Sir Edward DaveyMP Main Page: Sir Edward Davey (Liberal Democrat - Kingston and Surbiton)
Department Debates - View all Sir Edward Davey's debates with the Home Office
(2 years, 2 months ago)Westminster Hall
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Twelfth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Session 2016-17, HC 637, and the Government Response, HC 551.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
The Select Committee on Home Affairs asked for this debate because we believe this is an immensely important issue. Our country has an obligation under the 1951 refugee convention to provide shelter and support to those seeking protection and sanctuary from conflict and persecution. The Committee found serious failings in the provision, quality and management of asylum accommodation across the country. The Government took nine months to respond to our report. Everyone understands that there was an election in that period, but given the time it took the Government to respond, we had hoped for more considered and detailed responses to some of our recommendations. I was certainly disappointed by some of the responses we received.
This is a crucial time for Parliament to consider this issue, because the contracts for asylum accommodation across the country are open for tender—I understand that the closing date is in three days—and we do not want the failings that we have identified in the last few years in the previous contracts and system to be carried forward into the Government’s plans for the next 10 years, which is the period the new contracts are due to cover.
Let me start with some of the things we have welcomed, both in the report and in our other work. We particularly welcome the roll-out of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. I welcome the work done by the former Minister with responsibility for refugees, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who set up that programme and worked intensively with local authorities, community organisations and charities across the country to ensure that it had extensive support. It has been heart-warming to hear positive responses from communities and organisations across the country about the way the scheme is working. We argue in our report that lessons should be learned from the scheme’s success for the wider support of asylum seekers and refugees.
Let me turn to some of the concerns we identified about that wider provision. Extensive delays in the processing of applications mean that an increasing number of people are being caught in asylum limbo and are unable to work or settle. Cases of people whose claims are not valid are still unresolved, which is unsatisfactory for them, for local communities and for the country. In the meantime, too many people are not in suitable accommodation. We were worried that in 30% of appeals the Government’s decision was successfully overturned. That suggests that in a high proportion of cases the Government simply do not get the decision right in the first place, yet they still challenge outcomes even after cases are appealed. That figure has now increased to 38%.
Since our report was published, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has raised real concerns about the quality of decision making and about staffing levels. Staff told the inspectorate that they felt pushed to the limit. Although the Government’s recruitment of additional caseworkers is welcome, there are still fewer than there were in 2014, and in a recent evidence session the inspector expressed concerns about recruitment and retention problems in the asylum casework system. Despite the number of new cases having fallen, in 10,552 cases people have been waiting more than six months for a decision. That represents 14,000 people and is the highest that figure has been since 2010. Some 6,952 people have been waiting more than a year for a decision—2,000 more than when we published our report. It appears that the delays in the system have in fact got worse, not better, since we raised our concerns back in February. I hope that the Minister is able to acknowledge the seriousness of those growing delays and set out what action he is taking to address them.
I raised with the Home Secretary the issue of pregnant women being categorised as “non-straightforward” just for being pregnant and, as a result, not being treated under the accelerated processes for getting decisions made as fast as possible. We heard from the inspectorate that some of those pregnant women were consequently trapped for longer in inappropriate asylum accommodation. I received a letter from the Home Secretary today, which I welcome. She says that she is looking further at this issue and that she has asked for those cases to be looked at to ensure that swift progress is made. I welcome that response, and I hope that she is able to make swift progress on those cases. I do not think any of us want pregnant women to be disadvantaged inadvertently as a result of the way their cases are addressed.
Let me move on to accommodation contracts and the procurement system. We raised a series of concerns about contract structure, oversight, funding and dispersal. I note that in the past two years there has been a small increase in the number of local authorities accepting asylum seekers. That is of course welcome, but we are still talking about just 121 out of 453 local authority areas. As I understand it, most of the increase was in the north-west, which already has the most asylum seekers.
I recognise the point that the Minister made in response to our report that some local authorities may be providing extensive support under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme or to unaccompanied child refugees. Nevertheless, I do not think that gets us around the point that asylum accommodation is still hugely unequally distributed across the country. The Government have not really recognised the seriousness of our point that concentrating asylum accommodation in a small number of the poorest local authorities is really challenging. That undermines consent for the whole system, and it is just unfair on communities—often the most deprived communities—that support is not distributed evenly across the country. All areas should contribute.
