Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to introduce this debate. I want to try to set a tone at the outset that what we are about is how to improve the lives of the most vulnerable of vulnerable people who are fleeing the terrible situation in Syria and coming to the UK. This is not about unnecessary criticism of the Home Office and I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, it will not be a blind defence of what is happening, but a reflection and perhaps a move forward in the light of what the chief inspector has said and what some noble Lords will say in this debate.
We have to remember that this is about families and individuals who are fleeing from torture; some of them may have been tortured. This is about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people who are fearful of being thrown off buildings. This is about children who have been terrorised by conflict and war. Therefore, it was warming to read the observation of one senior manager that the section within the Home Office which deals with the vulnerable persons scheme, has a “culture that feels different” from other parts of the Home Office; it is making a real difference to people’s lives. That is something the Home Office should be proud of, but should we really have only one section in the Home Office, the one dealing with refugees, where the staff feel they are making a difference? So the report is important and should be reflected on.
However, I have to say that the initial response of the Home Office to the report was disappointing and, in the words of the chief inspector, the Government appeared to be,
“closed to the idea that there is any room for improvement”.
That is disappointing for the people who are relying on this scheme, so let us hope that on reflection after this debate, the Minister’s response will be much more about a culture that makes a difference to people’s lives, rather than saying that there is no room for improvement.
The Home Office must also be congratulated on actually meeting the target of 20,000 people coming from Syria on this scheme. That shows a can-do attitude and all noble Lords should recognise that. But we must be clear that the scheme is not just about numbers or quantity; it has to be about the quality of what we as a country are doing in reaching out to vulnerable people, making sure that they are ready when they arrive here, and then looking at how they are integrated and supported during what will be a very difficult transition period in their lives. That is what I wish to concentrate on.
I want to ask the Minister clearly and simply to forget the structures and the systems. Is there in the Home Office an idea of what a good system looks like from the individual’s point of view? What does it mean to a human being—a mum, a dad, a brother or a sister? Do we humanise or do we just operate a bureaucratic system, and if we do, how is that spelt out in the Home Office? If that is not done, I would ask the Minister to ensure that it is, so that we have policies and a system that are humanitarian and not just bureaucratic.
We need to overcome the big problem talked about in the report, which is a lack of co-ordination. We also need to have a greater understanding of the cultural expectations of individuals. That is the crux of what this report talks about.
I want to use LGBT issues as a reason why this is important; I think that the Minister would be surprised if I did not. Reaching out to LGBT people is not about them coming to you. You have to work with civil societies in the countries that are part of the scheme. You have to understand that they are not going to be up for it and that their trauma and fear will not be readily overcome. For that, you need very different systems. We need to be clear. We need a number of systems, not just one, that are appropriate to the needs of the people we reach out to, whether they are people who have been tortured, families, young people or LGBT people.
Data is the lifeblood of good planning, operational effectiveness and reviews. It is clear that there is a real weakness in the system for not just data collection but data use; that is, looking to data for how we can change things. I asked the Home Office a number of questions on 19 May; the Minister responded to most of them on 29 May. To questions such as how many people are in work and have been integrated through this scheme, nearly every answer was, “We do not have this data”. The Home Office could not even answer a question on how many people from the different UNHCR categories have come into this country. Interestingly, the report states those exact statistics based on Home Office data up to the end of last year. We need to get hold of data. It helps people, it helps us and it helps others to get answers. Other than digitisation, what real work is happening in the Home Office to bring data together so that it can be used more effectively?
I also want to look at the issue of the 35-week period between somebody being accepted on to the vulnerable persons scheme in their country of origin and arriving in the UK. Let us go back to being human. At the moment, the period is too long; we need to look at how we can shorten it. Even when people are in the middle of that period, we become bureaucratic. Why do we not regularly keep in touch with them? Why do we not say more about what they can expect in the UK? Why do we not make the information that we give them more targeted? It is no good giving someone information about an urban area if they will live in rural Yorkshire. We need to personalise this and keep in touch. These people need to know who to get in touch with. We cannot just outsource this to the UNHCR. We need to take control. What work will be done to humanise the waiting period? How will we better respond to and work with the UNHCR, which is working in this area?
Co-ordination when these people arrive here is also important. It is clear that a number of people are being passed from pillar to post. A number of government policies clash. When somebody tries to get employment and they look for benefits to help them, they are told that they do not meet residency criteria for certain benefits. Two huge government policies are clashing. We need greater co-ordination at a national level. What work is being done nationally to co-ordinate policy and iron out these clashes?
If we are to humanise this issue, it has to be devolved. We cannot use a national system. Every section of government that is involved, including local government and the third sector, needs to be delegated responsibility so that it can make personalised interventions—not just local, but personalised decisions—across the remit of issues that people face, such as housing, employment, English and interpretation. That is the crux of what is going wrong. I go around the world looking at government systems. A bureaucratic national system is not meeting individual need. I ask the Minister: can and will she and the Home Office look at making this a much more localised system, with delegated powers and responsibility so that local boards in the third sector and the statutory government sector, including local government, can make localised approaches to deal with the needs of families and individuals coming into our country, which will humanise what is going on, rather than trying to deal with everything nationally?
