I am gutted by the loss of Sir Tony Lloyd. He was a decent, kind, wise man and an excellent Member of Parliament. We will all seriously miss him.
They say that the smaller the stakes, the more ferociously they are fought over. The small stakes are that if this Bill works, 1% of the asylum seekers who come to this country might just end up being sent to Rwanda, at a cost of £240 million and counting. We know it will not be a deterrent, as we know that people have travelled from the horn of Africa, through Libya, over the Mediterranean and through Europe. As if the 1% chance that they may go to Rwanda will put off the tiny fraction of people who try to cross the English channel, having taken all the risks they have taken to get as far as France.
Of course people travel from France. They are not going to bloomin’ sail directly from Libya, are they? For pity’s sake. People will come from France. The French Government could say to Spain and Italy, “No, these people should stay in your safe countries.” The House will see where I am going. If we do not work co-operatively, the whole thing falls down.
The real issue is the backlog of 165,000 asylum cases that this incompetent Government have failed to clear. I have covered the issue of deterrence, but the people smugglers may well decide to bring people into this country under the radar, without claiming asylum at all. We would not reduce the number coming here, but we would massively increase the number of people who end up in the black market as victims of trafficking and sexual slavery, and so on.
Only a quarter of those few people who are denied asylum, having gone through the system, are removed by this Government. We have a Government who talk tough and act weak. If they actually wanted a deterrent, they would make sure that there is a system to deal with those 165,000 people, and they would remove the ones who are not genuine asylum seekers. Even the Government’s own figures show that 75% of the people who come here to claim asylum are legitimate and genuine refugees. If the Government want to deter people, they should assess them and return the ones who are not genuine refugees.
The weakest thing about this Bill is that it is predicated on the Government’s desire to demonise the world’s most vulnerable people because they think the electorate like it. They have misunderstood and massively underestimated the British people, and certainly my constituents, who are better than they think they are.
I can tell the Government about my community. In 1945, half the children who survived the death camps in Nazi-occupied Europe came to our shores. In fact, they came to the shores of Lake Windermere. They were the Windermere boys, the Windermere children, and we are proud of that legacy because it speaks to the kind of people we are in the lakes and in Britain.
I have visited some of the refugee camps in Europe, and when I speak to the people who seek to come to the United Kingdom—by the way, it is important to remember that 19 European Union countries take more refugees per head than the United Kingdom—the thing that drives them to come here is not benefits or the NHS but a belief in Britain. They believe that Britain is the kind of place where they can raise a family in peace, where they can earn a living and where they can have religious freedom and other liberties. That reputation is built on hundreds of years of proud experience of what it is to be British. Our forefathers and foremothers built that reputation, and it will take more than this tawdry Government and this shabby legislation to undermine that reputation overseas.
The Government want to make Britain unattractive, and they will fail. The Bill will fail. It is a costly, expensive failure, and it deserves to be rejected by this House.
The Government’s failure to arrive at a workable solution to the problem of asylum seekers relates not only to how they have tried to deal with refugees, but to their failure to create the capacity in our country to maintain reliable services, and to such an extent that many British people find themselves unable to access the basic needs and services to which they are entitled. This is also about the Government’s stewardship of the economy. Additionally, it is rooted in their careless conduct of our relationships with other countries, particularly in Europe.
Therefore, in dealing with this sensitive issue, it is crucially important that we are clear about the principles upon which any approach should be based. The problem, however, is that the Government too often confuse slogans with policy, and in so doing they fail to take account of the principles upon which a realistic policy should be based. Their cynical obsession with creating dividing lines is a barrier to building the sort of consensus to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) referred.
For the purpose of clarity, let me say at the outset that our country’s capacity to admit migrants is finite. It therefore follows that we need a much more structured method of determining how many people can be accommodated; one that takes into account the capacity of our public services and our economy. I will later say a few words about the space that exists in our economy to fill the gaps in various industries and sectors. One of the principles would be to match would-be immigrants with sectors in which there are insufficient people to plug those gaps. Many of those people have those skills.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would make eminent sense to ensure that people who claim asylum in the United Kingdom have the right to work while they await a decision, not least because it would allow them to be better integrated into our community when they get their decision? Allowing people to support themselves while they are here would also reduce the cost to the taxpayer.
I will address that point later in my speech, if I have enough time.
In England, the NHS waiting list for hospital treatment rose to a record of nearly 7.8 million in September, up from approximately 2.3 million. Ambulance response times have also risen, going up to one hour and 30 minutes in December 2022, against a target of 18 minutes.
The UK is experiencing an acute housing crisis, with house building consistently failing to keep pace with demand. The National Housing Federation says that 8.5 million people in England are in housing need, with 4.2 million of them in need of a social rented home. In England, in 2022, people had to spend more than eight times their annual salary to purchase a home. In 2020-21, 17% of primary schools and 23% of secondary schools were over capacity. We did not get to this position by accident; it is the result of 13 years of careless neglect and the obsessive pursuit of shrinking the state.
