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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 February 2016

[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Asylum Support Contracts

9.30 am

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That the House has considered contracts let by the Home Office for the provision of asylum support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer, and it is also a pleasure to be joined by many colleagues from across the House to consider this important issue this morning.

It is my hope that this debate today will generate some better answers from the Home Office in response to the serious concerns that have been raised by many Members from all parties in the House about the provision of support to asylum seekers under contract to the Home Office.

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), who have done an excellent job, alongside many others, in bringing concerns about the practical implications of the failures of companies providing asylum support service across the UK to the attention of the House and the country. These include examples involving G4S and Clearsprings, including the two particularly shocking examples of the stigmatisation of highly vulnerable people by placing them in houses with red doors or forcing them to wear red wristbands to get food. I will come back to those shameful episodes in a moment, but it is clear that there are additional serious concerns on top of those two high-profile examples.

To begin with, it is worth putting asylum into the wider context of the immigration debate. I will make it clear from the start that I believe in a tough and robust immigration system. Successive Governments—it is important to be frank, so that includes those of my own party—have failed on a number of measures regarding the immigration system, including counting people in and out. Exit checks were not introduced until recently—I had long argued that they should be introduced—and until relatively recently we had failed to begin to address the debate on, for example, EU migration and benefits, which has deeply and corrosively damaged public confidence in the many positives that immigration has brought and can bring. My own diverse city and constituency know those positives only too well.

Let me also be crystal clear that I am very proud of the role that Britain has played in offering a place of sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and violence, and it should continue to play that role. I was proud that in the midst of the Mediterranean refugee crisis last year, a cross-party group—brought together by young people from the Butetown and Grangetown areas in my constituency—stood up in my city of Cardiff and made it clear that refugees are welcome in our city, just as they always have been.

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I am particularly proud of the work of organisations such as the City of Sanctuary movement in cities including Cardiff, and local organisations such as the Oasis trust in Splott in my constituency, which are working to support these vulnerable people in many different ways.

There is a huge amount of misinformation about asylum seekers and refugees, and the truth is in short supply. The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states that a refugee is a person who

“owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In the UK, a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the Government, and an asylum seeker is a person who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded.

I am sorry, Mr Stringer, to have to remind us of these raw facts, but because we are in a time of misleading information and hyperbole about immigration, when the media, debate in this House and indeed the Prime Minister himself frequently and dangerously blur the distinctions between asylum seeker, refugee, EU migrant, economic migrant, overstaying visitor and many other categories, we can come to the wrong policy conclusions, fail to support those seeking sanctuary with dignity, and, at the same time, risk community relations and the potential for integration.

To illustrate my concerns, let me give another example, which gets to the nub of some of the concerns about the issue of these contracts and the way that providers are behaving. A number of constituents and local representatives have contacted me in recent weeks with their concerns about a supposed new asylum facility opening up in a residential area of east Cardiff. They had seen the horrible crowding of people into Lynx House in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central, and the media reports, and they are fearful that, for example, a large group of young men might be placed in another unsuitable location, in order to make quick money for a landlord or the contracting company, and with no consultation or dialogue with local residents.

Like most good Cardiff and Welsh people, these constituents and local representatives made it clear to me that they had no objection to asylum seekers or refugees living locally. For example, one older resident told me personally how she would happily welcome in the streets or the local area Syrian families fleeing the horrors that she had witnessed on TV. However, she and others also had very natural fears, which were compounded by rumours that had circulated and the apparent lack of any consultation or dialogue.

In yesterday’s sitting of the Home Affairs Committee, I asked the chief executive of Clearsprings directly whether or not he plans to operate more facilities like Lynx house in east Cardiff, as he had indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that he was likely to want to expand his company. I await the chief executive’s urgent reply. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me, if he is aware of any facts relating to the further plans of Clearsprings in Cardiff.

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Many other people have expressed fears, which are often unfounded and based on the hyperbole in the media debate, and other concerns have been fuelled by disgraceful comments, such as the Prime Minister referring to a “bunch of migrants”. As I have said, herein lies the nub of this issue. We appear to have a situation in which the Home Office is contracting a small number of companies to place highly vulnerable people—often, it seems, in crowded or unsuitable accommodation—in a very small number of areas in a small group of dispersal centres and cities, and frequently in areas of low rents and deprivation. It is good to see the Minister for Immigration himself here in Westminster Hall today, but he admitted yesterday that he had most likely zero or very few asylum seekers accommodated in his own constituency.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Regarding how these properties are let, was he as amazed as I was to discover that different people can be put into a single bedroom quite inappropriately? A young man in my community who is gay and who has come to this country is having to share a bedroom with somebody who was once a member of the Taliban. Does my hon. Friend not find that an utterly ridiculous state of affairs?