As I said, some good work has gone on and I believe that the Home Office’s intention is to try to make this a system that works and that welcomes and opens our hearts and arms to the people in this situation, but the report clearly says that some really serious issues need to be addressed. I hope that, in the light of the few issues I have raised—I am sure other noble Lords will raise others—the Government, the Minister and the Home Office, while they might not be able to answer today, will reflect and look at how to make this not a hostile environment, but a human one in dealing with these people. I hope that they look at the data and understand that dealing with it is vital. I hope that when the Minister replies—and when we see things changing, maybe in the months ahead—it will be about that can-do attitude and culture of changing people’s lives for the better, not simply saying that the bureaucracy is too difficult and we are doing everything we can.
My Lords, I shall start by paying three compliments. I am afraid that my complimenting will cease there. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, not only on his thorough covering of all the issues, which I shall not repeat, but on tabling this Motion. Secondly, I thank Thomas Brown for his admirable Library briefing. Thirdly, and this is nothing to do with the subject other than that he is to follow me in the debate, I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle how much I and, I am sure, many other noble Lords have appreciated the way he has read the Psalms this week.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I recognise that this report is not entirely negative about what has been achieved, but Mr David Bolt, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, has described the Government’s response to his report, of which it accepted only two, while partially accepting five, of his seven recommendations, as “disappointing”. As the noble Lord mentioned, he added that the Government—meaning the Home Office —appeared,
“closed to the idea that there is any room for improvement”,
in how the scheme was managed and operated.
These last words immediately resonated with me because I have had countless experiences of exactly the same Home Office attitude to outside recommendations since I first became associated with the immigration system in 1997. As Chief Inspector of Prisons, I was asked to take on the inspection of what were then called immigration detention centres. Almost immediately, I was asked to inspect Campsfield House near Gatwick, where I found that a series of riots, which had resulted in the destruction of the library and much other damage, had been started by a group who I did not think met the criteria for immigrant detainees, namely ex-prisoners. They had been sentenced to be deported, but instead of having their deportation processed while they were in prison—so that, at the end of their sentence, they were taken straight to the airport and out, as happens in the UAE, for example—the deportation process was only started when they arrived at an immigration detention centre, following release from prison. I have been campaigning against this practice since 1998 and have recommended change many times in this House, without success.
I also found that immigration detention centres were using totally inappropriate prison rules, as opposed to UN and European detention rules, on the orders of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, in the Home Office, which was responsible for the immigration system. After my inspection, my inspectors, working with officials from the directorate, produced more appropriate rules that are still in use today.
Together with my noble friends Lord Sandwich and Lady Mar, I was a commissioner on an independent asylum commission which reported in 2009 with more than 70 recommendations after an exhaustive investigation in which we involved the then UK Border Agency. Regrettably, we found what we described as a “culture of disbelief” in the Home Office, fuelled by the direction that it was then under from Tony Blair that there was to be a tipping point beyond which no further immigrants should be admitted, the policy being for officials to ensure that more applications were refused than granted. The most public manifestation of this attitude was when the then Minister for Immigration, when asked about our report on “The World at One”, about which I had spoken on the “Today” programme, replied that he had not read it but disbelieved every word of it.
I shall not go through every disappointing dealing with the immigration department of the Home Office, which the noble Lord, Lord Reid, when he was Home Secretary, dubbed as “not fit for purpose”, except to mention two which are germane to this debate. In 2012, I chaired an independent inquiry into the unlawful killing by G4S escorts on an aircraft at Heathrow of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan whose removal they were enforcing. During this inquiry, in which I again invited a senior Home Office official to attend every meeting, we became extremely concerned about the poor quality of casework, including the lack of supervision. We made a number of recommendations, none of which has been actioned, designed to improve the whole process of enforced removal. The fact that I had so many knowledgeable experts on my panel, and that all our evidence was carefully documented, was studiously ignored by the Home Office.
Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I took part in the Refugees All-Party Parliamentary Group’s review of the asylum and immigration system, which reported in 2015 and in which we recommended a review of the whole immigration system because there were so many flaws in it—a recommendation I would repeat today. Control of our borders is a laughable proposition under the current dysfunctional system, and I have no idea how it will cope with the demands of Brexit or the inevitable strains that will be put on it by population movement, possibly inflated by climate change.
Therefore, I plead with the Minister to encourage the Home Office, and particularly that part of it involved with the immigration process, to change the bad habits of the last too many years and stop deluding itself that all its operations are adequately managed. If it continues to refuse to listen to, or take account of, advice from those who know more about the realities of the human content of the immigration process than officials appear to do, then God save us as a nation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this debate. I also extend my thanks to the inspectors for their helpful report. While I am about it, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his kind words.
Most of all, I thank all those who have contributed to the good aspects of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme thus far: Home Office officials, particularly the resettlement, asylum support and integration directorate; local authorities and devolved Administrations; refugee charities, and, not least, faith and community groups who have played their part in offering a very warm welcome. Expanding our resettlement offer from 750 people a year to the number under VPRS has required compassion, courage and not a small degree of competence.
