The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kevin Foster)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this debate on asylum dispersal in Stoke-on-Trent. It featured a rare intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), which was appreciated.
It is important to underline that our United Kingdom has a proud record of helping people facing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty around the world. A crucial part of this endeavour is the contribution that many local authorities make in supporting those obligations being delivered in reality, which applies especially to Stoke-on-Trent owing to its contribution to the asylum dispersal scheme over a number of years. I gratefully acknowledge the Members of this House who represent the local community and the city’s consistent interest in this area of work—not just by talking in the House about supporting those seeking asylum, but by actually doing it in their area. As my hon. Friend will have heard me say before, declarations of solidarity do not house anyone.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the system of supported asylum accommodation run by the Home Office. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we took the decision to pause the cessation of asylum support. That decision was taken to alleviate pressures on local authorities from people exiting the asylum system, in line with the public health advice at the time. Continuing with the cessation of support at a time when international travel was not possible and the accommodation market was very restricted across all nations of the United Kingdom would have posed a significant health risk to communities across our UK by leaving people unable to secure housing or to return home.
That decisive action has led to a significant increase in the number of people we are supporting while we consider their claim for protection. To put that in context, we have seen around a 30% increase in demand for accommodation during the pandemic, resulting in more than 60,000 asylum seekers currently being provided with accommodation while their claims are considered. That has also resulted in the use of contingency accommodation, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, including hotels and Ministry of Defence sites, requiring some people to be accommodated in such accommodation for more than a brief period.
We are, though, working closely with local authorities across our United Kingdom and our contractors to procure more housing to reduce our reliance on that type of accommodation and to minimise the amount of time that individuals are housed in it. Despite the challenges that we have faced over the past year, we have consistently met our statutory obligations to destitute asylum seekers. That has included at times, and where appropriate, continuing to provide accommodation where support would normally be ceased.
On asylum dispersal, which has rightly been the focus of this debate, hon. Members will know that, by virtue of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the United Kingdom has a statutory obligation to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation while their application for asylum is being considered. Section 4 of the Act also requires us to provide support for failed asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and where there are reasons that they are not able to leave the UK. That has been particularly relevant over the past year during the pandemic.
I very much recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. Many of the issues that he raised are symptoms of our broken asylum system. As he said, the measures proposed in the Home Secretary’s new plan for immigration are intended to make the asylum and appeals system faster and fairer, which will have a direct impact on the provision of asylum support and the quantity of it that we need to provide.
However, I acknowledge the desire for a much more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the United Kingdom to ensure that all local authorities are playing their part. I acknowledge that that has been a particular concern in the west midlands, as highlighted by the local authorities that take part in the dispersal areas writing to the Home Secretary on this matter. I would very much repeat my hon. Friend’s encouragement to all local authorities to participate in the dispersal scheme, which would enable all areas, including Stoke-on-Trent, to take a fairer share as we reform the system.
My hon. Friend mentioned the April debate. I always find it odd to hear MPs state in debates that they are desperate to do more, but they seem to think, for areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, that it does not mean their own council becoming a dispersal area. Prior to the pandemic, my officials and local authority chief executives agreed a changed plan to move, over time, to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the whole United Kingdom. Inevitably, work on that sadly had to be paused as we responded to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, but I am pleased to say that we have restarted that work. That would see the west midlands, for example, moving from currently supporting more than 12.5% of supported asylum seekers to less than 10.5% by 2024. In addition to implementing the changed plan, my officials continue to work with strategic migration partnerships and local authorities to discuss the costs associated with supporting asylum seekers in their region. Again, that touches on the point that the hon. Member for Strangford made.
We have also implemented process improvements to support collaboration between the accommodation providers and local authorities when identifying wards for future procurement. The Home Office is also working closely with a wide range of local authorities to increase the number of areas, as of today, that accommodate and support people seeking asylum protection. Every local authority is being encouraged to contribute their share. In the past three years there have been some successes, which I want to highlight, not just in the north and the midlands but in other areas—someone called them the Tory shires. Aylesbury Vale, Gosport, Oxford and Wiltshire are places that have come on board with the system. That means that we have been able to increase the number of voluntary dispersal agreements from 92 to more than 160, and we continue to try to increase dispersal across our UK, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North touched on. It is worth noting that we have agreements in place with more than 40 more authorities than are currently participating but where the providers find it particularly difficult to procure suitable properties.
I would reassure my hon. Friend that, as we take forward the new plan for immigration, we will continue to focus on working with local authorities in the UK, to move to a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers. My officials have been asked to prepare advice on options, including analysis of the impact on communities of the current system. I intend to consult local government on those options in due course, once there is more detail to discuss with them.
The Government demand the highest standards from contractors and their accommodation, and we monitor them closely to ensure that those are maintained. Accommodation providers are required to provide safe, habitable, fit-for-purpose and correctly equipped accommodation, complying with the decent homes standard, in addition to standards outlining relevant national or local housing legislation.
The Home Office has worked closely with our providers to improve property standards over the lifetime of the previous asylum accommodation contracts, and has made several improvements in the current asylum accommodation and support contracts. Where a provider is found to fall short of those standards, we work with them to ensure that issues are quickly addressed. When they are not, we can—and do—impose service credits. Housing providers are required to inspect each property every month. The Home Office also inspects properties on a targeted basis each year.
