At the very start of my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker allowed me to say a few words to condemn the violence we have seen in Glasgow tonight, as I am sure the Minister will. There is no place for far-right thuggery anywhere in the United Kingdom. People are entitled to protest peacefully if they think the Government are not making the correct decisions. A peaceful protest was planned for tonight and they were met with thugs. I am sure that we will see and hear more about that on the news later this evening.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. May I urge him to please urgently reconsider and confirm to me today in writing that he will not restart any support cessations, or the evictions that will inevitably follow, without the express agreement of asylum local authorities, public health directors, and, where relevant, devolved Administrations? Will he confirm that the last meeting to have taken place with local authorities, political leaders and Ministers was just less than a year ago, when the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was the Immigration Minister? What does that say about the Home Office and its relations with political leaders in local government dispersal areas? Can he tell us when the next meeting with the local government dispersal areas will be?
On the acute risk of covid-19 and severe illness and death for BAME communities, I turn briefly to a critical matter touched on earlier that is of the utmost public interest. As the evidence is now overwhelming that BAME communities living in areas of deprivation and often higher population density are at an acutely high risk of contracting covid-19 or of dying from it, this already high risk will escalate if BAME communities are made homelessness. The asylum seekers are from BAME groups, with people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and China, among many others. They are at a higher risk of dying from covid-19. Surely given that, the Minister must not end, but extend, the ban on asylum support cessation and evictions. It would be even more irresponsible in public health and safety terms to restart business as usual. Given the evidence about those who are homeless catching covid-19 and, for BAME communities, of dying from it, will the Minister urgently extend the ban on asylum support cessation and evictions, and set out how he is paying due regard to this public sector equality duty in deciding to end the current pause on cessation and evictions?
My third point is about hotel detentions, which was the subject of tonight’s peaceful protest in Glasgow. I have read the exchanges between Mears and the Home Affairs Committee. I have seen that the asylum charities have had to supply supplementary evidence. I have read the reports in the media and new media, and I have read the Minister’s letter to Councillor Jen Layden, so let me lay out the facts.
A decision was taken by Mears in the first week of lockdown, on 23 March, to quickly uproot 300 asylum seekers from single-occupancy or two-bedroom serviced apartments in the city—de facto households—into hotels. Asylum seekers have contacted my office and the offices of asylum charities to say that asylum seekers were bundled into vans with no social distancing and transported to these hotels—not quality hotels by any manner of means. In some of these hotels, the food provided has been mouldy and unfit for consumption, and in some it is culturally inappropriate, to the extent that around 20 asylum seekers are currently on hunger strike.
Asylum seekers have contacted my office to say that, due to the food provided, they have been unwell. That is not acceptable. It is so bad that charities have had no other choice than to step in and provide food. I can confirm, as a trustee of the Feeding Britain charity, that it has agreed to contribute to the provision of meals that are of sufficient quality and cultural appropriateness for families. I should add that 300-plus people uprooted from their serviced apartment accommodation, on arrival in the hotels, had all financial support cut off, which is not something that was required by asylum support. However, the Government and the Department chose to do that, and people are suffering every day. How would we feel when we leave this room today—how would any of us feel—if we were told that we had no money at all?
There is no social distancing and health concerns are too often ignored or met with a dismissive attitude. Claims made in ministerial correspondence that organisations such as the Red Cross and the Scottish Refugee Council have inspected the site and raised no concerns are denied by those organisations. As the Red Cross put it:
“I have confirmed with our operational staff that the offer of a visit to hotel accommodation was not taken up by our staff due to public health guidelines advising against all non-essential travel, this however may change as we transition out of lock down”.
The Scottish Refugee Council said:
“We declined the first invite to a hotel for lockdown public health reasons. We accepted the second invite to visit one of seven hotels in use, which we did, but we said to Mears before then, during it and after that visit, that there is not much we can meaningfully say on conditions and how people feel, on the basis of one short visit to one location. Mears accepted this was the case.”
It is the case that the decision to place asylum seekers into hotels results in those individuals losing that state financial support. The argument that this is not a cost-cutting exercise just does not wash, and sadly, there has been one tragic death.
Can the Minister confirm whether, on what date and to whom in Glasgow City Council Mears gave notice of the plan, with effect from 27 March, to move those 300-plus asylum seekers who were already on section 98 support and who were in serviced apartments in the city? Did Mears not give advance notice to the council in that regard?