But the work is not finished or perfect, as we have been reminded. Therefore, I want to use this speech to highlight some of the questions raised by the report that we must answer if our resettlement work is to receive approval in future reports. As the current report indicates, the 2015 expansion of the VPRS happened very quickly. This led to central government making a commitment and then offering a generous package of funding to ensure that local authorities would deliver that commitment. Such a model of top-down policy-making may well have been necessary at that point, but it is not sustainable in the longer term and stands in stark contrast to the policy design and delivery that has happened since.
From a Church of England perspective, we can testify to the directorate’s commitment to working collaboratively with the whole of society to welcome and integrate refugees. The design of the community sponsorship scheme has been a particular success and I pay tribute to the work our national refugee welcome co-ordinator is doing alongside Home Office and civil society partners to see this scheme grow.
The success of the whole policy, however, relies heavily on trust between the stakeholders. The Home Office must further develop this spirit of collaboration, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, emphasised, as decisions are made about our resettlement commitments beyond 2020. Civil society, local authorities, metro mayors and the devolved Administrations all have a part to play in this, and the Government will struggle to coerce anyone into any policy that they alone own. So I ask the Minister: what is being done to ensure that future resettlement commitments are made and owned by the whole of society and not just Marsham Street?
May I also ask the Minister for an assurance that the negotiations around the global compact on refugees at the United Nations will be approached in that same spirit of collaboration? Tragically, as we are only too well aware, the Syrian conflict shows no sign of resolution. Beyond 2020, there will still be a need to offer protection and a home to those affected by it. Yet there are also other refugee crises in need of our attention. We cannot ignore those displaced by conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the DRC, among others. Our future resettlement must be responsive to other humanitarian crises, but of course we cannot do this alone. The UK should be a world leader in welcoming refugees and vulnerable persons, not simply by doing it better than everyone else but by enabling everyone else to do it better as well.
Such leadership is not just about refugees who arrive through resettlement. Domestically, we need to dismantle the two-tier system identified in the APPG on Refugees 2017 report Refugees Welcome?. Doing this will involve facilitating widespread support for asylum seekers and refugees, particularly during the very vulnerable stage of the move-on period immediately after refugee status is granted. Dismantling the two-tier system will also involve heeding the report’s recommendation of an integration strategy for refugees, learning perhaps from Scotland’s “New Scots” strategy. I hope this recommendation will form part of the integrated communities strategy.
I also hope we can continue to learn from the experience of other countries. For instance, Canada’s private sponsorship programme allows community groups to name refugees they wish to sponsor, enabling the scheme to be used as a sort of family reunion. We might explore a pilot, allowing refugees already welcomed through the VPRS to work with their communities to do something similar with their family members, on the condition that they meet the UNHCR vulnerability criteria. Doing so would improve integration outcomes and would draw primarily on community assets rather than government resources.
As Canada teaches us, this work is the stuff out of which communities are built and on which they thrive. We hear from many involved that, while it has taken a community to integrate a family, it also seems often to have taken a family to make a community. The act of welcoming brings people together in new and deeper ways. I am confident that in future historians will write of the role VPRS had in helping Britain reimagine itself at this significant moment in our history. We are profoundly grateful for what has already been achieved, but we are also deeply conscious of the size and importance of the task of resettling vulnerable persons that lies ahead.
I appreciate very much the opportunity to take part in the debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Scriven. We all know that, ultimately, the answer lies in Syria and the Middle East, and somehow bringing together a new understanding there. The whole area is the victim of history. Countries like ours, France, Turkey and now Russia want to impose the most individually advantageous solutions on this part of the world. The United Nations appears impotent in the face of so many vetoes and certain voices that cause great discontent and destruction, as we saw in Gaza in recent weeks.
Would it be possible to approach the Syrian conversation not by saying, “This is the policy we recommend; this is what we want to achieve”, but by saying instead, “This is the religious policy”; “This is the policy of the ethnic people”; “This is the political policy”? Somehow, we should try to get people to discuss the religious argument. The people of the various religious faiths should be able to talk together and bring something to light that is different. Can faith move mountains? I think it needs a chance.
The report we discuss today concerns how we in the United Kingdom can try to fulfil a historical obligation to ease the calamity that affects so many Syrians and so many others in the Middle East. We were among the nations that drew the boundaries of the countries of the Middle East, so I suggest we have a moral duty to help those who for many decades have been affected by our decisions. It has already been mentioned that the doorway to the UK for refugees is the Home Office. Over many weeks we have been saddened by reports on immigration matters: the Windrush generation, including a former mayoress in East Anglia, who have been here for 30 or 40 years and now face deportation; even a wealthy owner of a football club was not able to have his visa renewed—I hope it has happened by now. Hundreds of thousands of Home Office decisions have been overturned on appeal.
How can this situation be resolved? Do we start with the staff dealing with immigration; is that where the weakness lies? Many of them, remember, do everything they can to complete tasks which are often extremely complicated and difficult. We owe them a great deal. Is the weakness at a ministerial level? Who is leading and inspiring on the immigration question? Often, it seems that no one is leading or directing the team. Are Ministers themselves satisfied that the present system is fair, efficient and not really in need of improvement? The report on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme includes at the very beginning different interpretations of the meaning of “vulnerable”. Who are the vulnerable? There is disagreement on the reliability of evidence to prove identity. There is the accusation that Home Office monitoring lacks depth and shade. Doubt is cast on the value of Home Office data, as we have already heard.