I will now turn to the capacity of our economy and the ongoing skills shortages. GDP is at zero growth, and low GDP growth is forecast to continue into 2024 and possibly beyond. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest economic and fiscal outlook stated that, in 2024-25, living standards are forecast to be 3.5% lower than pre-pandemic levels, which is the largest reduction in real living standards since records began in the 1950s.
The skills shortages not only affect our overall economic performance; they are also having a negative effect on our provision of public services such as health and housing, as well as affecting the important food supply, care and hospitality sectors. Many refugees already have those skills and, with a constructive approach from the Government, would be able to plug the gaps in those sectors and, consequently, help to grow the economy.
Our poor relationship with Europe and the wider world makes it more difficult for us to co-operate with other countries, whether bilaterally or through collective international efforts, to deal with the deeply damaging consequences of war and conflict, part of which is the growing displacement of people from their homelands, which results in mass migration. Bluntly, we are not trusted to be a reliable and constructive partner, and our international influence has diminished to the extent that other countries simply do not take us seriously.
As I said at the outset, the Government have tried to turn a slogan, “Stop the boats,” into a policy. Consequently, they have failed to offer a solution to the problem. Many Conservative Members know this to be the case, but they have splintered into factions, either wanting to go further, regardless of our international obligations, or are aware that another, more effective approach is needed. Sadly, this Bill and their conduct illustrate that the Conservative party is not a competent or coherent party that is fit to govern; rather, it is one riven by warring factions. Frankly, it is now time for the Conservatives to make way for national leadership from a party that will calmly and competently deal with our mounting problems.
My right hon. Friend is right. What we want is a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. These proposals and the work that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced support that. Labour would do the opposite.
These proposals—some of them, at least—will be met with absolute horror in the Lake district hospitality and tourism industry, which is a £3.5 billion industry. Twenty million people visit our communities every year, but because of the Government’s failure to provide sufficient affordable homes for local people and their stupid visa rules, we now have a massive workforce crisis. Two thirds of our businesses cannot meet demand because of inadequate numbers of workers. Has the Home Secretary spoken to anybody working in or managing the lakes hospitality industry, or does he not care what they think?
My right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister met the Lake District tourist Board; so, specifically in answer to the hon. Member’s question, yes, he has. The simple truth of the matter is that we have analysed the figures, and we know which sectors have brought in the most people. Hospitality in the UK is an incredibly important sector and a fantastic employer of local people. That is what we want to see in that sector.
I find that quite shocking. We are so many years on from the Good Friday agreement, which gave residents and citizens of Northern Ireland the right to be part of both countries, and that is a key issue around social cohesion. I find it quite shocking that the Government have not sorted that out. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for continuing to raise that issue, and I hope the Minister will respond to that.
Other barriers to accessibility were set out in the House of Lords Committee’s report. They do not directly affect my constituent, but given that the Minister is here to give us an update in response to the report, they are worth touching on.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making an excellent speech. Given that the objective of the citizenship test is to test and encourage the integration of people coming to this country, and that there are tens of thousands of people languishing as asylum seekers, most of whom will, on past evidence, be granted refugee status at some point, is it not a terrible waste not to allow them to work? That would help contribute to their costs and, therefore, save the taxpayer money, and would help them to integrate by developing better language skills and being part of their community so that when the test comes, they are more likely to pass it.
My hon. Friend knows that we and our party are aligned on that: we should give people the right to work while they are waiting for their applications to be processed. If nothing else, it would reduce the burden on the state and take away some of the stigma, of which we have sadly seen too much in recent immigration debates. It would also start the process of integrating into our country. The person on the journey that my hon. Friend laid out might end up, many years later, taking a “Life in the UK” test, and I hope that the ongoing systemic issues that I have highlighted can be resolved before then.
Let me move on to some of the other barriers to accessing the test. The House of Lords Committee heard evidence of test centres having only male staff to carry out searches of candidates. I am sure everyone here would agree that that is unacceptable. There was evidence of test centres being inaccessible by public transport and of centres being oversubscribed, which meant that applicants have to make long journeys far from their home. That makes the test even more off-putting and, arguably, even more expensive.
Concerns were also raised about the test’s contents, which other hon. Members have highlighted, and the “Life in the UK” handbook. In its response to the House of Lords Committee in September last year, the Home Office stated that it intended to set out a timetable within 12 months for a review of the test. It was the weakest of commitments—the Home Office announced that it would do something at some point within a whole-year period—yet it seems to have failed to deliver even on that. I very much hope the Minister will give us an update on the timetable for that long-promised review. The Home Office promised to look at ensuring the accessibility of centres, but I cannot see that any changes or updates have been made. It was also mentioned that the Government were considering a remote testing pilot. I would be grateful for an update on that, particularly given that they seem to be really keen on digital by design in other areas of policy.
