People Granted Asylum: Government Support Debate

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People Granted Asylum: Government Support

Tim Farron Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for people recently granted asylum.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mrs Harris. I refer everyone to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that I receive support in my office from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.

When an individual receives a grant of refugee status, it is a moment of unspeakable relief, even of celebration, as they finally have assurance of protection and knowledge that the next part of their life will be in the UK—after great tribulation and tragedy, they have safety and security. Refugees go through monumental struggles to reach that point, but it is only one part of their journey to rebuilding their life here in the United Kingdom.

It is very clear, particularly from what we have seen over the past year, that improvements have to be made to enable refugees to build fulfilling lives here and to use and develop the skills that they bring. To be genuinely welcoming to genuine refugees makes sense economically and for the health of our communities. It fulfils our international obligations as well as being a clear moral obligation.

To welcome refugees is not to give them preferential treatment over others, but to ensure that they do not have to overcome unnecessary barriers as they seek to get on with their lives—indeed, to start a new life—and contribute to our society.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate on a very important subject. I am pleased to the see the Minister in his place; I know he will do his utmost, as he always does, to respond. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who arrive here not illegally in boats, but having gone through a very selective process and been granted asylum, should be given aid and support to begin their new life? The first step must be to help them integrate into British communities and our way of life.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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Yes. I will refer to that later, but we know that the large majority of those who present themselves and seek asylum in this country, however they arrive, whether through regular or irregular means, turn out to be genuine refugees. We seem to be failing them and ourselves as a society if we do not commit to helping them to integrate, even before they receive official status.

Over the past year, we have seen an increase in the number of decisions on asylum applications because of the Prime Minister’s focus on trying to clear the backlog of legacy cases. I welcome that, because people should not be waiting for years for a decision on their asylum case. Accurate and timely decision making should be a hallmark of an effective asylum system. Indeed, it would be the best deterrent against those who are not genuine refugees seeking asylum here. Yet, of course, the backlog is still huge. In excess of 100,000 people are waiting in limbo, which is unfair on them and hugely expensive for the taxpayer.

We should be clear that the increase in newly recognised refugees this year is not because of an increase in people arriving by small boats or any other means, but because the Government are playing catch-up, having inexcusably allowed that backlog of human misery to build up in the first place. With more people being granted refugee status, there has been significantly more pressure on the part of the system dealing with those who move on from asylum support to refugee status, in what is often referred to as the “move-on period”.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. Since April 2023, there has been a 575% increase in the number of people who have presented to Manchester City Council as homeless due to eviction from Serco accommodation. Those people come not just from Greater Manchester, but from as far away as Belfast. Does he agree that we need more funding and support from the Home Office for all local authorities that are supporting people who have recently been granted asylum?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Local authorities end up picking up the tab. I will refer to this later, but, as the Home Office seeks to reduce its expenditure, it ends up passing the buck to another part of the public sector. The same taxpayers are paying the bill, yet we have misery for the people at the wrong end of that.

The period from the point at which someone is given their status—a happy moment—to the point when they lose asylum support, which is referred to as the “move-on period” by those of who us are interested in this area and those who work in the sector, has exposed policy failings that have existed for years. The problem that those working in communities with refugees see is practice not mirroring policy, as well as policy simply not working.

Currently there is a 28-day move-on period from when a person receives their grant of refugee status until their asylum support ceases. Although their asylum support is a miserly £7 a day, which is meant to cover food, clothing, communications and travel, £7 a day is still better than the absolutely nothing at all that they face at the end of the move-on period. The move-on period is supposed to enable transition either into work or, if needed for a while, on to mainstream benefits. However, it takes 35 days to receive the first universal credit payment, so it is obvious that a gap in support is created.

Across the UK, local authorities and charities do what they can to support refugees who have fallen through that predictable gap, where they have zero income and no accommodation, but it is hardly a surprise that many end up sleeping on the streets, homeless and destitute. That was exacerbated over the second half of last year when the Home Office started to calculate the 28 days from the date of the asylum decision letter rather than the date of issuance of the biometric residence permit, which is usually received at a later date and, critically, is needed to apply for universal credit. That reduced the already inadequate 28-day move-on period to fewer than 20 days in practice.

It is quite astounding that the Home Office took that decision at the time it did. Given the Government’s attempts to clear the backlog, we faced a situation where many more refugees than normal were in the move-on period window, so, predictably, that decision created far more hardship for far more people. It appears there was minimal consultation with local authorities and charities, which were inevitably going to have to pick up the pieces.

The reality on the ground has been and continues to be terrible. We have heard some terrifying statistics from Manchester. Data from the Centre for Homelessness Impact indicates that street homelessness among those leaving asylum housing increased by 223% from June to September last year when the backlog clearance programme began. During that period in Leicester, British Red Cross staff and volunteers were giving out between three and five sleeping bags every day to people who were about to become homeless.

