition needs to be work-related.

The right reverend Prelate referred in some detail to the issues around accommodation, which is an essential foundation for so much else. Like him, I ask the Government to think again about the move-on period—both the formal period and the procedures that apply so that 28 days is now largely a fiction. What is needed is 56 days, to align with applications for universal credit and with the Homelessness Reduction Act. It is said that if nothing else changes, universal credit advance payments will have to become the norm. The right reverend Prelate referred to problems with private rented accommodation.

More safe and legal routes would put the UK in a better position to welcome refugees. They would also put refugees in a better position not to be driven underground but to contribute to and become part of our society and communities—to everyone’s benefit.

13:40
Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for bringing this important debate forward today. I also thank my colleagues in local authorities across the country, faith leaders and their communities, and the voluntary and community sector for their exceptional efforts in this regard. In all the light and heat of the Government’s current chaotic and crisis-ridden approach to asylum seekers and refugees, it is too easy to overlook the fact that at the heart of this issue are people and communities here in the UK, and people who arrive in our country, often traumatised and persecuted, seeking refuge and the security that we take for granted.

Local authorities and the voluntary sector have done an outstanding job in attempting to support refugees into accommodation, supporting their mental health and welfare needs, providing access to English classes, and giving employment support and assistance with registering for benefits as well as cultural awareness support to enable people to build new lives in the UK. However, both our own excellent briefing from the House of Lords Library and the outstanding briefing from London Councils set out that there are still significant issues. The current lack of co-ordination, the failure to ensure that adequate time periods are in place for refugees to access employment, accommodation and benefits, and the constant changes of system and inconsistent time periods between refugee support and housing law are causing considerable distress. There are increases in rough sleeping and exceptional pressures on housing departments, which were already buckling under the demands for emergency and temporary accommodation due to the failures in the housing market.

The Government’s climbdown on asylum accommodation cut-off dates was followed by a huge increase in homelessness rates among new refugees. Are the Government considering how they may help by boosting homelessness prevention funding and/or discretionary housing payments? The chaos engulfing our asylum system, which has kept people in Home Office limbo for longer and longer, will not be solved by forcing refugees out of accommodation and on to our streets. What is being done to ensure that move-on periods from asylum-seeker status to refugee status align with homelessness legislation, universal credit application periods and access to essential health support, including for mental health? All those issues were mentioned by previous speakers in this debate.

Can the Minister outline how the Home Office and DLUHC will work together and with other departments to introduce the cross-departmental strategy, referred to as a national refugee integration framework by the noble Lords, Lord German and Lord Carlile, to ensure that newly confirmed refugees are able to secure housing, employment and support with health issues, including mental health, so that they can go on to build an independent life in this country? Can the Minister tell us how many refugees have been able to access the Refugee Employability Programme, and how its success is being monitored and assessed? What work is being undertaken to understand what works best in terms of outcomes for refugee integration?

It is in the interests of the settled people and communities across the UK, the very vulnerable refugees at the heart of this issue and the hard-working councils and agencies working in the front line to get this resolved, so can we please have closer co-ordination between and within departments and with those on the ground, without any further delay?

13:44
Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, and all who have contributed today. As he said, the debate has been well attended, which is a credit not just to him for securing the debate but to all noble Lords who are concerned about this issue and how we work together to integrate refugees further.

As has been clear, the debate is important, and I assure noble Lords that the Government approach this task with the seriousness and care that they would expect. We seek to support and help refugees as they begin their lives in the UK in a number of ways, and I will set those out before I respond to some of the other specific points that have been raised.

First, all those who have been granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK are granted immediate access to public services—as we have discussed, this includes education, healthcare and the benefits system—as well as to the labour market. As has been said, these provisions are there to help foster integration and self-sufficiency, so that refugees can provide for themselves and their families, as well as make a positive contribution to the economy and society.

As has been noted by your Lordships, and as I think we all agree, employment can be and is an important step on the path to integration. There is the obvious financial benefit from earning an income and becoming self-sufficient in the longer term, but there are also opportunities to engage with others, expand social networks and learn and practise speaking English. That is why those granted refugee status have immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market.

Points have been well made about how refugees can sometimes face additional barriers to labour market participation, which is why the Government are funding the delivery of a bespoke support package to help refugees to overcome these barriers and move into work. The Home Office recently launched the Refugee Employability Programme in England, which is focused on increasing employability prospects for refugees through the provision of tailored employment support, integration support and English language training. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, asked a number of questions about departments working together. I hope she sees where they do so; this is one area. Officials also work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that all those whom we resettle or whose refugee status is recognised are aware of and receive the support to which they are entitled.

As your Lordships raised, the ability to speak English is key to helping refugees integrate, as well as to breaking down barriers to work and career progression. That is why English language training is a fundamental element of the support available under the new Refugee Employability Programme. The Department for Education in England funds English for speakers of other languages through the adult education budget. All refugees and those granted humanitarian protection are eligible for full funding for ESOL if they are unemployed and looking for work. I will come back later to some of the other specific points on education.