Even in that response last year, the Home Office failed to take seriously the Committee’s recommendations, particularly when it came to making sure that disabled candidates have the same access to the test as everyone else. Why has the Home Office not considered citizenship courses to remove the need for a test? Why did it refuse to provide guidance on the sort of adaptations available? Why is the burden of proof so high that my constituent could not rely on evidence from her doctor and had to pay out of her own pocket to see a specialist? Kate cannot help but feel, and I agree with her, that she is being discriminated against by the Home Office and that her application has been made deliberately harder because of her dyslexia.
I am sure the Minister can at least agree with me that the handling of Kate’s case has been beyond poor. Looking at the lost documents and delays alone, there are two possible explanations: either Kate has been discriminated against or the Home Office is just demonstrating general incompetence. It has been five months since the second round of evidence was submitted. There can be no excuses or explanations for what has happened. I always say that if systems and processes in Government at all levels worked as they should, I would not need any caseworkers, and I am sure that others here would agree. We must get to a situation where people do not need to get in touch with their MP for such process issues.
The “Life in the UK” test is the end of a long journey for people such as Kate, who have spent years building their lives and planning their futures here. This is just another brick being removed from the UK’s reputation as a welcoming country in which people can live, work and contribute to the economy. The system is clearly broken and I urge the Government to outline what reforms they will make to the test, which seems to be pretty maligned. In the meantime, I hope the Minister can look at Kate’s case and finally give her some good news.
I am incredibly proud of the increased resources for policing, the increased powers for policing, with the 20,000 new officers on the frontline that the Government have delivered for the British people—a record number; we are at historic levels—and the overall fall in crime since 2010. Yes, there is more to do, but on all those measures, how did Labour vote? It voted against them and against the British public.
The Home Secretary talks about tackling online and telephone scams, and she is right to do so. Age UK recently came out with research that showed that 43% of people aged over 65 have been victims of online or telephone scams of some kind. Will she talk about how she will use that research and extend the resource she gives to police authorities such as in Cumbria, as well as working with banks and other outfits, to ensure that more people are not victims of this outrageous uptick in scams?
The hon. Member is absolutely right—online crime and fraud has become a grave feature of today’s criminality. That is why our fraud strategy is all about targeting this emerging threat. Whether that is through the national fraud squad that I just mentioned, banning SIM farms, increasing specialism on the frontline, or our police forces working with the National Crime Agency, other agencies and, importantly, the tech and banking sectors, we will prevent fraud from becoming a reality as well as detecting it and enforcing against it further down the line.
I will come back on two points. First, under the Bill, annual quotas will be decided upon with the consent of various local authorities that will be responsible for accommodating those people, and that is the right approach. On illegal migration, people arriving through irregular routes should not take precedence over those arriving lawfully through safe and legal routes. We could not allow a system where one displaces the right of the other, and that is a feature of this Bill.
The second thing I want to talk about is the effect of judicial reviews. Lords amendment 7 would permit judicial reviews. I cannot improve on the language used by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary, introducing Labour’s flagship immigration Bill, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which was supported at the time by the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I wanted to refresh my memory of what he said on Second Reading, because it was a powerful part of his speech. He said:
“At the moment the system is virtually unworkable. People can bring a judicial review during the process of the initial appeal, and when they reach the right to appeal to the tribunal they can judicially review the tribunal for not allowing the appeal to the tribunal. They can then judicially review the tribunal’s decision and they can judicially review whether they are entitled to go to the court of appeal following failure at the tribunal. The whole system is riddled with delay, prevarication, and, in some cases, deliberate disruption of the appeals process. Then they can judicially review the decision on removal even when the appeals have been gone through.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2002; Vol. 384, c. 355.]
We have simplified the system a bit since then, but effectively he is right. He was right then to seek to effect removal after one right of appeal had been exhausted, and the Government are right now to aim for swift removal without judicial review holding everything up.
My final point, briefly, is about the speech that the former Supreme Court Justice Lord Brown made on Second Reading of this Bill in the Lords. He sat as a Cross-Bench peer, and he died on Friday. He said:
“No doubt the Bill can be improved in various ways, but we must recognise that almost every amendment we make to soften it can tend only to weaken its essential objectives: stopping the boats… We really must…give the Government the opportunity by this Bill finally to confront this most intractable of problems.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2023; Vol. 829, c. 1806.]
I start by referring Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project.