Statutory homelessness statistics published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show an increase of 203.8% in the number of households owed a relief duty after being required to leave asylum accommodation between July and September last year, when compared with the same quarter the year before. Again, that corresponds with the backlog clearance programme.

Data from the British Red Cross refugee support services across the UK show that between the beginning of August last year and 15 March this year—a couple of weeks ago—there was a 202% increase in the number of clients with refugee status experiencing destitution, when compared with the same period a year earlier. At the end of 2023, Home Office operational guidance changed back and the calculation of the move-on period reverted to beginning with the receipt of the biometric residence permit. That was a welcome U-turn, but despite that change, destitution and homelessness among refugees continues to be a huge issue in 2024.

The British Red Cross reports that so far this year there has been a 205% increase in the number of new clients with refugee status in need of its support due to destitution. In that period, it has provided 75 sleeping bags to people who have been granted refugee status following the most traumatic of experiences, which most of us can barely even imagine. A survey organised by a cross-party group in London found that 311 refugees were forced to sleep rough after eviction from Home Office accommodation in January this year alone. That marks an increase of 234% compared with September the previous year. In total, 1,087 refugees approached London homelessness services for help in January following Home Office evictions—a rise of 78% in the four months since September.

This is utterly disgraceful. It is heartbreaking and it is genuinely shameful—shameful in the sense that it makes me ashamed. We are the United Kingdom. We are a country that, by the grace of God, is wealthy, stable, free and peaceful. Like similar countries, we are in a position to help provide sanctuary for those who have fled the horrors of war and persecution.

We take fewer asylum seekers per head in the UK than two thirds of other European countries, but those asylum seekers who make it to Britain, present themselves and claim asylum then hear witless rhetoric demonising them. They are stuck in hostels of one kind or another and face extreme right-wing protestors leafleting and chanting outside their residence. They wait months and months for a decision and then most of them turn out to be genuine refugees, despite the garbage written and spoken by people who should know better. Finally, they are able to move on from the trauma of their past to begin a new life, put down roots and contribute to our economy and our society, only instead, we choose, through malice or incompetence, to visit upon them more hardship. What a wicked thing it is to do to grant refugee status to a traumatised person one day and then dump them on the street with a sleeping bag the next. I am ashamed of that, and I really hope that the Minister is ashamed of that.

This is an appalling breakdown in policy. It cannot be right that street homelessness is a necessary part of the transition for newly recognised refugees. Yes, there will be more people in the move-on period at this time because of the ambition to clear the legacy backlog, but that does not make it right. Outrageously, it suggests that an acceptance of street homelessness is built into this policy.

Local authorities need 56 days to work with households at risk of homelessness—that is not merely my opinion, but the official and considered view of Parliament and Government, recognised through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—so why do refugees get only 28 days? Why is there a discrepancy in how we treat different kinds of people facing homelessness in the UK? I am aware that there will be a desire to reduce asylum support costs, but costs need to be considered from a cross-departmental perspective.

Making people destitute does not save the taxpayer a penny; it quite clearly costs them a lot more—as well as, of course, being utterly and totally shameful. Local authorities and emergency services will end up picking up the tab and it obviously causes distress and hardship for those refugees affected. These are not conditions conducive to looking for work, to education and training, or to people rebuilding their lives in the UK and becoming part of and contributing towards our society.

Will the Minister commit to reviewing whether the refugee move-on period should be extended to 56 days to ensure compatibility with the Homelessness Reduction Act, to allow people time to apply and receive their first universal credit payment, and to give local authorities a reasonable shot at trying to accommodate those in priority need? It is particularly important for refugees who have fewer connections and therefore less ability to lean on any family and friends. Will he also confirm that the 28 days will continue to be calculated from the issuing of the biometric residence permit, rather than from the date of the asylum decision letter?

Given the challenges experienced this year with refugee homelessness, will there be a review of the local impact of the asylum backlog clearance, including on DLUHC’s priorities around homelessness? When will the lessons learned from the Home Office liaison officers pilot in three council areas be rolled out more widely? Will there be a review of the support that Migrant Help is required to offer refugees during the move-on period? Will there be consideration of face-to-face support for refugees as they navigate that period?

Many refugees will not qualify for local authority housing and they face a range of barriers in accessing private rented accommodation, including the difficulty of providing a guarantor with the lack of established social networks, and the cost of rental deposits and advanced rent payments even if an individual can afford the monthly rent. What are the Government doing to improve access to the private rented sector for refugees? How is best practice being shared?