Stephen Doughty: I find that absolutely extraordinary; my hon. Friend gives a shocking example. As a gay MP myself, I would find it horrendous to be placed in accommodation with somebody who potentially had persecuted me or potentially would persecute me. However, that is the reality of many people’s experience—they find themselves in unsuitable accommodation. Yesterday in the Home Affairs Committee, we heard one example of 11 people being crowded into a room, and I have heard examples of individuals being placed with people who allegedly may have persecuted them in the past. Some very serious concerns are being raised.

The asylum dispersal and integration process appears to have stopped, and the principle behind it appears to have been abandoned, not only at the limited number of dispersal locations but at the localities within them. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that and on whether we are getting things right. Simply put, the system as it stands is not good for those seeking sanctuary, not good for the communities that those people are being placed in and not good for wider integration, and I also question whether it is good value for the Government.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and I thank him for securing this debate. Does he agree that services to asylum seekers have basically been reduced since March 2012, when the Government took the decision effectively to privatise those services? In Glasgow, for example, it was the local authority that was providing the services for asylum seekers.

Stephen Doughty: I am not aware of the specific history in Glasgow that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but there are serious questions to be asked about whether these private companies are operating in the most effective way, not only for their users but in terms of their value for money to the taxpayer.

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Before I express some detailed concerns about the COMPASS contracts and Clearsprings specifically, let us finally remind ourselves of a few crucial facts. The Refugee Council states that asylum seekers make up just 10% of those people arriving in Britain and that in any case many of those asylum seekers are not granted refugee status. Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, France and Austria all receive significantly more asylum applications than the UK, and very few asylum seekers make it to this country.

Asylum seekers made up just 4.1% of immigrants to the UK in 2014, and the UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees; those figures are from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2014. The fact is that the vast majority of the world’s refugees live, often in camps, in the poorest developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the middle east. Between them, those regions host more than three quarters of the world’s refugees. Turning specifically to Wales, an answer from the Immigration Minister on 28 January stated that just 1,086 asylum seekers were accommodated in Cardiff by Clearsprings in 2015, and just 2,384 were accommodated in Wales overall.

I know that other Members will want to get into the detail of their concerns in their areas, but as I have stated publicly before, no one is asking for special treatment for those seeking sanctuary in Cardiff, Wales or anywhere else in the UK. We are simply asking for them to be treated with the dignity and compassion that we would all expect from our fellow human beings. It is easy to pick up a few examples of alleged luxury accommodation or temporary accommodation in mainstream hotels, for example after arrival at an airport, but the reality in Cardiff for many of those seeking sanctuary who I have met and heard from appears to be very different.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), outlined to the Minister the direct comments of those in Cardiff who have experienced discrimination as a result of being forced to wear the red bands, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central will want to tell us more about that. Over the past few months, I have been approached by a number of constituents whose treatment by Clearsprings is seriously concerning. I have written to the Home Office on a number of occasions to raise specific cases. Numerous concerns and allegations have been raised by my constituents on the substandard nature of accommodation offered. Those reports have come directly from users and others working with asylum seekers in Cardiff.

Allegations I have received include short-notice evictions, intimidating and abusive behaviour, and people having their bedrooms entered without their consent, which, incidentally, the Home Office has confirmed to me in a letter is entirely consistent with the principles and guidance of the COMPASS contract. That raises some serious questions especially when we are talking about vulnerable women and children fleeing sexual violence. To have their room entered without consent by a man—even in itself that is a serious concern.

One constituent, who I will refer to as Mrs A, fled rape and sexual violence. That horrific circumstance is faced by many female asylum seekers. With her children, she was settling into her new community in my constituency in Cardiff. She was receiving medical support and had a supportive network for her family via the school and

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local community. After spending time integrating, establishing that network, getting her life back on track and providing a safe space and sanctuary for herself and her children, Mrs A was suddenly informed at short notice that she had to leave and move more than an hour away to Swansea. Clearsprings provided her with no official letter or communication; there was just an anonymous note posted to her room telling her at very short notice that she should pack up and be prepared to leave.