Despite their lordships’ best efforts, this remains in my 18-plus years in this place comfortably the worst piece of legislation I have seen come to this House. That is not because I disagree with it—I have probably disagreed with most stuff in my 18 and a bit years here—but because it is based on several bogus understandings of the truth. Within it, there is a deplorable bias towards the inhumane.
To start with Lords amendment 1, we have an attempt to get the Government to do something massively radical: to comply with international obligations. The notion that we should not do that, or that we do not need to do that, is based upon the desire to depict the current situation—the boats situation and the asylum situation in the UK—as an emergency. I will come to that in a moment.
The two likely consequences of the UK habitually choosing to not comply with its international obligations are: first, that we become a pariah, and are seen internationally as not a team player, and thereby we are less effective in all parts of our policy around the world, whether economic, defensive or otherwise; and, secondly, that others will copy us and, as a consequence, the whole system breaks down. I often hear Members on the Government Benches say, “France is a safe country, why don’t people stay there?”. The simple answer to that is, “Yeah, it is. So is Spain and so is Italy.” If we end up in a situation where other people copy us, the whole network breaks down and we end up in a desperate situation. If we care about our position internationally, we need to care about that.
Let us turn straight to the Government’s justification for not complying with their international obligations, including issues to do with modern slavery and child detention, on which the Lords has made helpful amendments. Their explanation is that the situation constitutes an emergency. Does it? In the Home Secretary’s words, we are currently being swamped by refugees. Let us look at some facts to see whether either of those things bears any scrutiny. As we speak, Germany takes four times more asylum seekers than the United Kingdom, and France takes 2.5 times more asylum seekers than the United Kingdom. If we were to add the United Kingdom back into the European Union for statistical purposes, just 7% of asylum seekers would come to the UK and, per capita, the UK would be 22nd out of 28. Demonstrably, the United Kingdom has not faced an especial problem. We are not being swamped, and such language is demeaning of this country and of the office of Home Secretary.
The Government say, “Ah, but it’s different here, because we’ve taken in 250,000 Ukrainian refugees as well as those coming in through other routes.” I am utterly proud that the United Kingdom has been among those countries who have taken in the most Ukrainian refugees, but we have not taken the most. Germany has taken 1 million Ukrainian refugees and, as I said, it still takes four times more asylum seekers than us, and Poland has taken 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees. It appears that talking about our support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees is an excuse for the Government in seeking to avoid their international obligations.
Britain’s problem needs to be put into overall context. The reality is that 70% of the millions of displaced people and refugees on planet Earth flee either to a different region of their country or to a neighbouring country. A steadily decreasing trickle of people end up at the end of the line—and, my goodness, the United Kingdom, over the channel, is the end of the line. Again, for us to state that we face an especial emergency in terms of the numbers of people coming here is totally bogus. It is important to state that and put it on the record.
I am astounded to hear the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I sometimes come into this place and think that I am in a parallel universe. I do not know whether he gets out much, but if he speaks to his constituents as often as I speak to mine, he will know that they do see this as an emergency. One hundred thousand people have crossed the channel on small boats, with every one of them knowing that they have arrived here illegally, and he will know that we are spending £6 million a day on 300 hotels to accommodate them. If that is not a crisis or an emergency, I do not know what is.
I will come to the emergency, which the right hon. Gentleman set out towards the end of his remarks—the emergency caused by Government incompetence in not clearing the backlog. When we look at the numbers coming to our shores—I am sure he knows this as he has seen the figures—we see that statistically, compared to other countries of similar size and stature, the United Kingdom is not overwhelmed. What we are overwhelmed by is the consequences of the Government’s own incompetence.
I will wager, dare I say it—I am not a betting man—that I speak to my constituents more than the right hon. Gentleman speaks to his, and my constituents represent the values of the United Kingdom. They believe that it is right to provide sanctuary to those who present as refugees and that, in any event, even if those people are not refugees, we will only ever know that if we process them properly, which is what a competent, decent British Government would do.
I have received hundreds of emails from my constituents. Does the hon. Member agree that the Bill will lead to more misery for thousands of refugees, cost taxpayers millions and cause chaos to a system that is already on the brink of collapse?
Yes, I think it will. I was visiting a hostel for people seeking asylum in this country a few months ago in Cumbria. One gentleman had been an interpreter for the British and American forces in Afghanistan, and we had left him behind. By hook or by crook he got himself here, and he had been waiting more than 12 months for his case to be heard. He got to the stage where he almost did not care if he got kicked out; he just wanted a resolution. That is miserable. Those people are getting the blame, from this Government and some of their supporters, for the consequences of the Government’s own failure and incompetence. That is shameful. I would be ashamed of that if I were sitting on the Government Benches. I know that some are, to their credit.
Talking of shameful things, let me move on to child detention and Lords amendment 8. As at least one Government Member rightly said, one of the great achievements of the coalition Government was the ending of child detention under a Conservative Prime Minister. Those on the Government Benches should be proud of that. The Refugee Council estimates that the Government’s proposals would potentially lead to 13,000 children being detained as a consequence of this legislation.