We sometimes complain that sufficient funds are not available to train, pay and expand the number of employees. But when we examine the budgets, as the report does, they are nearly always underspent. One year £29 million was budgeted but only £15.6 million was spent. Another year the budget was £98.5 million, of which £75 million was spent. Another year the budget was £113.7 million and only £66 million was spent. There is money there. In addition, in 2015 the Home Office had a budget of £36 million for exceptional costs. But the report says that by December 2017 only £2.4 million of that had been spent.
The report is unhappy with the extent of the search for direct information from refugees themselves. It states that the Home Office interviewed nine refugees and then met a refugee family from Amman. If anyone came to north Wales, they would meet more refugees than that. So we question whether there is enough data and evidence from the refugees themselves. The report damned,
“the absence of a national integration strategy”.
The pace of immigration settlement leaves a lot to be desired. The target was to settle several hundred Syrians over three years. But by September 2015 only 239 had been settled. That works out at 22 refugees a month. The civil war in Syria has lasted far longer than envisaged when David Cameron pledged that the UK would welcome 20,000 refugees by 2020. As the report says, there is no commitment to continue resettlement after that year or to increase the number from 20,000 to accommodate the extra years of civil war.
As has already been mentioned, it takes 35 weeks from acceptance on a resettlement scheme until the refugees are actually on a plane to the UK. Then they are given a two-day cultural orientation workshop. I suggest that some of the problems arise because the folk, many of whom do not speak English, are not given that introduction which is essential for them. Then there are the interviews and decisions. So many initial Home Office decisions are overturned. Currently the decision is made by one person. One move we could make to improve that immediately would be to have two people interviewing, as we do in many other organisations, so that they could help each other out and confer. There is money there in the budget. Having two people could avoid many wrong decisions.
We will have a new immigration Bill—I am sure the Minister is looking forward to it—which will give us the opportunity to put right much that is the cause of anxiety, confusion and poverty. In a world where we have 66 million displaced men, women and children, it is disgraceful if our one aim as a United Kingdom is to reduce the numbers welcomed here instead of leading at home and globally an attempt to give every vulnerable person a home. We can do better than that. Anyone who talks of sending them “back where they came from” to cities such Aleppo or Idlib is living in fantasy world. We have to adapt ourselves so we can be a welcoming country. Of course there will be difficulties but we can do something that will give hope to so many people who are in a situation that we are fortunate not to be in. More than anything else, we need a leadership on immigration matters that has vision, compassion and inspiration. With that sort of leadership, we might restore the hopes of the millions of people who have lost families, homes, education—everything. I suggest that this is our moral obligation.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Scriven for giving us the opportunity for this debate and for his thoughtful and humane, as well as human, introduction. As the right reverend Prelate did, I thank the independent chief inspector and his staff and, of course, all the individuals involved in the scheme. We each have more time available to debate this Motion this afternoon than I had anticipated. I fear that I may take more advantage of that than some other speakers. I will also use this opportunity to say how sorry I am that there could not have been more of an equalisation between this debate and the earlier debate, although I dare say that the four-minute time limit produced some pretty sparky speeches earlier today.
It was pleasing to read that the scheme is “essentially effective”, although that is obviously within its own terms. I will try not to stray too far from the scheme, but the House will recognise the ambitions of these Benches regarding refugees and asylum seekers. The inspector expressed his disappointment at the Government’s response committing to “few if any actions”. I share that disappointment, not least because the issues have wider application than the VPRS, which is a particular scheme about particular cohorts. But external review and assessment are relevant to other schemes, other situations, other asylum seekers and refugees as well as to future participants in the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
We are told by the Library—like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I am grateful to it for a very helpful briefing—that the International Organization for Migration has said:
“Resettlement cannot be viewed as a one-off effort”.
It referred to it as “a holistic process”. We will all have met refugees who say how relieved they were to reach the UK and how grateful they are to the UK, but then describe the difficulties they have encountered and the obstacles to their becoming able to play their part in society and in the community which has adopted them.
The Government’s response to the chief inspector’s report is framed in terms of accepting or partially accepting the recommendations. Looking at that from the other side, partial acceptance means that the findings of the report—the basis for the recommendations—are, at least in part, not accepted. I realised that I do not know the extent of the Government’s engagement with the inspectorate on this. The report sets out the methodology, which to me looks pretty energetic. However, I do not have the expertise and have no idea about the optimum sample for each aspect of the process, so I do not know whether I agree or disagree with my noble friend Lord Roberts on this. The report included a walk-through of casework, allocations, arrivals and so on, along with the examination of 154 case records and interviews. I have not picked up whether there were similar exercises with DfID and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which are partners in the scheme.
I have a technical question to the Minister about whether the Home Office has discussed the recommendations with the inspectorate. If it did, was that before publication? I am interested in understanding whether, for the Government, this was a paper exercise or something more exploratory.