I was approached by another woman in a very anxious and depressed state who had a young child. She had been made to share a room with a woman with mental health issues who allegedly spat on their possessions and crockery and would leave her child’s potty with the pots and pans in the kitchen. The woman was too scared to complain for fear of jeopardising her situation. That is a crucial point. The chief executive of Clearsprings appeared to suggest yesterday that he was not aware of a lot of the complaints or was not made aware of them by staff or others. The reality is that the vulnerable people living in such accommodation have come from countries where complaining to the authorities will lead to them being incarcerated or, worse still, tortured or killed, so they are naturally nervous about raising concerns with authorities.

Another vulnerable young constituent approached my office earlier this month. She had been encouraged hurriedly to sign a tenancy agreement by Clearsprings, but was not told in advance that she would have to share a room. She was bullied and victimised by other tenants and was distressed as her landlord had complained about and then stopped her brother visiting her. He was her only relative in Cardiff and lived in separate accommodation. The young woman complained that her landlord repeatedly let himself into her room unannounced, including while she was in bed or undressed. She was then told she would be moving with very short notice of two days.

Those are just a few of the stories I have had about Clearsprings, on top of the well-publicised information about the standards at Lynx house. The chief executive of Clearsprings admitted yesterday that 11 people had had to share a room there at one point. We see further revelations in The Guardian this morning about a local authority report into the conditions and the serious concerns about the facility. Indeed, in answer to a recent parliamentary question that I tabled, the Minister confirmed that between 2010 and 2015, the Department received 60 complaints in total regarding services provided by Clearsprings. Staggeringly, 59 of those complaints have been made in just the past six months.

The chief executive yesterday appeared woefully unaware of those concerns. He appeared bemused about the furore over the red bands and only apologised to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee under repeated questioning. Highly revealing, however, was his claim that despite repeated visits from Home Office inspectors, no one had raised concerns about the use of the red bands. Given that the Minister rightfully admitted yesterday that they were wrong, can he explain why it took the revelations in the media for action to be taken? It is one thing for the chief executive of Clearsprings to dismiss the concerns, but if the property was being inspected by the Home Office, as many of these properties are, why were they not picked up on previously?

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Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): My hon. Friend talked at length about people’s fear in many of those situations. Perhaps the chief executive did not receive complaints because people were too fearful to make them, because they just did not know what would happen as a result.

Stephen Doughty: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People who have been through those fearful situations—many of them are fleeing such places as Eritrea, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan—will be fearful of expressing concerns.

The situation is apparently not unique to Cardiff. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who unfortunately cannot be present today, wanted me to highlight her experience of working in the asylum system. She noted how women who have fallen through the gaps of the national referral mechanism for victims of human trafficking have suffered greatly under the lack of specialist provision in Government-contracted asylum accommodation. She told me that, for the women who end up housed in G4S accommodation in the centre of Birmingham, none of the same stringent checks and balances that are normally in place for victims of human trafficking are catered for. There are no non-gendered services and there is next to no security in place to protect that vulnerable group of people. Indeed, she was able to walk into the accommodation and witness the name of a woman who had been trafficked written on the wall in the hall, displaying to anyone who might have walked in looking for her that she was there. That is totally unacceptable and raises serious concerns about the special provision needed for some of the people fleeing such situations.

On the COMPASS contract, an answer from the Minister made it clear that in 2012 Clearsprings Ready Homes was awarded two contracts for the provision of asylum accommodation, transport and related services. The estimated contract value for Clearsprings over the seven years—that is, five plus two—for each region is £75 million for Wales and £55 million for London and the south of England. The Clearsprings chief executive admitted yesterday that in 2015, while things were not quite as profitable as he would have liked, he received a salary package of more than £200,000 in return for delivering the contract. His chair, Mr King, received a package totalling £960,000. Most people, whether they are taxpayers or vulnerable asylum seekers, would find those figures astonishing. Other significant and valuable contracts have been let to other providers, including G4S—I am sure we will hear more about those.

The COMPASS contract has a statement of requirements for dispersal accommodation and transport providers. It is worth being specific about the key requirements under the contract. The first is to provide safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped accommodation to asylum seekers and to ensure that properties adhere to the standards established in the decent homes standard. The second is to provide adequate transport to and from initial accommodation, dispersal accommodation and medical appointments. The third is to abide by contractual management regulations at all levels, ensuring that there is a complaints procedure for those living in dispersal accommodation and that organisations report on their performance against the specified standards. Each of those duties must fulfil the broader contractual duties to promote and safeguard the welfare of children,

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to ensure the safety and security of those living within dispersed accommodation, and to ensure that staff have an overview of the asylum process and the needs particular to those seeking asylum.