The real question for the House—for the country, actually, but for Members here in particular—is, do we see a child asylum seeker primarily as an asylum seeker to be deterred or as a child to be protected? If the answer is not the latter, I am sorry, but shame on you. An argument is made by some that if we do not detain children—by the way, teenagers are children too, as I am a parent of several—we will create a pull factor. The fact is that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has demonstrated that there is no evidence for that whatsoever. Even if there were some evidence for not detaining children being a pull factor, in what moral universe would it be okay for the Government to use children as collateral to achieve their policy aims? Again, that is outrageous.
On modern slavery and Lords amendments 6 and 56, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who is no longer in her place, made an outstanding speech. She introduced the modern slavery legislation as Prime Minister. This Government talk about enacting many of the things in this legislation as enacting the will of the people and carrying out their mandate. As a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member had a mandate, which I am sure the whole House supported, to deliver that modern slavery legislation. I am proud of that, as should she be. How does that mandate not trump the apparent mandate to put those victims of modern slavery at such terrible risk?
The simple fact is that if someone is a victim of trafficking and modern slavery, because of the Bill and the failure to accept the amendments put forward, that person’s choices are to remain in exploitation, or go for prolonged detention or removal to Rwanda or some other country. For many victims of trafficking and exploitation, remaining in exploitation will seem the least worst option. Far from being an attempt to tackle evil gangs, the Bill plays into their hands. This is a traffickers charter.
Throughout the Bill we see the rhetoric of crisis, emergency and of our being overwhelmed. We are, indeed, overwhelmed—by the Government’s epic incompetence. Some 177,000 people are waiting for an initial decision. Those people do not want to be in hotels; they want to be processed. If the Government wanted to bring about a real deterrent, they would process people efficiently like other countries somehow manage to do, and they would return the ones who are not refugees. That would be a deterrent, but it is beyond the Government’s competence.
According to the Government’s own figures, of the top 10 nationalities of people presenting as refugees here, 80% are granted asylum. Even the Government’s own processes accept that they are genuine refugees, even though others characterise them in terrible and unflattering ways. Some 83% of them are from Sudan and 99% are from Eritrea. That is crucial, because there is no provision in the Bill whatsoever for those people to come here safely. It is so important that we tackle the issue of safe routes. A Government who were really serious in trying to stop the boats would do carrot and stick, so to speak.
The fact is this: desperate people will take dangerous routes until safe routes are available. If people have fled terror in whatever country—many are from the horn of Africa and have fled through the absolute hellhole that is Libya these days, and then crossed the Mediterranean— then I am sorry, but we are not going to deter them from taking a relatively short journey across the channel unless we provide safe routes. That is why the Government need to put safe routes on the face of the Bill. If they were trying to solve this problem holistically, they would make sure that safe routes were part of the Bill.
We always keep the salary threshold under review but, as I said, net migration is too high and we need to get overall numbers down. How do we do that? Well, employers need to recruit more people who are already here, rather than advertising abroad so much. We also need to get more people off welfare and back into economic activity, and our welfare reforms will help with that objective. We cannot ignore the pressure that record levels of people coming to the UK puts on housing supply, public services and community relations. That is why we need to focus on lowering net migration.
Of course, net emigration is the problem in some parts of the UK. Will the Home Secretary pay attention to the plight of our economy in the lakes and dales, where almost two thirds of businesses are failing to meet demand because of a lack of workforce? I have been speaking to the Minister for Immigration about a youth mobility visa scheme, negotiated bilaterally with other countries in Europe, to solve our economic needs so that our hospitality and tourism industries can survive. How is the Home Secretary getting on with those discussions?
Migration is a very complex issue, and of course we have to balance the needs of the labour market. That is why we are very pleased to support well-crafted youth mobility schemes. There is one with India, and I have just come back from New Zealand, where we have expanded our youth mobility scheme. They are great schemes that allow the exchange of young people, who can come here to serve and work in our economy.
My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully. On the timelines to which we are subject, the Court of Appeal has asked for submissions on permission to appeal by 6 July. We will adhere to that timetable, which I think he would agree is swift. Thereafter, it is in the hands of the Court. I am encouraged by paragraph 16 of the summary judgment, which notes the need for swiftness when considering the matter, but ultimately the Court sets the timetable and we will follow any timeline it sets.
Some 160,000 asylum seekers languishing in this country are awaiting a decision. Would the best deterrent not be competence in processing those 160,000 people and returning the ones who are not genuine refugees? Would that not send out a message? Can a comparison not be made between what has happened today and the backlog of 160,000 asylum seekers, as both are down to the incompetence of the Home Secretary, who seems distracted by playing games?
