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13 Dec 2007 : Column 163WHcontinued
The problem is interlinked with forms of criminality and organised criminality in which the most vulnerable are abused by gangs in an organised and systematic way. At the same time, many of those individuals have experienced quite shocking bureaucratic systemic failures by the Home Office over many years. They have often been prey to appalling legal advice and modern forms of banditry in the legal profession. More often than not such individuals come from war-torn, or very unstable, countries and quite often their cases are interlinked with physiological problems and a lack of access to decent quality secondary health services.
Amnesty and the Still Human Still Here campaign have emphasised the profound problems of mental health that go with the whole package. Many MPsI have hundreds and hundreds of caseshear of quite appalling compound abuses. It is incumbent on public policy makers to come up with a response that tries to relieve, for simple purposes of humanitarianism, those appalling situations. That is why the Governments policy has been described as a form of formal destitution. It forces people into that situation as a remedy for the political debates on asylum and immigration. I am extremely uncomfortable with that, especially as a member of the party that is in government. That is why I think that the reports contribution is so important. It tries to provide an alternative analysis that goes against the grain of some of the orthodoxies and political debates around asylum, immigration and demography. If it is a systematic policy to use destitution as a key element of public policy, the situation is likely to get worse if we are to believe some of the things that we read in the newspapers.
On Sunday 2 October, The Observer carried a front page story, according to which the Home Office was allegedly pushing for further restrictions on health care provision to cover primary care. We see the image of queues of migrants with no status, and failed asylum seekers at accident and emergency, often in the most abject physiological condition, and that is supposed to remedy problems of community cohesion. I do not understand how that will relieve some of them in communities such as mine, especially in terms of the work of the far right and the deep problems that exist. I do not see how a further reduction in access to primary care will help to increase immunity levels across the country. It is self-evident that quite threatening conditions are likely to remain unchecked among many people in the community.
The other week, I was at a debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow talked about the stated Government objective of universal access to antiretroviral drugs internationally. At the same time, however, the consequence of their position is to deny such drugs to failed asylum seekers in this country. I think that is worth thinking through. That is why the report is so important. I do not want to get caught up in a numbers game with regard to the estimates of failed asylum seekers. I deal with literally hundreds and hundreds of cases all the time, and the appalling situation that such people face demands an alternative series of remedies.
The report can be seen alongside growing evidence of the plight of destitute asylum seekers. Evidence has been compiled by organisations such as Amnesty International, Refugee Action and the Joseph Rowntree
Charitable Trust. To date, the Government response has focused solely on removals. A rate of removal of some 26 minutes implies a 14-year span to deal with the consensus estimate of 283,000 cases. The unit cost of an enforced removal is around £11,000.
My departure point is that the Government have a moral responsibility to ensure that no one in the UK is destitute. As such, refused asylum seekers should be supported up to the point of removal. The counter- argument in the Governments response is to do with pull factors. As far as I can see, very little evidence emerges of the pull factors, such as welfare provision or health care. In the response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Minister was unable to provide any empirical evidence that such pull factors existed. He said that he had arrived at his decision on the basis of logic. The Home Office has reported that over the past decade
while there was a disparity in the reception and welfare support provided for asylum seekers in the EU, the level of benefits varied only slightly between comparable welfare assistance regimes. Yet application rates varied considerably, suggesting that other factors
were more likely to account for variations in asylum applications.
The Institute for Public Policy Research referred to
the absence of any evidence that access to welfare benefits or employment are significant pull factors influencing the decisions of asylum seekers.
My concern is about community cohesion. A Government adviser, who does not work for them anymore, once described the strategy to me: it was to choke off the space for the right to operate by providing a tough regime for failed asylum seekers. We should deal with the far right not by compromising our basic humanitarian disposition in dealing with the most vulnerable, but by dealing with the far right organisationally. Witness what has happened to it over the past few hoursas we have been speaking. The British National party is collapsing internally, and we have called for a police inquiry into internal criminality, which I think will undermine its capacity to feed on such issues. We should not provide oxygen for it to thrive by moving the terms of the debate further to the right and demonising the most vulnerable in society. Therefore, I welcome the report. It is a profoundly important contribution to public debate.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): We have had an excellent debate on an excellent report. I confess an interest, in that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I was a member when it conducted its investigation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on how he handled the inquiry and on how he introduced the report today. He gave a clear exposition and held nothing back in criticising Government policy where the Committee had agreed that that was appropriate. It is important that all hon. Members speak home truths to the Government on the issue: let us face the factsthere are very few votes in a humane, reasonable and evidence-based policy on asylum seekers.