Yesterday, I made that point directly to the chief executive of Clearsprings, who appeared to imply in his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that his duties relate only to the bare provision of housing. The words he used were that he was “contractually compliant”. Given the very specific needs of the group of people he is accommodating, I argue that his company and the Home Office should be acting proactively to ensure that the duties set out in the contract are met.

I have given a number of examples already, but it is not only from my experience that I question whether the standards are being met. During 2015, the Welsh Refugee Council collated a series of complaints demonstrating persistent failings to meet the standards. Analysis of the data reveals a series of persistent concerns around standards of accommodation, size of accommodation, and harassment and antisocial behaviour experienced in accommodation from other tenants and members of staff.

The complaints reveal that it is not simply the physical condition of the properties provided by Clearsprings—we have heard about the situation at Lynx House—that are of concern for service users and providers; the standards of service provision were identified as a serious concern, and there was a general feeling that the service provider had little appreciation of the difficulties faced by asylum seekers and their reasons for seeking sanctuary in the UK. There was a common perception in the survey that there was a greater focus on internal targets and profit generation than on providing a service that protected and supported vulnerable people.

Andy McDonald: My hon. Friend is eloquently analysing the structure of the contracts. Does he share my frustration that Jomast, a subcontractor in my area, has some 3,000 properties? If they are paid £11.50 per person per night, the back of an envelope calculation shows an income of £12 million a year. Such access to taxpayers’ money could surely provide a better service than the one we are currently enjoying.

Stephen Doughty: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. Serious questions need to be asked when such a large amount of taxpayers’ money is provided under the quite stringent terms of the contract, but are those terms followed through and delivered? Given that Home Office inspectors regularly visit the properties, as the chief executive of Clearsprings made clear yesterday, why have those concerns not come to attention before?

The concerns that sanctuary seekers face are a constant source of worry and anxiety, often aggravating pre-existing experiences of trauma in what should be a place of sanctuary. Some have reported that their interactions with Clearsprings staff are not consistently facilitated through interpreters, and there have been multiple incidents of perceived hostility and verbal abuse from staff towards residents. Another issue that has been raised with me is the question of male versus female staff in the properties. It has been suggested that there is a significant weakness in terms of the numbers of female members of staff, so can the Minister tell us what the numbers are?

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The Welsh Refugee Council and various other charities that deal with refugees and asylum seekers have strongly advocated a radical change in the Home Office’s approach to housing. It is clear and evident that more care must go into supporting this distinct group of people with complex needs, many of whom have experienced persecution, torture and violence.

I will conclude shortly because I know other Members wish to speak, but I want to talk about what needs to happen with the COMPASS contract, and I have specific questions for the Minister. It is my belief that the Home Office should initiate and lead a comprehensive review of the COMPASS contract in Wales and nationwide to deal with housing standards and the experience of users. The review should be multi-agency and should involve, at the very least, the Welsh Government, local authorities, key housing bodies, refugee representatives and the support organisations that work with them.

The review needs to have clear objectives, including improving the monitoring and contract compliance practice within COMPASS, and it needs to underscore the existing COMPASS statement of requirements with a new person-centred framework and guidelines to ensure that high-quality planning, policy and practice exist within COMPASS for all asylum applicants in the UK. It needs to look at the Home Office’s wider equalities duties and its commitments to those who face human trafficking, because it is clear that there are failings in that area. It also needs to look at the experience of users. At a senior level, a contractor might promise to deal with X, Y or Z and to uphold certain standards, but if that is not filtering down to those who actually interact with the relatively small group of vulnerable people, that is simply not good enough.

My final questions for the Minister are these: is he satisfied with the compliance of Clearsprings and other asylum contractors with the terms of the COMPASS contract? Does he consider that they still represent good value for money? Why did no Home Office inspector raise concerns with Clearsprings about the red band issue prior to its exposure in the media? What other concerns have been raised with him about Clearsprings operations in Cardiff or elsewhere in the UK?

Does the Minister consider the salaries and remuneration of the Clearsprings directors and CEO to be appropriate for a public sector contract of this nature? The chief executive of Clearsprings admitted yesterday that the £960,000 payment to his chair resulted from a discussion with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about the best “tax approach” to take to a loan. Can the Minister tell us any more about that and whether he was aware of any such discussions involving HMRC? How many individual sites does the Clearsprings contract house asylum seekers at in Wales? Is he aware of plans to expand those facilities? Obviously, I have specific concerns about the plan to expand into another potentially unsuitable facility in the east of Cardiff.