This is not about playing games; it is about saving lives. Diminishing it in that way does not do justice to the complexity and the enormity of the challenge that we are all facing. We are making progress. As the Prime Minister set out a few weeks ago, we are making progress on the legacy backlog of the initial decisions, which have fallen by 17,000. That is thanks to measures and interventions that we have introduced, including streamlining the process, increasing the number of caseworkers and making decisions in a swifter fashion. Step by step, we will bear down on the backlog, as we have promised to do so.
That this House has considered asylum applications and asylum seekers’ mental health and wellbeing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I did not want to bring forward this debate. Indeed, I did everything I could to avoid tabling it, and I would like to explain why. At the outset, I would like to talk about the challenging immigration situation faced by this country. Britain is one of the most tolerant and welcoming communities in the world. A recent King’s College study found, among other things, that only 5% of the population would not want immigrants as neighbours. Similarly, it was reported that, by last year, 75% of ethnic minority people living in Britain either felt very strongly or strongly British. Those are very positive statistics.
But we must also recognise the need to strike a balance between welcoming people and having reasonable immigration policies. Uncontrolled immigration and unchecked illegal immigration can have very serious consequences. That is why I believe the Home Secretary is right to be working to stop people putting their lives at risk by crossing the English channel in small boats to come to this country illegally. We must ensure that those coming to this country seeking asylum do so through legal routes.
It is right that we respond appropriately to the plight of asylum seekers escaping violent, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that systematically persecute and even execute their own people. It is our duty to take in genuine asylum seekers, just as it is our duty to remove economic migrants who have entered our country illegally. It is our duty to process asylum claims quickly and efficiently for the good of all concerned.
It cannot be denied that pressures in our asylum system have dramatically increased in recent years, to unprecedented levels. Indeed, the number of people waiting for longer than six months for an initial decision went up from around 18,000 in 2019 to 60,000 in the space of two years leading up to 2021. That is a serious matter that requires our urgent attention. In saying that, I make no criticism of Ministers, who I sincerely believe are battling to fix the system. I am afraid that in some instances, the lack of application and apparent disinterest on the part of some officials, exacerbated by the high-handed arrogance and disdain of some individuals who work closely with Ministers, have had terrible consequences on the lives of real people, in particular their mental health and wellbeing.
That brings me to a case I want to draw attention to, which caused me to table this debate. The case relates to an asylum claimant who until recently resided in my constituency of Orpington. In recent weeks, he has been moved to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who has given me full permission to continue processing this case. I will refer to this man as Mr A. He is a 31-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK on 3 November 2020. He initially claimed asylum on 7 April 2021, but by March 2022 had not received any updates at all on the progress of his application. At that point, charitable Orpington constituents started to contact me to raise Mr A’s case.
I will quote from a letter I received from a neighbour of Mr A, who has been attempting to assist him. I received this letter in January this year, after I met Mr A and my constituent at my advice surgery. I believe it summarises Mr A’s situation very clearly:
“Mr A is an asylum seeker from Syria. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 3rd November 2020 on a Chilean passport as his Grandmother was from Chile. He has never visited Chile and has no relatives living in that country. Chile has mutual diplomatic relations with Syria and if he were sent to Chile they would return him to Syria.
Mr A was detained in Syria for 5 years for protesting against the government. Whilst in detention he was beaten, tortured and shot with lead pellets, the photos of which I gave to you. He still has over 150 pellets in his body.
Mr A escaped from prison after his father borrowed money and bribed one of the guards and is therefore classed as an escaped prisoner in Syria and his life would be in danger if he were to return to that country. The debt still is outstanding and also added to Mr A’s worries as he is unable to work and doesn’t know when he is going to be able to start repaying this debt.
Mr A is married and has three stepchildren. His ultimate goal is to be granted asylum in this country and bring his family here for a safe and better life. He wants to be able to work and settle in this country which he has called home for over two years.
Mr A had his final interview with the Home Office on 26th October 2021 and should have been informed of the decision shortly thereafter. It is now January 2023 and he is still awaiting a decision. This has affected Mr A’s mental health and in August 2022 he climbed 50 feet up Tower Bridge and threatened to kill himself as he was so psychologically tired.
When I met Mr A about a year ago he had no support and was really lonely and struggling to get help from anyone. I took it upon myself to arrange deliveries from the food bank, contact the mosque for support and arrange English lessons for him, his spoken English now is much improved and he is able to communicate in a basic way.
Mr A’s life whilst in Great Britain has been one of loneliness, fear of deportation and worry for his family which I find heart-breaking. I feel that we as a country have really let Mr A down and it needs to be resolved with a final positive decision of asylum as soon as possible.”