I welcome the Government’s announcement that there will be additional provision in the new contracts for funding for the south-east, which should not be exempt from doing its bit to provide asylum accommodation. We recognise that accommodation costs are different across the country, but we would like more to be done to ensure that accommodation is properly distributed.
We recommended that local authorities be given more say and more control over where asylum accommodation goes in their areas. We heard from local authorities that did not want to engage with the Government’s system because, once they signed up, they would lose all control over where accommodation was provided in their area. There is only a 72-hour window for local authorities to respond, which is just not long enough. Most local authorities know that putting accommodation in an area with no support services, or in a ward that has experienced challenging community problems, may not be appropriate, whereas there may be a much better location with much better services on the other side of the district. As long as local authorities feel that they are vulnerable and do not have a proper say, many of them will say, “We can’t take the risk of signing up to the Government’s scheme.” That is counterproductive, because we want as many local authorities as possible to sign up.
That is immensely important, and it shows the stark difference between the national contract-based asylum accommodation scheme and the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, in which local authorities have a central role; local communities and faith groups are involved in providing support and there is extensive planning for the kinds of support services needed. That community support is crucial. Too often in the asylum accommodation system, local communities feel they have had no say, and that asylum accommodation in their area has no links to either the community or local services. It feels distant and detached. That is when difficulties, tensions or misunderstandings can arise.
In the interests of community cohesion and of being able to draw on the very best traditions of our country and of those who want to provide support for people fleeing persecution and seeking asylum—people in desperate need of help—we should give local authorities a much more central role in the process.
Break in Debate
That is exactly right. A whole range of additional services might be needed, such as specialist support for those who have fled sexual violence, those who have been through family bereavement and separation, and those who need additional support for children or from education services. A whole range of different kinds of support might be needed, including different sorts of housing support. I was going to come on to this point later, but I will mention it now: there is also a need for proper support once refugee status is granted, to ensure that people can find a future in the local community, settle and get the support they need.
In response to that point, the Government have set up a handover pilot. I welcome that and would like to see the results of the pilot; that would be very welcome. As I understand it, the concern of some of the charities working with asylum seekers and refugees is that it is quite sporadic and it has not worked effectively in some places. I would be interested to know the Minister’s assessment of how that work is going, because if we can swiftly help people into work and help them to be embedded in their local community, that is extremely important. It is another good example of what has happened in the SVPRS and, again, something that should be provided more widely. I flag up the concern that the delays in the universal credit scheme, which have been widely discussed in other debates in this House, could make things worse for the settlement of refugees once they have successfully claimed asylum.
Returning to the point about commissioning contracts and providing accommodation, the Committee made a series of recommendations that the Government have not engaged with, including the recommendation that local authorities be given more say and control over where in their area asylum accommodation should go. Alongside that, we should be prepared to oblige local authorities to do their bit. If we give local authorities more flexibility and ability to shape the services, then we should also ensure that there is an obligation on them, so that they cannot just turn their backs and walk away without doing their bit for any of the difficult refugee and asylum schemes in place. Everybody has to do their bit.
We also recommended looking at devolving the commissioning of contracts, rather than having big, national contracts that end up being divorced from local communities, centrally managed and therefore not responsive to local circumstances. For example, we recommended handing commissioning over to the regional strategic migration partnerships that have played a central role in the SVPRS. Why not let them do the commissioning? Why not allow for more flexibility in local areas, so that in some areas the accommodation could be provided by local authorities or charities, rather than it all being done through a small number of national companies—particularly given the challenges we have had over the last period with the way those contracts have worked?
It is disappointing that, instead, the Government have stuck to basically the same contract model, rather than learning from an alternative scheme that is working or looking at alternative ways of doing this. Given the challenges and problems, I am also concerned at the idea of locking in those contracts for 10 years, seemingly with no review period built in during which we could change, adapt or get out of the contracts. We also argued for local authorities to be given a role in inspecting the contracts, because we identified that some of the problem—and this was the evidence we heard—was that the quality inspection regime is not working effectively enough. Giving local authorities that role, and the resources that must go with it, might make for more effective inspections.