Finally, is dispersal evenly spread across localities and local government wards in Cardiff and other dispersal locations across the UK? I have a concern that we are not dispersing to enough locations in the UK. There is a question of what happens within cities and the localities into which individuals are placed, which is crucial when we consider integration and balance within a city.

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I conclude by reminding Members that we are not asking for special or VIP treatment. We are simply asking for human beings to be treated with the dignity and compassion that they rightly deserve, and it is the Home Office’s duty to ensure that that is the case.

Several hon. Members rose

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at 10.30 am. That leaves us 34 minutes. There are seven people standing. The arithmetic is straightforward.

9.56 pm

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): I consider myself told, Mr Stringer, and I will duly comply— I will just speak very quickly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) not only on securing the debate, but on a comprehensive speech that shows a clear understanding of the needs of asylum seekers and the problems occurring at the moment. It is important that those of us who stand up for asylum seekers keep on doing it. I am sure the Government must be sick of the sight of us by now, but we have to keep saying it until we get it right.

The situation with refugee support contracts highlights the problems with the Government’s agenda in a number of areas. The contracts singularly fail to deliver a service that supports the integration and success of our refugee communities. They hand over money to the private sector, despite the repeated failure of the companies to deliver the services that they are paid to deliver, and they fail to account for the important differences across the UK in terms of the devolved context and local authority arrangements.

It is only right that we remove the abstraction, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has, and remember that we are dealing with real people who have fled unimaginable horror of a sort that we have been lucky in this country to avoid since the end of the second world war. Now, having safely fled the brutality of a new fascism, people arriving in our communities deserve and need our support to integrate and to build new lives. Hopefully, that is something on which we can all agree.

After the introduction of the COMPASS model in 2012, in which Serco became responsible for the delivery of asylum support in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we had the subcontracting of the contract to Orchard & Shipman. However, as a housing provider operating in Scotland, it is still subject to Scottish housing law, even if the contracts themselves remain under the control of Westminster. Given recent reports from across the UK, it seems likely that the contravention of local housing and environmental health law is of increasing importance.

Across the UK, we have had some truly horrific situations, which we have heard about today and over the past few weeks. We have had refugee houses easily identifiable by the colour of the door; stories of humiliation and harassment caused by the requirement for refugees in Cardiff to wear coloured wristbands; and a level of overcrowding that would be more appropriate in the slums of the 1900s, not the 21st century. It is clear to me that the system is broken, not just in one location and not just with one provider. That is why the Scottish

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National party is calling for an urgent inquiry. The Government must ensure that those who are given refuge in the UK are not demeaned by being forced to face stigma or conditions that no one born in the UK would be asked to face. Support and assistance must be there to assist resettlement and integration. The refugee situation is not going away. We need urgently to fix the system. That is why we need an urgent inquiry into this matter in the UK.

It is clear that there are problems with the contracts right across these islands. I know of some great local initiatives from community organisations and charities to support integration. In Glasgow North East, and I am sure in other constituencies, there are groups working really hard to support integration. In my constituency, we have groups such as the North Glasgow Integration Network, Royston Youth Action, A&M, and many others. We also have the Scottish Government’s new Scots initiative. But we must accept that the UK-wide contracts are causing UK-wide problems, and they merit a UK-wide inquiry.

It is crucial that we get it right from the moment asylum seekers or refugees arrive in this country, because we are setting the tone for the rest of their stay. Just as we welcome tourists when they come here, we should welcome anyone who comes to these shores. Fifteen Syrian families were brought to my constituency in December, and I want to tell Members what happened to them the moment they arrived. I asked the Home Secretary last year whether we could have welcoming groups to show people coming into this country a true Scottish, Glasgow welcome, and she said that a taskforce was going to look into it. When the 15 Syrian families, who were mainly Muslim, arrived at Glasgow airport, I am told that they were greeted by Glasgow City Council with a packed lunch of ham sandwiches. I have nothing more to add to that.

There are now 15 new Syrian families living in my constituency who, as the Government tell us, were among the most vulnerable of those living in the camps in Syria. I am not in touch with them—none of them know that they are entitled to my help—but there are dozens of asylum seekers in my constituency who are living under the contracts we are discussing and who do know that they are entitled to my help. They do come to me, but I know of many more who are too afraid to do so.

We have seen in recent weeks that, under those contracts, the system is utterly failing. Will the Minister have the courage to recognise that and deliver the urgent inquiry that is so obviously needed?