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a hugely important issue. Obviously, there are tens of thousands of Mr As in all sorts of temporary accommodation, and they are sometimes demonised for being in hotels. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not their choice to be there, that we need to establish whether people are asylum seekers or not, that we can do that only if we process cases quickly, and that the best way to ensure that people do not get into this awful situation and that their mental health is protected is to process them swiftly and fairly?
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the point of my bringing this case to the House is to highlight the fact that Home Office officials simply are not approaching the issue with anything like sufficient urgency to sort it out. I reiterate the point I made earlier: I make no criticism of Ministers in this regard, because I do not doubt for one second that every Home Office Minister is straining every sinew to make this a reality. My criticism, such as it is, is aimed squarely at the officials, who do not seem to see these people as people; they see them as problems they will get to when they have time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) for raising this important case. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who is supporting him in this endeavour and is now also involved in the case.
As would be expected, the Home Office is aware of Mr A’s case, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington continues to receive regular updates. I am not able to comment on the details of this case, because of convention; I am sure that the House will understand that. However, I can of course ensure a suitable meeting with the Minister for Immigration, in whose place I stand today; I am pleased to respond in his absence.
We are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, and that those who need protection are granted it as soon as possible, so that they can start to integrate and to rebuild their life. Of course, that includes those involved in cases that are granted on appeal. Asylum casework teams are dealing with high levels of new applications, including those from small boat arrivals, and we have been clear about the pressures that the situation in the channel has created. It is a significant and complex challenge, but we are doing everything in our power to balance the overall needs of the system and to ensure that cases are appropriately prioritised.
Colleagues will recall that in December, the Prime Minister pledged to clear the backlog of initial asylum legacy claims, which are claims made before 28 June 2022. We are taking immediate action to speed up asylum processing, while maintaining the integrity of the system. For example, we are simplifying the guidance, reducing interview length and streamlining processes. Streamlining the process will play an important role in our achieving our aims. The streamlined asylum policy guidance was published on 23 February; on the same day, questionnaires began to be sent to legacy claimants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen at their most recently recorded correspondence address. Those countries were included in the streamlined asylum process on the basis of their high grant rate, which is 95% or higher, and the fact that over 100 grants in the year ending September 2022 were grants of protection status—refugee status or humanitarian protection.
We are making good progress. According to provisional data, between the end of November 2022 and the end of May 2023, the legacy backlog was reduced by 17,000 cases. During April, streamlined asylum processing was further rolled out to legacy claims from nationals of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. That means that where a positive decision can be taken, the claimant will have not a substantive interview, but a preliminary interview meeting.
The Minister mentioned people with legacy claims from Libya and Eritrea. Under the Government’s new proposals, there is no safe route for those people to get here at all, even though, as she said, over 90% of claimants turn out to have a claim. Would she think again about ensuring that we do not dismiss people as bogus asylum seekers before we have even considered their claims?
I beg to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Of course there are safe routes. By international agreement, we take people from Syria, and we do fulfil our international obligations. [Interruption.] May I continue? Streamlined asylum processing for accompanied and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will enable cases to be progressed more quickly, and enable us to clear the backlog of outstanding initial asylum decisions.
We are also working hard to significantly increase the number of asylum decision makers above intake levels, so that we can reduce the time taken to reach decisions and the number of claimants awaiting decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington who called for this debate, and I am grateful to him for doing so, was quite right to raise this issue: speed is of the essence, and we need to reduce the time taken to reach decision significantly. That is why finance and effort is being put into increasing the numbers of those who determine claims.
We have recruitment strategies in place that will help to increase staffing, and to maintain it at the level required for better management of the asylum intake. As was mentioned, the sheer weight of numbers is significant; we will need to improve management of the system if we are to make the changes that my hon. Friend is desperate to see, not only for his constituent but for others in similar positions. We have already doubled the number of decision makers over the last two years, and we are continuing to increase them further. A large recruitment campaign is under way; it will take the expected headcount of decision makers to 2,500 by September this year, which will make a significant difference.
Asylum Operations continues to mitigate the effects of the high attrition rates. That can hinder productivity, as experienced decision makers are used to upskill new colleagues. Although we are increasing the number of decision makers and expect the number of decisions to increase, it can take up to 12 months for a decision maker to become fully proficient in their work. We are putting a place a range of interventions—for example, we are looking at job design, reward and management capability—to reduce churn and increase the rate of productivity.
We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously. At every stage in the process, our approach is to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and shared with health partners. To facilitate that, the Home Office and its contractors work closely with the NHS, local authorities and non-governmental organisations to ensure that people can access the healthcare and support that they need. Asylum seekers have access to health and social services from the point of their arrival in the UK. All asylum seekers, regardless of the type of accommodation that they are in, have the same access to free NHS services as British citizens and other permanent residents. The Home Office operates a safeguarding hub to support vulnerable individuals in quickly accessing the healthcare services.