I have two particular reasons for being interested in this. Yesterday the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member—I see that my colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, is listening to this debate—questioned the Home Secretary and a senior civil servant about the detention of members of the Windrush generation. I had a question for him about challenging Home Office processes—internal challenge, that is—and the civil servant mentioned quality assurance. Inspection, it seems to me, is part of quality assurance.
One of the recommendations in the report is about best practice and guidance based on monitoring, analysis and evaluation. The Library has helpfully drawn our attention to the National Audit Office report of September 2016 on the scheme, along with the work that the Commons Public Accounts Committee did based on that, following the NAO report. The NAO recommended greater monitoring and development of evaluation measures while the Public Accounts Committee recommended improved monitoring and evaluation of certain aspects. There is something of a theme here, perhaps related to my noble friend Lord Scriven’s reference to the use—I stress “use”—of data.
There is something of a thread, too, running through the inspector’s recommendations on the use of the pre-departure period and the scheme’s communications strategy and the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendation on,
“full and clear communication with refugees about the programme—including the services they can expect, their entitlements, restrictions, and the implications of having ‘humanitarian protection’ status”.
That is a direct quote from the committee’s report. On the use of the pre-departure period, we are told that the Government accept the inspector’s recommendations in full. There seems to have been something of a “but” there, though, because the government response then went on to say:
“Implementation of any changes, however, will depend on the establishment of a credible evidence base for changing the current process and timescales as well as an assessment of the benefits of any changes, which would need to outweigh any additional costs. The Department will review the feasibility of options to help reduce the anxieties of those waiting for an arrival date”.
That does not seem to be a wholehearted acceptance of the point made in the report.
The chief inspector has also referred to learning English for reasons of work, study, volunteering and community activities—I think I would sum that up as everyday life. This cannot be a surprise to any noble Lords. No one disagrees with the importance of facility in the language, but it is an issue that is always raised in discussions about what is most helpful to refugees in settling in the UK. In 2016, the organisation Refugee Action published Let Refugees Learn, a report on the challenges and opportunities to improve language provision. It included comments from a number of refugees. Pauline, from the DRC, said that,
“when you can’t talk to people, it’s really very hard. They smile but can’t talk to you and you can’t talk to them”.
I thought that was a very moving summary of the position.
This week, the same organisation told a meeting that I attended about the same issues as in that report of two years ago, in the context of loneliness experienced by refugees. People are asking for more hours per week—I do not mean more hours in the week but more hours of teaching—as many of them get no more than two hours; the need for childcare while the parents attend a class; and comments that too often classes are not accessed by or accessible to women. I had not taken in before that it is the head of the household who is enrolled at the jobcentre, so that is the person who is referred for language lessons—and that is of course usually the man.
One particular point in the Home Office report puzzled me. It was about the treatment of pregnant women and their fitness to fly. The response confirms that the department will,
“strengthen internal guidance and staff training on how to deal with cases that involve pregnant women, to further emphasise that there should not be an automatic assumption that they should not travel”,
but it goes on to say that those cases,
“will only be prioritised where UNHCR categorise it as urgent or an emergency”.
Urgency is not a static condition. There may not be urgency in the earlier months of pregnancy, but I think that one can fairly reliably expect that the matter will become more urgent as the months go by. That is about future family. My noble friend talked about family. I am told that often, a refugee’s first question on arriving here is: “When can my family join me?”. It is the most important of their many concerns.
Finally, the inspector commented on the front-loading of the pipeline of referrals. The report tells us that,
“planning and resourcing for operations in the region beyond mid-2018 is a challenge”.
We are in mid-2018, so I end by asking the Minister: what is the position on this issue now?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on securing this debate on the report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An Inspection of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. As noble Lords will be aware, the report was published last month and, rightly, gives the Government and their partners credit for the success of the scheme, acknowledging that it is largely achieving what it set out to do. That is not to say that there cannot be improvement, and I think that the chief inspector’s report expresses disappointment that the Home Office has not done more to share best practice and look to a greater consistency of treatment and outcomes.
As noble Lords will be aware, the scheme was started in 2014 as an initiative of the then Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to provide emergency sanctuary in the UK for particularly vulnerable Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict in that country. The programme has a number of priorities: those people who have survived torture or violence, women and children at risk and those requiring urgent medical attention. There are other conditions to the scheme: it is open only to Syrian nationals who left the country at the start of the civil war and who are resident in particular host countries. If I am right, they are Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. The scheme has been amended several times since then. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, the scheme expanded to include up to 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees to be moved here by May 2020.
This has been generally welcomed, although we can debate what more could and should be done to provide assistance in one of the most devastating civil wars in recent memory. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made the important point that we are dealing with human beings, and it cannot be left to a bureaucratic approach to deal with these matters; I entirely agree with him.
We have seen those who arrive here being granted refugee status and five years’ limited leave to remain for those arriving after 1 July 2017. Those who arrived prior to that can now apply for that status. There have been previous reviews of the scheme before the one we are debating today. In the report from the chief inspector, there were seven specific recommendations, and I want to go through each one, comment on them and pose a few questions to the Minister.