10.1 am

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate, which comes on the back of extensive media coverage over the past three weeks about Lynx house in my constituency and, before that, the G4S accommodation contract in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald).

The coverage initially centred on the Clearsprings policy of requiring people at Lynx house to wear wristbands so that they could access food, which made them identifiable to the public as asylum seekers. Some of them suffered abuse and threats as a result of having to wear the

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wristbands. That was followed by reports of overcrowding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Lynx house. There is further coverage in

The Guardian

today about the likelihood of prohibition notices being served on Clearsprings by the City of Cardiff Council, and the partial closure of Lynx house following an inspection last week that was prompted by concerns raised by South Wales fire and rescue service.

I shall offer two perspectives, first as the MP for the constituency in which Lynx house is situated, and secondly the wider perspective of my growing concern at what are at best inadequacies and, at worst, possible incompetence in the management of taxpayer-funded contracts, which are extremely lucrative for the private contractors who have them. I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when he responds. If he is not able to address them all, will he write to me following the debate, as I am yet to receive a reply to the letter I sent him on 1 February in which I raised some urgent issues about Lynx house?

The story about the wristband policy at Lynx house broke on 24 January. I immediately contacted Clearsprings and, that afternoon, spoke to the operations director to raise my concerns. We had a conversation in which he readily accepted my view that the policy was inappropriate and agreed that it would be withdrawn. I asked him to implement an alternative identification system for people to get food, such as photo ID cards. He confirmed that a pilot was already under way and that it would be fully implemented within the next few weeks. That change was confirmed in a statement issued by Clearsprings on 25 January.

The Home Office had declined to comment at all on the issue. I wrote to the Minister on the same day to outline my concerns and to ask him 10 questions about Lynx house. I was grateful for his response on 5 February, but it did not answer all my questions. The policy was implemented in May 2015. The Minister’s letter makes it clear that his Department was aware of complaints about the policy in Lynx house as long ago as October 2015. Between May 2015 and January 2016, Home Office compliance officers inspected Lynx house eight times, but nothing was done about the wristbands. It took an exposé in The Guardian and call from me on a Sunday afternoon for the policy to be withdrawn. I asked for the inspection reports to be published, but I have not heard from the Minister, so I repeat that request today. I also asked what improvements the Minister was making to the inspection and monitoring regime for the private companies with which the Department has contracts, but, again, I have not received a response.

There have been further allegations about unsafe and unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, with up to 11 people having to share a small room. The Home Office inspected Lynx house on 27 and 28 January. Subsequently, people have been moved out to a local budget hotel in the constituency, and some have been moved to London. Clearsprings told me that that was so that some painting and decorating could take place; in the light of the probable prohibition orders, it would seem to be much more than that. I do not know whether the Minister has seen today’s Guardian report about the prohibition notices, but it has been reported to me that another 30 people have been moved out to Southall and to accommodation near Gatwick.

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I visited Lynx house in November because I had heard concerns about safeguarding issues. I was reassured that those issues had been dealt with, but the managers told me that the numbers of people being sent to Lynx house were “crazy at the moment”. A lot of single men had been sent through by the Home Office—individuals who had been through a lot to get to Cardiff. Many were injured, and there were cases of scabies. I was told that 397 people were at Lynx house that week. That is the biggest number ever, and the staff told me that it was

“well over double the amount we are here for and can manage properly. It’s a crisis.”

Yesterday, I listened to the Minister, along with Mandie Campbell, his director of immigration enforcement, give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee about the inspection regime and the key performance indicators that are discussed at monthly management boards. I suggest to the Minister that that structure does not seem to be working. Will he please make improvements to the inspection regime?

10.6 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on setting the scene so well, as he always does for every subject that he speaks on. I thank him for that.

I want to give the perspective from Northern Ireland, which it is always important to do in debates so that other Members are aware of it. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have been aware of the issue of refugees for a great many years and have been trying to make a difference since long before the current crisis.

Although the middle east is the epicentre of where refugees are being created today, there are unfortunately plenty more examples of persecuted minorities throughout the world who are in just as much need of asylum. Tomorrow there will be a Westminster Hall debate on religious minorities in Pakistan, to which I hope to contribute along with other Members. I am not sure whether the Minister will respond to that debate, but none the less it is another very important issue.

Without doubt, one of the defining issues of 2015 was the migrant crisis. It is hard to find a member of the general public who does not have an opinion on it, and it is near impossible to avoid the issue. There are 13.5 million Syrians who need help in that country, of whom some 6.5 million are internally displaced, including 600,000 Christians. Some 4.2 million Syrians have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring countries in the region.