A Select Committee can play an important role by taking the issue outside party politics, considering it in depth, and, in the case of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, using the expertise in the House of Lords, giving the Government plenty of time to provide written and oral evidence, and then coming up with a unanimous and considered view. It is important that we use these debates to ensure that the Government are held further to accountbeyond simply the reports publicationthrough questioning. I hope that there will be time for the Minister to give a detailed response, and indeed, time for us to question him on it.
We have heard useful contributions from other hon. Members. I shall make a few points, comment on their observations and end with a few questions for the Minister. I must declare a further interest. I am a member of the British Medical Association ethics committee, which has considered the issue and made representations to the Government on some of their health care proposals.
One must start by commenting on the Governments response to the report. We will come on to discuss their policy, but their response was deeply disappointing. When there are severe criticisms of the Government, one would expect their response to the recommendations to be longer than the paragraphs that make up those recommendations, but in many areas it was shorter.
The Government indicated their failure to engage with the specific issues by lumping together a series of recommendations. For example, from page 15 onwards, their response on health care lumped together recommendations from paragraphs 16 to 20 and 22 to 25, which all deal with different issuesotherwise, they would have been in the same paragraph. The Government responded to them, except with an additional paragraphparagraph 19in seven short paragraphs. It should not be necessary to get out a ruler: a one-page response to almost two pages of recommendations is deeply depressing.
It would have been an incredible feat of draftsmanship if such a short response to such a long series of recommendations had engaged with the issues, and it was not a well-crafted response anyway. It showed a complete failure to engage not only with the arguments, but with the evidence. The report cited significant amounts of evidence and raised several questions, and it is deeply depressing that the Government failed to engage in detail with our recommendations or with the evidence.
The Government simply repeated their existing policy. The Committee considered their policy when making its recommendations, so repeating the policy does not take the issue any further forward. The Select Committee reports process is rather undermined when such an unsatisfactory response is made. That accounts for the tone and content of the introductory speech by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hendon. The other members of the Committee share his concerns, because we know how frustrating it has been to receive an almost peremptory response to many of our recommendations. That is not to say that what little there was to welcome is not welcome, but the Chairman was right to spend so little time identifying the welcome responses to the report, because identifying them was very hard.
The Minister is engaging and capable of mounting an argument. He accounted for himself very well during the oral evidence session, and it is hard to believe that he would have signed off something that did not include more argument, because we know that he is capable of doing so, and we look forward to hearing whether he can add more to the report shortly.
One of the reports first recommendations was that asylum policy should be based on evidence, and several Members have already said that on just one Government policythe section 9 pilotthe Government have turned against their own evidence-gathering procedures. The report on the section 9 pilot, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said, made it clear that it was not working and might even be counter-productive, but the Governments response was that they will continue to implement it case by caseas if it was not done case by case previously, or as if case by case is anything different.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology, on which I serve, issued a report on evidence-based policy-making congratulating the Government on talking the language of, and sometimes delivering on the plea for, evidence-based policy. The Government then argued that they will pilot initiatives, and that if they are unsuccessful, the policy will be changed. I believe, and the report set out, that Opposition parties should not then attack the Government for U-turning.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Dr. Harris: Before the Division, I was discussing evidence-based policy making and saying that Opposition parties need to ensure that, when pilots are carried outor, even better, when trials are carried out, as the word trial implies some thought having been given to the design of the research in a research contextthey do not criticise the Government for performing a U-turn if, as a result of the pilot or the trial, they change their view. However, the first thing to say is that the Government must not bother piloting something if they are not going to accept the results of that pilot.
I do not understand how the Home Office, which now has a chief scientific adviser, can have that chief scientific adviser holding his head high and saying that Home Office policy will be based on evidence when we have an example of this kind. Perhaps the Government can explain further why they continued with the policy in the face of the evidence that they themselves gathered. It is probably even worse to collect evidence about a subject, find that it does not match the policy and then continue the policy, than to implement a policy without checking for the evidence. That just undermines the process and the faith that everyone involved in evaluating the pilot has in the evaluation.
A number of other issues were raised by the Select Committee, including that of destitution. I do not want simply to repeat what has been said by the hon.
Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Members for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) and for Walthamstow, who spoke so clearly on this subject. However, as the hon. Member for Dagenham said, the report was quite clear in paragraph 120, stating that our view is that the Government are using those policies to create destitution deliberately, which is wrong in itself, and, furthermore, they are doing so in an attempt to dissuade people from applying for asylum in this country.
As has already been said, there does not seem to be any evidence linking an understanding of the policies of the target country to the number of asylum applicants who come here. Those issues are outside the control of our Government: this is a question of the behaviour of regimes in other countries, of war and, often, of the economic circumstances that prevail in other countries. There is no evidence that it is a function of the particular arrangements that we have here and the Government need to provide evidence that there is a pull factor in those practiceswhich the Committee and I would consider humane practicesbefore they even make the case that those practices should be discontinued.
After all, the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are looked after in the southern hemisphere in countries adjacent to war zonesin some of the poorest countries in the world and in dreadful circumstances. Therefore, it seems almost an insult for us to argue about whether a certain level of support is a pull factor when the overwhelming majority of refugees find themselves in terrible circumstances in countries that have very little of our ability to provide decent circumstances. Furthermore, the pull factor is not a calculation for those countries, which are under huge pressure from their own populations, let alone the refugee population.
Jeremy Corbyn: I apologise for missing part of the debate, Mr. Bercow. I was at a meeting with the Department for International Development.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Is he aware that, for example, Syria is accommodating probably 1.5 million or more Iraqi refugees, that Jordan is accommodating a large number and that the story goes on among all the poorer and poorest countries in the world? He is making an extremely valuable point in that respect. The burden does not by any means fall on Europe or the rich countries; the burden of the poor falls on the poor.
Dr. Harris: Indeed. I certainly accept that point. Foremost in my mind was Chad. The issue of Sudan and Darfur has been raised. Our press and media do superb work in highlighting some refugee issues around the world, yet the very same media and some politicians do not understand that the same factors drive people to seek refuge in this country as drive people to seek refuge in those refugee camps in very poor conditions.
Much has been said about the section 9 pilot, and I endorse what has been said by hon. Members. I certainly would like to see that scheme repealed, and I
hope that during the passage of what will be yet another immigration Bill there will be an opportunity to request that the Government repeal it.
The issue of section 4 support and the use of vouchers has also been raised. We must remember that section 4 is reserved for those people who cannot be removed, so they are trapped in this country and trapped on a scheme that is discriminatory and stigmatising. If the Government do not think that that scheme is stigmatising, I would ask them a question: what research have they done to back up that assertion? It is hard to believe that having to pay for provisions with vouchersprovisions that those people can pay foris satisfactory.
As I understand it, the Government said that they had plans to have regulations to provide
improved support to the most vulnerable...and those who may require support for longer than six months
to meet exceptional needs. The Government also told us in paragraph 10 of their response:
We plan to consult on a second draft of the regulations before the summer recess.
Before the debate, I looked online for a copy of the second draft of those regulations and they were not obviously apparent. I do not believe that they were published by September, so can the Government explain what has happened to even the limited steps that they had taken to deal with additional support for those people on section 4 support who have been here a long time? Much has also been said about the issues relating to section 55 support, and I endorse the comments made by the hon. Members for Hendon and for Walthamstow.
The report was not as radical as it could have been, because it did not call forperhaps it was not in its remit to do sopermission to work to be given to asylum seekers, which would be a win-win situation. It would obviously be a benefit to the asylum seekers themselves, many of whom have skills. In fact, it is often the most skilled and the most educated people who are able to escape the persecution and to apply for asylum in countries such as Britain. It would also benefit us in two ways: they would be contributing in sectors where we may have skill shortages, and indeed paying taxes, and they would not be reliant on support.
It is extremely disappointing that working is not permitted within the first 12 months. Liberal Democrats would wish to change that for what is, as I said, a win-win situation, unless the Government can provide evidence that people are prepared to risk the destitution and difficulties that come their wayand, indeed, the inevitable targeting by the immigration and removal systemto play the system. I do not think that that evidence exists, although I know from an exchange that I had with the Minister in the Select Committee that he feels it most definitely does.
The Governments policy is inhumane. I understand the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) saying that he thinks this matter is about competence and efficiency rather than inhumanity. I certainly agree that there are problems in the Home Office, but now is not the time to dwell on them. It would be inappropriate to use our time to do that.
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