I do. Giving responsibility for commissioning to the strategic migration partnerships would give us the ability to look at the links between accommodation and broader services, and allow those partnerships to take decisions on a mix of different kinds of accommodation provision within a region. Those could include local authorities bidding to provide accommodation themselves, or working in partnership with other local authorities, charities, housing associations or different kinds of organisations. That allows for wide variety, and for different kinds of bids and proposals to come forward. That was our recommendation in the report.
The remainder of my remarks will be on perhaps the most troubling and distressing part of the evidence we took and of the conclusions we came to in our inquiry. This concerns the quality of the accommodation provided. In our report, we warned that some of the accommodation that we saw or took evidence on was just not fit for human habitation. Committee members visited accommodation, and we certainly saw some that was good quality, but we also saw some that really was not adequate.
In one initial accommodation that I went to, I talked to a women who had I think three very small children. She and her husband had to take it in turns to come down to the communal room to eat because they could not manage to get all the kids down the stairs. They had been put in an upstairs room that was not appropriate for them, and they basically had not taken the kids out of a small room in weeks. That was clearly not appropriate accommodation for that family, who had been through very difficult experiences.
Our report listed serious failings, such as infestations of bugs or cockroaches, unsafe accommodation and inappropriate sharing of accommodation. Our conclusions were that some of the accommodation is a disgrace, and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions. There are different bits of the Government’s response that I disagree with, and we will have disagreements about the policy way forward, but the bit of the Government’s response that troubled me most was in response to our conclusion about the serious inadequacy of some of the accommodation. It simply said:
“The Government does not agree with this conclusion”.
Had the Government said that they recognised that some of the accommodation falls below acceptable standards, and told us the action they were taking to resolve the problem, we would of course have pressed them on their progress, but we would have welcomed the commitment to action.
I am quite disturbed by what appears to be the Government’s failure to recognise that there is a serious problem with the quality of some of the accommodation. We have a responsibility to make sure that the accommodation that people are in is fit for human habitation, but the conditions that some people are stuck in are inhumane. I will give hon. Members an example that I received from the Red Cross since our report and the Government’s response came out:
“My furniture was very old. Some had blood on them. I couldn’t sleep on the bed; there was blood on the bed, like menstruation blood. They gave me new sheets but no duvet. I couldn’t use it. I used my own clothes/wrap as sheets until I got the first money as an asylum seeker and I used this money to get new sheets.”
It is really troubling that somebody is being put in accommodation with that kind of quality problem.
Break in Debate
Thank you very much, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and all Committee members for their excellent report. I want to make a number of points, but first I pay particular tribute to some of the local organisations assisting asylum seekers: the Govan Community Project, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Red Cross and, indeed, the Glasgow SW food bank, which is assisting asylum seekers within the city of Glasgow.
Glasgow was one of the first local authorities to say to the Home Office that it would accept asylum seekers. At that time, the local authority managed those services. I think that we should consider local authorities going back to managing the services. Local authorities knew how to integrate the services; they knew how to integrate social work and the healthcare system, local GP services and the rest. I certainly think that the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers was at its best when the responsibility rested with local authorities.
The work was taken over by Serco, which for a time subcontracted the work to Orchard and Shipman. I have had to be involved in cases in which polythene bags were being used as windows. Constituents were in properties where there was blood on the walls and where wires were clearly not complying with health and safety and were sticking out. We have had instances of women who are making claims, having fled sexual violence, being placed in tenement buildings where the other five properties are inhabited by five single men. We have had instances of shared accommodation in which there has been a clear clash of cultures, which has been very unhelpful, and instances of people being placed in accommodation and then provided with a card whereby they can shop only at Asda, even though the nearest Asda has in some cases been 4 miles away. Those asylum seekers have had to walk to get access to food and so on. Recently, I had a constituency case in which it was clear that the accommodation was unsuitable. There were no carpets, there was inadequate heating, and inadequate bedding was provided.
I want to make a number of points on the report and some of the themes that I touched on in my interventions. Who is providing this accommodation? It is not housing associations, although some housing associations in Glasgow are providing accommodation. It is not the local authority. It is mainly private sector landlords. I would probably go further and say rogue private sector landlords, because recently Glasgow City Council took the decision that when it was awarding landlord accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014, those decisions would be taken in front of a panel of elected councillors, and we have found that they have removed the accreditation of landlords, some of whom have been providing housing to asylum seekers.