Once granted asylum, individuals must transition to mainstream services from the support and accommodation provided while their asylum applications are processed. The Government currently have in place measures that ensure that an individual granted asylum remains on asylum support and in asylum accommodation for 28 days from the point of the biometric residence permit being issued. We recognise the importance of a biometric residence permit to obtain onward support; it allows newly recognised refugees to integrate and establish themselves. We are working to ensure that BRPs are issued within five to seven days of the initial decision. However, individuals should make plans to move on from asylum support as soon as they are served their asylum decision, regardless of when their BRP is issued. In most cases, this is in advance.

Early in this period, Migrant Help, which is contracted by the Home Office to support newly recognised refugees, will also provide support and advice on how to access services and where to get assistance with housing.

We recognise that the number of individuals moving on from the asylum support system is adding pressure on local authorities and their housing allocation capacity. The Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are working closely on this and have been regularly engaging with local authorities to ensure that they are supported as well. There are a number of improvements in train to ensure that local authorities receive early notification of those being granted asylum and leaving Home Office asylum accommodation. Following notification of an asylum decision being made, accommodation providers will notify local authorities within two working days. We are working with providers to ensure that this is applied consistently and in a timely manner across all areas. We are also working to ensure that individuals are offered support from Migrant Help or other partner organisations when they receive a decision on their asylum claim.

I will try to address the very good points that have been made. Forgive me; there are some that I may have missed. I will do as much as I can and, if I am unable to answer them, I will write.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, spoke about asylum seekers not being able to work while they await the decision. I completely understand the point, which has been well made by many others not just in this debate but in previous debates, especially in the Chamber. We do not want to be in a position where we create pull factors. It would be an incentive for asylum seekers to enter our system if we were to go down that route.

Your Lordships made a number of points about grant rates, specifically on what the Government are doing to clear the backlog and on the checks. I assure your Lordships that rigorous checks are made on claims before and when decisions are made. My noble friend Lord Jackson asked about the grant rate compared to the European Union. Obviously it is not always possible to give a direct comparison. For example, there is a mix of nationalities, protection needs, operational resources and policy decisions. Currently there are a large number of applications with ongoing conflict. The department is prioritising older claims, children, those in support and those with extreme vulnerability.

The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the RTOF and the pilot. The evaluation is ongoing, I am afraid. Once it has come to its conclusion we will write to him with further details once we have learned those lessons.

The noble Lord, Lord Green, asked about tracking the 90% who pass through safe countries. I assure him that our system is robust and that rigorous checks are made on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, asked whether the Government will take heed of the recommendations of the Commission on the Integration of Refugees. We look forward to seeing its report in due course, and I assure him that we will consider it carefully. I am sure it will be discussed in detail in the Chamber at some stage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and others asked about the support and close working with other departments. As I said, there are a number of occasions where departments work together, which we will obviously continue to do. To be clear, it is not just the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities but the DWP and the DfE.

The right reverend Prelate mentioned his right reverend friend the Bishop of London, and my understanding is that there is some outstanding correspondence and that one of the Home Office Ministers has since written. I spoke to the Minister this morning, and he wanted me to pass on that he is aware that there needs to be a response to that. He is happy to have the conversation once he is in a position to do so. I assure noble Lords that the department is on it and they will meet.

There were a number of other issues—I have written them down—but, in the interest of time, I will just thank the noble Lord, Lord German, again for raising this debate, and all those who participated in the debate. I hope one of the things we can take away is that the Government recognise the importance of supporting refugees towards integration. It is certainly not the case that we see them as a burden, as was said; we do not. We continue to explore how refugees can be supported towards integration more effectively and how to improve their outcomes. That is why we have been testing a different model of support through our recent refugee transition outcomes fund pilot, as mentioned, and it is why this programme and the new Refugee Employability Programme are being evaluated. This is so that learning can be captured and can inform policy developments in this space.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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Will the Minister address, possibly in writing, extending the social impact bond projects and the learning from those? On a comment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will he look again at the government policy on volunteering to enable better integration of asylum seekers through not work but volunteering?

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I apologise—the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and others also made that point about integration. I assure my noble friend that I will write on that.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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Will the Minister write to me about community sponsorship? He was meant to hit that out of the park for six as a positive, and he did not.

Lord Gascoigne Portrait Lord Gascoigne (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate. I will write, and I apologise profusely—there are a number of other issues that I have not had a chance to address.

In conclusion—I say to the Whip that I am conscious of time—it is in refugees’ interest and that of the country as a whole that they are able to adapt to life in the United Kingdom, build rewarding and happy lives here, and contribute to society.

13:57
Sitting suspended.