The first recommendation looked at staffing and was only partially accepted by the Government. The recommendation suggested that, in addition to ensuring that the roles are clearly defined and set at the right grade, staff training and flexibility were important considerations. Could the Minister explain about the changes to IT systems that could hold matters up? What progress is necessarily reliant on securing the necessary IT changes?
The second recommendation looked at the issue of data and, again, was only partially accepted by the Home Office. Why should we have confidence that appropriate management information is already being used appropriately and securely shared with relevant bodies? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, posed a number of questions to the noble Baroness on this issue. How can we ensure that good decision-making is taking place if certain data are not being collected at all in the first place?
The Government are right in allowing the UNHCR to identify and refer the most vulnerable victims. Can the noble Baroness tell us something about these new digital tools that are being developed? When are these tools expected to come online, and can we have an assurance that a vigorous testing regime will take place to ensure that bugs and other problems do not make matters worse, even if only for a short time?
The third recommendation concerned best practice and guidance and, again, was only partially accepted by the Government. I agree with quite a lot of what the Government say in response to this recommendation, but could the Minister explain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also asked, what is being issued as advice concerning pregnant women? It seems that the advice has an assumption that they should not travel. I thought that there was a time when, medically, women would be advised not to fly, at around 36 weeks into the pregnancy. Why would we be suggesting anything different to that standard medical advice? Perhaps the Minister can explain
The fourth recommendation concerned more effective use of the pre-departure period, which seems to contain very sensible proposals. I think what can be done in this period depends on how long it is and managing expectations, for getting the matching process right first and then, if time allows, looking at language skills. If that is not possible, that has to be done when refugees arrive here in the UK, but a clear plan is a good thing to establish in the first place. There is some excellent work taking place in the UK to help refugees when they arrive with the language skills they need to navigate our systems, to be able to shop and provide for their family.
Morley College down the road, by St George’s Cathedral, covers the communities in the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. It has a scheme whereby many refugees come in to learn language skills. It really is a fantastic scheme. If any the noble Lord wanted to visit, it is well worth going. I took the noble Lord, Lord Hill, down there when he was Leader of the House to see the work being done by the college. It is definitely well worth a visit.
The fifth recommendation concerns contact with local authorities and, again, is only partially accepted by the Home Office. There is always room for improvement here; when you are dealing with large organisations, delays occur. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life. When I read this, I felt that the Home Office was being unduly defensive in this regard, as it is in respect of the sixth recommendation. I accept fully these are complex matters, which require a number of agencies to deliver different parts of the programme to get a refugee family here to the UK safely and properly settled, which needs proper forward planning and procedures and the reviewing of such matters to ensure that all agencies are delivering what is required. That is a good thing and not something to be defensive about.
The final recommendation is important. While I accept that the Home Office has good connections across government, that does not stop it or any other government department acting in silos. We have had many debates in this House where we have seen departments acting in silos and not talking to each other, and one thing being agreed in one department which is a major problem in another. I am talking about the DWP and housing, for example, in terms of universal credit. So I think it has good connections, but things could be done better.
In conclusion, the report says the Home Office is generally doing a good job and should be congratulated. Things can always be improved, and where they can they should be but, clearly—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle made this point—lots of good work is taking place in the department and with partners in local government and the charity sector to help deal with the terrible tragedy in Syria and to help UNHCR deliver its role. That should not be lost, but there is certainly more that we could possibly do. If we can do things better then I hope the Government would want to strive to achieve that. Generally, as I have said, the Government should be congratulated on that work, and the report validates what they have done.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this debate and for his and others’ very human and humane contributions to it. I will say at the outset that I am very proud of the long-standing tradition that we have in the UK of offering protection and shelter to those who are most in need. The contribution that the UK makes to the needs of refugees, both in the region and here in the UK, is recognised across the world, and in particular by UNHCR. But it is absolutely right that we take time to reflect on what we have collectively achieved over the last few years and also to learn lessons for the future, as noble Lords have said. This report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is a helpful part of that process, and it is good that the issues are aired.
Before I turn to the report, it might be helpful if I take some minutes to set out the context. The vulnerable persons resettlement scheme is one of four resettlement schemes operated by the Home Office. These resettlement schemes offer a safe and legal route to the UK for the most vulnerable refugees. The scheme was launched, as noble Lords know, in 2014 and has helped those in the greatest need, including people requiring urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture and women and children at risk—as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, says, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. He touched at one point on LGBTI refugees who, in many cases, must be in one of the worst situations of all. We need to be very sensitive in our treatment of them, particularly, as the noble Lord said, given the part of the world from which they are fleeing. I know that UNHCR has undertaken particular efforts to ensure that LGBTI individuals are able to register and, in addition to sensitising and training staff on LGBTI issues. UNCHR also works closely with partner NGOs supporting the LGBTI community in the region to facilitate registration, to ensure access to services and to explore available durable solutions, which may include consideration for resettlement. The NGOs are thus able to refer such cases to UNHCR where particular protection concern exists.