In total, 3,300 property inspections were carried out in 2018-19, meaning that approximately 28.3% of the provider property portfolio was visited. To reassure hon. Members, only 17 properties out of that 3,300 were identified as having a defect requiring immediate action. It is important to recognise that defects will occur in properties that we are using, just as they do in social housing or the private rented sector. We would always encourage service users or their representatives to raise issues with Migrant Help as soon as they occur, so that they can be attended to.
As already mentioned, the Home Office, along with local authorities across the United Kingdom, has had to use hotel and other contingency accommodation during covid-19, although not to my knowledge in Stoke-on-Trent directly, given the contribution already being made as a dispersal area. When we look at procuring contingency accommodation, we expect our providers to engage with the police, local authorities and local contacts, prior to and during hotel use in all locations.
We regularly provide local authorities and partners with information about hotel use in their areas, including, crucially, occupancy figures. We believe that the hotel and contingency accommodation we provide is of good quality. Asylum seekers receive three meals a day, with staggered mealtimes to cater for social distancing requirements, and wider support that meets all the current public health guidance and usual contracted standards.
Where issues have been raised, we have inspected many ourselves. Our providers have also conducted surveys and acted on recommendations, in relation to matters such as the type of food provided. We have undertaken several measures in the short term to mitigate the use of hotels as contingency accommodation. Working groups have been established with three providers, to monitor the availability of accommodation within their portfolios. The groups meet Home Office officials weekly and their objective is to mitigate moving to hotel use wherever possible, by increasing the amount of dispersal accommodation in all regions of the UK.
We again thank councils such as Stoke-on-Trent for maintaining their commitment to this process, and to other areas that have been prepared to increase their share, if I may put it that way. As a result we have reduced our reliance on contingency accommodation by 25% since December, including exiting a number of hotels and ceasing use of the Penally site in Pembrokeshire. Hotels are only ever a contingency option. The Home Office does not view them as a long-term solution; it is not a position we wish to be in. We do recognise that that presents the challenge of how to ensure an effective system of dispersal accommodation that does not overburden those areas that have already made a significant contribution, especially when compared with some areas that are keen to make statements but not to provide solutions.
At our contingency accommodation at the Napier site, all the basic needs of asylum seekers are met, including their welfare needs. The site is catered with three meals per day, and options are provided that cater for special dietary, cultural or religious requirements. Additional meals can be provided as required. There is power, heating, water and access to phones, and support items such as toiletries are provided, along with access to laundry facilities. All asylum seekers housed there have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility—AIRE—service provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation or support services. We are also looking into how we can use time at locations such as Napier to move forward asylum claims, including by creating interview rooms on site.
Yet the root of the issue in Stoke-on-Trent is the fact that our asylum system is broken. It is expensive and has lost public trust. It is vital that the generosity of the UK is not open to abuse from illegal migrants with no right to be here, and the ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting vulnerable individuals. The challenges that we are grappling with have not been helped by the pandemic, but we must also recognise the pressure being put on the system by those who have no legitimate claim for protection or who simply want to use the asylum system as an alternative route for economic migration. While I continue to ask local authorities to act as dispersal areas—in Scotland, for example, where only Glasgow currently agrees to do so—we should not lose sight of the need for more fundamental reform of the system, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.
We will stop those who come here illegally making endless legal claims to remain in our country at the expense of the taxpayer, and we will expedite the removal of those who have no legitimate claim for protection, reducing pressure on communities such as Stoke-on-Trent. In doing so, we will not turn our back on those who do need our protection where we can work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and our local authority partners to provide a planned pathway to integration in the United Kingdom for genuine refugees, just like the 20,000 we have successfully resettled from the conflict in Syria with the help of more than 300 local authorities.
Through our recently announced new plan for immigration, we are committed to increasing the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum while deterring illegal entry into the United Kingdom, breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger, including from dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings. We must do all that we can to stop that criminal activity. It is putting lives at risk. There are no two ways about it. That is why we must move to make a change. I encourage all with an interest in this area to take part in the consultation on our new plan and help to shape the future in creating a firm but fair system.
Again I thank all in Stoke-on-Trent—MPs, councillors and the community—for the commitment that they are making, and I urge other local authorities across the United Kingdom to play their part in the asylum dispersal process. As I have said before, simply making statements, joining a protest or passing motions does not deliver the support needed. I encourage more local authorities from across the country to engage with the Home Office on the strategic migration partnership to increase dispersal and relieve overall pressures on the system.
As I said, the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge and sanctuary to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people, and the city of Stoke-on-Trent has provided us with invaluable support in doing that, alongside other communities in the west midlands that I look forward to meeting in the near future. As I have confirmed a number of times, the UK Government remain committed to ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees receive the support and care that they need, even in the challenging circumstances of a pandemic. Yet we cannot do that without the support—the active, engaged support—of local communities, something that the city of Stoke-on-Trent can be proud that it has provided for many years and is continuing to provide. It is now for others to do their bit as well.
Question put and agreed to.