I want a real commitment today from the Minister that if private sector landlords lose their accreditation under the Housing (Scotland) Act, those landlords will then be removed as providers of asylum seeker services. If they are deemed unsuitable to provide services to anyone as landlords, that should include asylum seekers. There should be no opt-out in relation to that.
There are devolved Administrations who have different housing standards. I would argue that the Scottish housing standard is a lot better than the decent homes standard, which has been referred to, in the asylum seeker contract, so will there be a commitment to meet the Scottish quality housing standard? As you will know, Mr Hanson, representing a constituency in Wales, the Welsh Assembly will have different regulations for housing. I therefore hope that the Minister will commit today to looking at the housing regulations and laws across the UK and under devolved Administrations.
Another bugbear of mine is that when I, as a Member of Parliament, ask a question of any provider of services, I am told, “I can’t provide you with that information under data protection.” It pains me to say that Serco did that to my office recently when I raised the complaint about housing to which I have referred. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 22 November, but have not yet had a response. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully, because I want to know specifically—I also want a guarantee in this regard—why the Home Office is supporting Serco’s view that MPs’ offices need the permission of the person making the complaint.
Data protection law is clear when it comes to Members of Parliament. We are not required to obtain that, as I hope the Minister will confirm, because we all as Members of Parliament represent every single constituent, no matter where they come from or how they voted. We are here to represent everyone who lives in our constituency, and I will always do that to the best of my ability. It pains me to see Serco trying to frustrate that process. I will continue to represent constituents who are here seeking asylum from other parts of the world. I regard it as an honour to do so.
I want to make a couple of comments about the announcements about the new contract before I conclude. Will the Minister tell us how many welfare officers there will be? There is now a commitment to fund additional welfare officers. It would be useful if we could get a figure for that. I say that as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we have asked Atos and Capita how many qualified doctors there are in those services. It was incredible to find out that there were two qualified doctors in Atos and two in Capita. That perhaps says a lot about our assessment system. It would be useful if we could get a number. It would also be useful if we could get a number for the welfare officers who will be placed in Glasgow, because there is a real issue there with some of the providers. In particular, when Orchard and Shipman had the contract, it was using the police to help to evict asylum seekers. That, I would suggest, was inappropriate, given that a man in uniform means something different to someone who has just arrived in the country and is fleeing persecution from what it means to the rest of us.
I welcome the fact that there will be further dispersal. I have continued to raise that issue in various debates in relation to asylum seeker support services. I hope that the Minister can confirm that he will ensure that funding for local authorities is inadequate. Can he also respond to the letter that has appeared in the press over the past couple of days from 35 organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers? Can the Minister make a commitment that the contract will be independently reviewed within three years of its operation, that there will be independent oversight and accountability to local authorities and that services will be fairly and fully financially resourced across the UK?
It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman. In my constituency, asylum seekers have approached me who have waited years for a decision. They are qualified in health and I am sure they could make a contribution to our national health service by working. That would not only help their mental health, but help them to be part of that community. At the moment they feel that people in other areas of the community who are also poor look at them as if they are getting something special, but they are not. Does he agree that the right to work should be looked at as a matter of urgency?
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point, particularly about mental health. Does he agree with me that one thing that asylum accommodation needs to do better is ensure that people who have come from traumatic experiences and are possibly further traumatised by the conditions in which they find themselves have access to good quality, appropriate mental health support?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hanson; you have evidently had a busy week. I welcome the opportunity to debate the Home Affairs Committee report, “Asylum accommodation”. I was pleased to have been involved in that inquiry. I thank my colleagues and the Committee Chair for all their work on that project, and for securing this debate.
In this debate I speak as the Scottish National party spokesperson, rather than as a member of the Committee; happily, from both perspectives, I fully endorse the Committee’s report and recommendations. Indeed, I pretty much endorse everything that every right hon. and hon. Member has said. Their critiques of the system have been knowledgeable, and there is absolutely no point in me repeating those powerful and damning criticisms.
Instead, let me address what needs to be done to resolve the problems that have been highlighted. Implementing the recommendations in our report would obviously be a significant start, but ultimately we need a radical rethink of how we approach asylum accommodation to address two overarching concerns.