As the Minister probably knows, many people see the potential for a great crisis this summer as the focus on Syria builds. We have seen on our television screens the horrific scenes from the middle east, and I can only imagine what it must be like in reality. The debate about how many people from the region we can realistically take in and how safe that process would be is one for another day, but regardless of how many we take and how we resettle them, we need to ensure that the provision of support is effective and fair.

I am not sure whether other Members have had a chance to look at the Order Paper, but there are three debates today on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees—

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they are all on the movement of people. It is a testament to just how big an issue this is that we are devoting so much time in Westminster Hall to those debates.

We have all seen how the rows erupted over the painting of refugees’ doors, the coloured wristbands and the like —other Members have mentioned them today. In reality, the purpose behind those measures was to make it easier to identify those who required services, but we have seen the arguments that resulted and how they made it possible for refugees to be singled out for attacks and harm. They had the opposite effect to what was intended. I hope and believe that lessons have been learned about how best to do such things—the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth laid out very considerately and gently what had happened and how things could be done better. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made well-intended arguments, but we need to focus on helping people and ensuring that they have the services they need. We should not use this issue as a political football to score points.

I am happy to report that we do not have the same problems in Northern Ireland; that is good news. The horror stories that other hon. Members talk about underline the lessons that we must learn. We do not want to make those mistakes in Northern Ireland, and I do not think we are doing so. Northern Ireland is taking in its first refugees ever, so providing services to them is new to us. It is for the mainland to lead the way. The Government must work closely with contractors to ensure an effective, inexpensive and safe service. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, housing is allocated regionally, so the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will deal with that. Housing allocation is important to integrating people fully into society.

Churches have made a massive contribution. That is the way it should be, of course. It is good that churches are helping. The Holy Bible tells all Christians to reach out and be compassionate to their neighbours and those in need. The churches have done that in a practical and physical way by providing clothes and food, and by getting everybody to work together. Society shows itself at its best on such occasions. People come together to help because they want to do so.

Refugees in Northern Ireland are to be offered free English lessons, which will help those vulnerable people settle and integrate into their host society. It will make life easier for everyone by offsetting the social or cultural tensions that may arise. It is important that we do that. The lessons will cost £20,000 a year, but it is a long-term investment. That sum covers translation services and other expenses associated with providing services to those who cannot speak English. I am not sure whether those asylum seekers will have an Ulster Scots accent when they are taught English, and whether they will speak with my brogue and at my speed. Whatever the case may be, they will be able to use the English language as a means of communication, which will help them to integrate and express themselves. Those lessons will be available only to refugees, not to economic migrants. That will ensure that only those in real need benefit from lessons funded from the public purse, and that illegal economic migrants cannot take advantage of the generosity we are offering to those poor refugees. I am keen to hear from the Minister about what communication there has been with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

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We in Northern Ireland are doing our best to integrate Syrian refugees and asylum seekers and to offer support from the Northern Ireland Assembly and Government. That is good, but let us also recognise the contribution of individuals, church groups, charities and others who are doing their best to help. The Government can issue contracts, but it is the people who make it happen.

10.13 am

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important debate.

As we have heard, the COMPASS contracts for asylum seekers have been far from problem-free. When the second five-year contract came to an end in 2010, interim contracts were issued while the coalition Government assessed whether and how to proceed with the COMPASS programme. In 2012, G4S, Serco and Clearsprings were awarded contracts to house 23,000 asylum seekers as part of Home Office plans to save £140 million on the service over seven years. Jomast, from Teesside, was awarded the two-year interim contract for the north-east in 2010, which has since been subcontracted to G4S to provide accommodation. It is interesting that the north-east was the only region of the UK where local authority consortia were cut out of the process. We do not know whether that was a dry run for privatisation, but that is certainly my impression. There is no doubt that there are huge profits to be made in the business, otherwise those landlords would not be in it.

Perhaps of greater significance, G4S had not previously been a housing provider and was completely unfamiliar with the rigours and requirements of delivering services in such a sensitive sector. It is hardly surprising, then, that it completely failed to source suitable accommodation in Yorkshire and Humberside. It was let off the hook only when the previous local authority providers’ contracts were extended to fill the gap. How G4S was able to emerge as the preferred bidder for such contracts, let alone pass the required due diligence test, is beyond me. Will the Minister outline how the Home Office assessed providers’ suitability and how performance and delivery were monitored and assessed? I would be interested to hear whether he still believes that those procedures are rigorous enough.