A refugee’s ability to thrive in the UK alongside existing communities is deeply connected to their experience and treatment while they are in the asylum process. The most obvious example is finding work. If an asylum seeker is able to work, they will be in a much stronger position to find work as a refugee. They will have maintained skills, built local connections and gained confidence from being able to work. Living in a period of limbo for months or years in substandard accommodation, separated from local communities, makes it much harder for them to rebuild their lives and integrate once they get refugee status.

We are an outlier among comparable countries in not permitting asylum seekers to work. There is no evidence that it creates a pull factor in those countries and, significantly, it does not make sense to keep people idle against their will and then suddenly expect them to have everything they need to thrive once they get legal status.

I refer the Minister to the report recently published by the Commission on the Integration of Refugees, which draws on wide-ranging evidence from civil society, local government and refugees themselves to form recommendations supported by commissioners from across the political spectrum. The recommendations include extending the move-on period to 56 days and giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months. I ask the Minister to consider those practical solutions for the refugee move-on period, which reflect the wider need for a cross-departmental national strategy for refugee integration incorporating input from local authorities, the voluntary sector and those with lived experience.

Shall we just imagine what it must be like to have to come to the UK as a refugee? Maybe you fled Eritrea rather than be conscripted to butcher your own people, or you fled Iran because you were persecuted for being a Christian, or you fled Syria because of the barbarous Putin-puppet Assad. Your journey might have been through the lawlessness of Libya and over terrifying bodies of water. You might have been living through appalling hardship in terror, barely existing, losing loved ones on the journey to seek sanctuary.

Ninety-nine per cent of people like you will be heading somewhere else—Lebanon, Turkey, Germany—but you are heading for Britian because of family, because you speak English, because of the legacy of empire, or because you have heard that it is a decent, civilised and safe place. You make it there and you sit and rot for months because of the backlog. You get the growing sense that you are not welcome and that you are disbelieved, because you can read the headlines and the online abuse. But then you get your status. Britian accepts you. It believes your story—your true story. You are now ready to dedicate to your new home in Britain, having finally made it here, the skills and tenacity you demonstrated as you fled your horror. But then you are sat huddled in a shop doorway, freezing, wet, hungry and scared, with nothing—no home, no money. And you came here because Britain is better than that.

Minister, I challenge you to make the changes that I have set out today, and make Britain better than that.

--- Later in debate ---
Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive point. He is right that co-ordination in this area is important, as it is in any area of Government business. That is why my point about the Home Office working closely with DLUHC is so important. Also, I just made a point about notifying local authorities within two working days, and that is part of the better working relationship that is needed. That is happening on the ground, but I take on board his point that that there need to be good working relationships between Departments.

I will briefly mention biometric residence permits, because they are important in obtaining onward support and allowing newly recognised refugees to integrate and establish themselves. It is right that there have been concerns about this, but a dedicated support function is in place, which will help to address any issues with the BRP process at speed and ensure that there are improvements right across the system. That perhaps also addresses the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale closed with the important subject of the right to work. I disagree with him on the pull factors. Unrestricted access to employment could act as an incentive for more migrants to choose to come here illegally. Only last week, there was an exchange in the Chamber on this subject when we debated the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. The provision about asylum seekers’ right to work was also debated during the Committee stage of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, when an amendment was tabled to that effect. We do not want to encourage the pull factor of employment.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I appreciate the Minister’s response, and I am not surprised by it. He will know that many of his Conservative colleagues agree with me. To put it bluntly, there is a very good right-wing and left-wing argument for this to happen. First of all, there is absolutely no evidence from any comparable country that employment creates a pull factor. As well as the moral argument that allowing people to work in order to integrate is good for them when they remain as refugees, as most of them will, it also saves the taxpayer a fortune to allow people to earn a living—and my goodness, we have a massive workforce crisis in our neck of the woods, with massively too small a workforce to be able to sustain our economy—because they then have the opportunity to contribute to the cost of the system and to pay for their own. Surely the fiscal Conservative within the Minister should want to say yes to that.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson
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These debates have happened, including recently, during the passage of the 2022 Act, where a specific amendment was tabled to that effect. The hon. Member is right that we disagree on this issue. There is no permission to work unless—this is the caveat—someone’s asylum claim has been outstanding for 12 months or more through no fault of their own. He knows that about the system, but on his point, we do encourage asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their claim to undertake volunteering activities, for example, so long as it does not amount to unpaid work or a job substitution.

I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for securing this debate; he is right that this is an important issue. We have debated many of these subjects either directly, in relation to the 2022 Act, or tangentially, in relation to the more recent Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. None the less, they are important, and this short debate has given us the opportunity to exchange ideas and differing views. Perhaps ultimately, we can all agree that the aim should be for people who have been granted sanctuary in the United Kingdom to be led on a path to a happy and rewarding life here, because that is not only in their interests, but in all of our interests as well.

Question put and agreed to.