In September 2015, as noble Lords know, the then Prime Minister announced that the scheme would be expanded to resettle 20,000 Syrians in need of protection by 2020. In July 2017, the Government took the further decision to extend the scope of the scheme to include refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria but do not have Syrian nationality. The department works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—UNHCR—which is uniquely placed to identify those living in formal refugee camps, informal settlements and host communities who would benefit most from settlement in the UK. Although the UK has been resettling refugees since 2004, the announcement that we would resettle 20,000 people fleeing the conflict in Syria within five years represented a considerable increase in the scale of our resettlement programme. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that, with over 1,000 refugees resettled within the first three months, and over 11,000 refugees resettled by March 2018, this upscale is a significant achievement. Noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, acknowledged this.
On the report, the Government are pleased that the inspector, too, recognised the considerable achievements of the scheme. The Government welcome the recognition that the processes on which the scheme relies are essentially effective and that there is every reason to believe that it will achieve its target by the deadline. Furthermore, the Government welcome the finding that the flexibility in allowing local authorities to decide how best to spend the funding provided for each refugee—that goes to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven—has enabled some to participate in the scheme who may not otherwise have been able to do so.
In responding to the publication of the report the UNHCR said that it has been impressed with the UK’s ability to scale up its VPRS programme significantly and swiftly, co-ordinating closely with it. It went on to say that the UK programme is flexible and that the UK receives some of the most vulnerable refugees. The VPRS and the UK’s other resettlement programmes allow UNHCR to address serious refugee protection needs. The VPRS makes the UK one of the world’s largest resettlement states, and it is taking a leading role in promoting resettlement.
However, we are not complacent and recognise the need to keep improving to ensure that the scheme continues to work well. A comprehensive evaluation of the scheme is under way, and the department continues to engage with key stakeholders and delivery partners. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, will acknowledge the lack of defensiveness in that statement, but it is important that we continue to challenge ourselves and our own policy.
On the human point, which many noble Lords made, including the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Kennedy, the new Home Secretary made that point quite clear, saying that the Home Office deals with individuals, day in and day out. These are people; they are human. The noble Lord posed the question of what a good system looks like. In the Home Office it is when people feel as if they have been treated as human beings, efficiently and effectively, and feel that a fair process has been undertaken throughout.
The chief inspector made seven recommendations as part of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, helpfully went through each one of them, and I shall do so in turn for his benefit and that of other noble Lords, and will try to respond to each. The report recommended that the Home Office review the scheme’s staffing, ensuring that roles are clearly defined and set at the correct grade and that staff receive training that enables at least some of them to be deployed flexibly, as required. The department believes that roles in the team are set at the correct grade and it has already deployed staff flexibly within the team. The activities of certain roles will be reviewed in terms of case sign-off and categorisation when staffing levels allow. Any changes in process or responsibilities will be reliant on securing the necessary changes to IT systems. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, challenged me on what those changes mean. I will have to write to him on that. I asked the Box, and it has just occurred to me that I have not given a full answer.
The report recommended that the Home Office ensure that the data required to support the efficient and effective management of each stage of the resettlement process is defined, captured, shared and processed or analysed, and the results shared with all relevant parties. The department has a suite of internal management information and progress reports to enable the effective management of the VPRS, and is working to develop new digital tools to enhance automation and increase efficiency of casework, allocations and arrivals processes. That might be the IT changes; I shall confirm it. The collated management information is shared appropriately and securely with the relevant bodies involved in the resettlement of vulnerable individuals under the scheme, and is used by Home Office analysts in monitoring and publicly reporting the operation of the scheme.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, commented about there being not enough grip on the data and ensuring it is used, and asked what the Home Office is doing to improve the recording and monitoring of the reasons for referral of refugees. We record the primary reason for referral to the UK, as the noble Lord knows, and we manage people’s needs carefully. We do not believe a more granular approach—which I know he has pushed for, and has pressed me for time and again through Written Questions—would make any material difference to the support received by the refugees who are referred or accepted for resettlement. But I know exactly the point he will make now.
This is an important point if we are to get this right and start to plan before people arrive. The UNHCR does more than just give a primary reason. If people are coming with complex needs, and we want to plan, we need to know about them before they are here. Why do we not look at more than just primary recording—as well as using that to help plan, both before and while people are here?
I take the point. I am sure that we will get better at collation of data and disaggregation of data in the future. Of course, UNHCR then refers the cases for resettlement to the UK, so it makes a judgment—but I am sure that some sort of statistical assessment by ourselves would be useful.
The resettlement process relies on UNHCR to undertake identity and nationality checks when registering cases as refugees. The report acknowledges that UNHCR’s screening processes are very effective in this regard. The dossier approach provides UNHCR with flexibility and allows people to be resettled more quickly. The department will continue to monitor and assess UNHCR processes through assurance work, including whether to trial additional interviewing, as part of the commitment to keep processes under review and our approach to security dynamic.
To answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, any wholesale change to the ways of working would need to be weighed up against the costs and benefits. This will be taken into account in future resettlement planning. The department will review internal processes in terms of the documentation required to facilitate the issuing of UK visas in resettlement cases.
In reaching its determination that an individual has met the criteria required of the 1951 Refugee Convention, UNHCR has conducted its own assessment of credibility, which we rely upon. UNHCR is well versed in this area. Its resettlement handbook, its refugee status determination guide and its own internal standard operating procedures provide clear guidance to its caseworkers on credibility assessment. In addition, it has produced guidance on credibility assessments for EU asylum systems.