First and foremost, we need to recognise that we have a system that demands that accommodation fit the budget, rather than ensuring that accommodation fits the asylum seeker. Secondly, the system drastically fails to address much more than provision of a roof and four walls—and even that, as we have heard, is often not up to scratch. There is so little in the system that takes into account broader issues of community cohesion, integration, or health and welfare concerns. In some instances, those other concerns are neglected absolutely; in others, local authorities and health boards have to pick up the pieces, and indeed the tab. “Savings”, as they are called under the COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts, are almost certainly just part of a cost-shunting exercise.
As other right hon. and hon. Members have said, if the Minister really wants to make savings, he could consider letting those asylum seekers who have been waiting more than three months for a decision take up employment, pay for their own accommodation and pay tax. That would be good for asylum seekers, the communities in which they live, and the taxpayer.
As right hon. and hon. Members have suggested, there is a strong case for providing local authorities, perhaps in combination with other local service providers, with overarching responsibility and, crucially, proper funding for providing asylum accommodation in their locality. They are best placed to know in which areas accommodation would be appropriate, to link it with other necessary services, and to ensure accountability for standards. Of course, that would include the continued use of private accommodation. For all I know, it could continue to include the use of private contractors to assist in sourcing accommodation. Whereas private contractors now call the tune, that would place local authorities in control, but funding would have to match the cost of appropriate asylum accommodation, rather than accommodation matching a cut-price budget.
Glasgow City Council has a long track record of housing asylum seekers, under both the previous Labour administration and the new Scottish National party city government, which I am delighted to learn is determined to continue that tradition. In fact, that new SNP administration has intimated an interest in bidding for the new asylum accommodation contract in Scotland, but as right hon. and hon. Members have said, the odds are stacked against it. Most obviously, the contracts are divided up into huge chunks—this one is Scotland-wide—making it far from easy for a local authority, or even a combination of local authorities, to bid. A key concern is that the funding involved will not allow local authorities to deliver to the standards that they seek.
In fact, the new proposals seem so little different from the current contracts that they are more like COMPASS 1.1 than COMPASS mark 2. The system is set up in such a way that the current providers are absolutely odds-on favourites to win. It would be wise to pause and reflect on who we are talking about here, because along with the Home Office, those providers have to share the responsibility for the mess of the current contracts. One of them is also responsible for the scandal in the Medway secure training centre and the shocking scenes recorded at Brook House detention centre. Another provider was previously banned from bidding for Government contracts after involvement in an overcharging scandal. Will the Minister therefore meet senior representatives of Glasgow City Council when he is next in Scotland—if I understand correctly, that will be very soon—to discuss how such a public sector bid can be facilitated, so that we can at least ensure a level playing field?
I want to address what I understand to be the announcement of new move-on support to be provided to local authorities in 20 dispersal areas in England. Don’t get me wrong: any sort of support for local authorities that are taking a disproportionate share of asylum seekers is absolutely positive and very welcome, but a number of concerns have arisen. This comes just four days before the deadline for intimating interest in the contracts. For a start, that suggests that the Home Office has not for a moment contemplated that local authorities might want to bid for the new contracts. Otherwise, why would such a material consideration not have been made public many months ago?
Furthermore—perhaps the Minister can clarify this—I understand that most of the funding comes from an underspend at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that it is essentially one year of funding, with local authorities expected to fund year two. As this is an England-only scheme, it will not be open to significant asylum dispersal areas such as Glasgow, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Belfast. Cumulatively, those five councils alone account for more than 6,000 asylum seekers.
Will the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations about that issue, and whether there will be Barnett consequentials? I assume that there must be, because if there are not, it signifies that the Home Office does not see this as really being about the reserved issue of asylum. Will he also confirm whether the money comes with any strings attached, such as obligations to share information with the Home Office? Although I welcome the additional funding, it does not yet seem to represent a joined-up, holistic approach to the challenge that local authorities face in housing asylum seekers.
I am a realistic person; I know that the Home Office has a lot on its plate, and is struggling to cope with what it does at the moment, never mind the prospect of Brexit, so let me focus finally on two changes that I hope it will consider, even in these difficult circumstances. First, as other hon. Members said, it would be totally unacceptable to sign up to 10-year contracts that bind our hands even if the mess continues, so there must be some sort of review or break clause after three or five years. Secondly, local authorities must be given genuine power, and resources to play a far more significant role in how asylum seekers are housed. Those two small but significant asks are crucial for asylum seekers, local authorities and their communities, and I very much hope that the Government will listen.