I am particularly interested in the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington raised about the delays he has experienced, which are in no small part due to the dramatic rise in cases. We have the highest number of applications for two decades; that is why he is quite right to support the Government on reforming the system. I remind hon. Members that there were 75,492 asylum applications, relating in total to 91,047 people, in the UK in the year ending March 2023. That is a third more applications than in the year ending March 2022, and the highest number for 20 years or so. It is also higher than at the peak of the European migration crisis; the figure was 36,446 in the year ending June 2016.
Many of the top nationalities applying for asylum in the UK in the year ending March 2023 are also the most common nationalities of those arriving in small boats. Those nationalities include Albanians, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians. The significant increase in dangerous journeys across the channel is placing unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, rather than risking their life and paying people smugglers to take them on the dangerous journey across the channel.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the UK has a proud history of supporting refugees. Since 2015, we have offered a place to just under half a million men, women and children seeking safety, including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees. Our focus will remain on directly helping people who are from regions of conflict or instability. The best way to help the most vulnerable people, which of course includes Syrians, is to bring them into the country through safe and legal routes. That will bypass the evil criminal gangs and protect vulnerable people, including children.
The Government are committed to reform. The Illegal Migration Bill is essential to ensure that we can better marshal appropriate applications, and to ensure that people who should not be seeking asylum do not jump the queue by paying money to an illegal smuggler.
Let me turn to the issue of wellbeing. My hon. Friend mentioned that his constituent, who was based in Orpington and is now based in the Dartford area, is suffering from ill health and mental illness, in part as a result, it is said, of his treatment abroad, but also of his living and waiting here. The Government take the safety and wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously. We are working closely with health partners, accommodation providers in the UK and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services, and those who deal with asylum seekers at any point of the process, including first responders, are under a duty to assist in ensuring that safety and wellbeing.
Significant effort goes into ensuring that people have the appropriate health and wellbeing services. We provide funding, via a therapeutic support grant, to Barnardo’s, so that it can operate its Boloh helpline. That service provides mental health and wellbeing support to adult asylum seekers; it aims to prevent the escalation of any mental ill-health among those navigating the asylum system, and to facilitate joined-up working in the community, on mental health provision in general. My hon. Friend mentioned that he has concerns on this issue in relation to his case, and I am sure that he will continue to raise it. The service offers UK-wide virtual therapeutic support, practical support from helpline advisers and intensive one-to-one treatment where needed. There is extensive work with a team of psychotherapists who speak 15 languages, and extra help will be brought in where it is needed.
In closing, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington for securing the debate. He works extremely hard on this issue and will continue to do so, and I am sure that he will hold the Home Office to account. I reassure him—as much as I can; I am standing in for the Immigration Minister—that I will seek to secure a meeting for him with that Minister, so that he can assist him in representing an important former constituent. This is an important topic that we take seriously, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay. Where there has been historical delay, we are doing our best to reduce it. We are mindful of our responsibilities to those in our care, and are ensuring that their needs are met. That will remain an integral part of our approach.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, although not necessarily his comments about Skegness. The point is that we have to look at each and every one of the pull factors to the United Kingdom. The approach that we are now taking to accommodating asylum seekers is not an outlier within Europe. I have spoken to my counterparts in almost every European country in recent weeks, and they are all considering options such as barges and sites such as former military bases. Many are considering tents. Many are bailing people to no fixed abode with vouchers and essentially leaving them to sleep on the streets. We have to ensure that the UK is not perceived to be a soft touch, and I will never allow that to happen.
Who would have thought that a policy designed for shallow political purposes would turn out to be an expensive embarrassment? It is not about what is in this assessment; it is about what is not. Where is the estimate of the savings if the Government chose competence over posturing and efficiently cleared the 160,000 backlog of asylum seekers? Where is the impact assessment for the effect of these proposals on the victims of modern slavery? Has the Minister made any assessment at all of the likelihood that people will still come to our shores by small boats but simply not claim asylum, slipping underneath the radar and ending up in slavery and criminality? Where is the comprehensive assessment of this ridiculous policy?
On the hon. Member’s penultimate point, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that individuals do not arrive on our shores without our knowledge. That happens in only a tiny number of cases because of the good work of our small boats operational command. We meet individuals and ensure that they are properly security checked before they flow into the system. That is the right thing to do.
The costs to the UK taxpayer of the current levels of asylum seekers are extremely high. Then, as the impact assessment says, there are non-monetised costs such as the effect on the housing shortage and public services, and the challenge to community cohesion and integration. It is for all those reasons and others that we must get a grip on this challenge. I do believe that border security is worth investing in. The hon. Member may not, but I do, and I think that the British public do as well. They want us to secure our borders and they are willing to see us invest in that.