UNHCR’s position on DNA testing is that it should be done only:
“where serious doubts remain after all other types of proof have been examined”.
The Government take regard of UNHCR’s view on this and will commission DNA testing where it is considered appropriate.
The inspector’s report recommended that the Home Office should, through monitoring, analysis and evaluation, and calling on the expertise of others as appropriate, determine what constitutes best practice at each stage of the resettlement process, as well as producing, and updating as necessary, the scheme’s guidance documents, ensuring that they are comprehensive and coherent and that they drive towards consistent best practice. It set out a list of issues that this should cover and this recommendation was partially accepted by the Home Office. In some instances, this is because clear guidance already exists and the Government have a clear and established rationale for the process as it stands.
The Home Office already has a monitoring and evaluation process for the VPRS, which is well under way. This includes a monitoring framework containing seven high-level integration outcome areas, with a detailed set of indicators beneath each area. Early integration outcome data on a considerable number of refugees resettled under the VPRS has already been captured and a detailed analysis undertaken.
That early integration outcome data has already been shared with strategic migration partnerships, which were encouraged to pass it on to local authorities to promote continued engagement with the underlying data collection exercise—in which local authorities are playing a really valuable role—and encourage a focus on how services are being delivered and whether they might be adapted to further support refugees’ integration. Service delivery is also a key focus of the comprehensive qualitative evaluation being conducted by Ipsos MORI, and the department is very keen to share the output of its work with partners once available.
The Government do not accept that there are no processes in place for dealing with referrals of families of six or more and those which are too complex or difficult to deal with on paper. The department does accept, however, that these processes could be clearer and more comprehensive, and it will make sure that this is immediately addressed in the standard operating procedures.
In the report, the chief inspector suggests that the Home Office should consider the treatment of pregnant women, including how their resettlement might be expedited to avoid “fit to fly” concerns—a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Where practicable, existing processes seek to ensure that resettlement takes place while those who are pregnant are fit to fly and able to travel, but a number of factors will impact on the feasibility of this—for example, an individual’s willingness to undergo a TB screening X-ray. Having been pregnant, I can understand that people might be wary of that. However, the department will strengthen internal guidance and staff training on how to deal with cases that involve pregnant women to further emphasise that there should not be an automatic assumption that they should not travel. The Government do not accept that cases involving pregnant women should be expedited or prioritised before other vulnerable cases simply on the basis of pregnancy. Cases that involve a pregnancy will be prioritised only where the UNHCR categorises them as urgent or as an emergency.
The point I am making is the opposite of that. Where people are fit to fly, they should be able to fly. Pregnancy in and of itself does not make someone vulnerable, and a case involving pregnancy will be prioritised only where the UNHCR categorises it as urgent or as an emergency. In other words, if a woman is in an unwell state, as opposed to just pregnant—
I will just repeat what I said—it is written down. Where practicable, existing processes seek to ensure that resettlement takes place while those who are pregnant are fit and able to travel. However, if someone refuses a TB screening X-ray, that obviously creates a problem in the process.
I have only one more minute. I will scoot through a few points that noble Lords have made. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, talked about a more local approach. We are very grateful for the ongoing support of local authorities. They have enabled resettlement to take place and provided a vital role. However, before committing to offer resettlement, we have to think about whether they are able to put in place the infrastructure and support to vulnerable people—I think that noble Lords would accept that. They are obviously provided with the funding to enable them to provide vulnerable refugees with a safe environment and the chance to rebuild their lives.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked about enforced removals and case work. All aspects of our detention and removal processes are subject to external scrutiny from HMIP and independent monitoring boards, and the Home Office is leading a review of our practices, including the use of de-escalation techniques and assessments of individual risk. As part of this review we will engage external partners, including Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.
I have run out of time. There are some specific questions that noble Lords have asked, including the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Roberts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I shall put my answers in writing to them. I thank noble Lords once again for taking part in the debate.
I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. It goes to prove that sometimes debates are not about the quantity of people participating but the quality of the interventions and discussions. I will not keep the House, because I am aware of the time; it is a Thursday evening.
I thank the Minister for being not totally defensive and a little more open-minded in terms of some things that may have to happen over and above the Government’s initial response. It comes down to a number of issues. I noted that the Minister said that this was about a fair and humane system—that that is how people should be treated and how the Government saw success. Perhaps there should be some monitoring of people who have been through the system to evaluate whether it was fair and humane. If that is what it looks like, we should ask the people who are going through it.
Many noble Lords talked about data and how that needs to be dealt with. A number of principles need to be set, such as being humane, fair and flexible—another thing that many noble Lords said. We also need to set up an open and collaborative approach. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle clearly talked about that—not just within government but within churches, faith groups and the third sector. There needs to be more devolution to and empowerment of not just local government but the churches and the third sector locally to deal with and have flexibility with regard to those principles.
There also needs to be good review and evaluation based on data, and also of the human aspects of the people who move through the system. That would lead to a less defensive, more humane and more responsive approach, which all noble Lords who spoke wish to see. Again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and the Minister for being open and for listening and for going back to look at what can be done. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 5.18 pm.