The Tees valley is absorbing high dispersal rates, but I am concerned about the high levels of uncertainty and opacity. We must make the companies involved more accountable to the taxpayer. Private companies that deliver public services, such as G4S and Jomast, are exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has no power to investigate private contractors. The commissioner cannot serve information notices requiring a contractor to supply information for an investigation, nor can he take enforcement action if a contractor fails to comply with contractual obligations. Bluntly, it is nigh on impossible to get our hands on the details of much of what private companies are up to with public money. That oversight must be addressed. There has long been a lack of transparency around public money handed out to private companies and other organisations. Billions more pounds of public money has been distributed away from the public sector and into the private sector in recent years, so the need for corrective action has become even more important.

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Without the transparency of the Freedom of Information Act, we will not be able share what succeeds and bring new ways of working into the asylum system. Critically, unless providers are designated public authorities in accordance with the Act, we will not be able to discover what does not work. Many of those things come to public notice through the media and campaign groups, but we need more information.

I would be the first to acknowledge that freedom of information provisions can at times be cumbersome, but, unlike the Leader of the House, I have no doubt that they serve the greater good. It is a core tenet of our democracy that taxpayers must be able to access such information to examine what is going on. Surely something is going wrong if tens of millions of pounds of public money is being exploited by private developers, which make huge profits, when it could be better deployed through local authorities to improve the quality of service.

The Government decided to ditch local authority housing in parts of the country, and I think we should be able to find out exactly how much profit is being creamed off by landlords. If public and private providers are responsible for delivering equivalent services, should they not be subject to the same scrutiny? Private contractors providing such services should undoubtedly be held to the same standards of responsibility as state providers, and I hope nobody in this room would argue to the contrary.

In the public sector, the amount of available data has rightly expand hugely, but many private companies simply refuse to publish detailed information about how they operate. They choose instead to shelter themselves away from open scrutiny and operate behind a screen of secrecy. That is simply not compatible with the principles of public sector provision. The prolonging of that level of concealment will prevent future contracts, whether delivered by the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence or any other Department, from being properly scrutinised.

Justice First is an excellent organisation in my constituency that works with refugees and asylum seekers. It is run by Pete Widlinski and Kath Sainsbury, who daily see people living on the edge after the most serious traumatic experiences. They know what those people have to put up with, and they question what is being delivered. They tell stories of a house in multiple occupation in which women and children are living; social services had to take action to put things right.

Accountability must not stop where private sector involvement starts, and I hope the Minister will address that anomaly. If large profit-making organisations such as G4S want to operate public sector contracts, they should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That will give the public confidence that there is sufficient scrutiny and ensure that taxpayers can see how their money is used. We will know that vulnerable people who need support are not left barely existing while private organisations make millions of pounds of profit.

10.19 am

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken so far in this enjoyable debate and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing it.

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Glasgow City Council was the first UK local authority to accept dispersal asylum seekers, of which we are proud, and approximately 10% of the UK’s asylum seekers have come to Glasgow. I have concerns about the contract that Serco was awarded in March 2012, which, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), was then subcontracted to Orchard & Shipman to manage the properties.

Before I go into my concerns about accommodation, I want to put on the record a case that was presented to me by the Govan and Craigton Integration Network, which does an excellent job of assisting refugees and asylum seekers. I find it unacceptable that a gentleman was handed an Asda gift card instead of money on an Azure card and then placed in accommodation that was 2.1 miles away from the nearest Asda. He had no access to travel or to breakfast at a hotel. The error was then compounded by the individual being moved to another location where the nearest Asda was 4.4 miles away. I have real concerns about how that situation was handled and have written to the Home Office about it.

The statement of requirements of the COMPASS contract secured by Serco states that its responsibilities include providing safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped accommodation to asylum seekers, ensuring that properties adhere to the standards established in the decent homes standard, providing adequate transport to and from initial and dispersal accommodation and medical appointments, abiding by contractual management regulations at all levels and ensuring that there is a complaints procedure for those living in dispersed accommodation and that organisations report on their performance against the specified standards. I contend that Serco’s providers continue to fail to meet those contractual standards.

In another case brought to my attention by the Govan and Craigton Integration Network, an asylum seeker was sharing a room with eight other asylum seekers with no financial support. That is a clear breach of point C.1.3.7 in the COMPASS statement of requirements, which states:

“Sleeping quarters must always be appropriately sized for the number of occupants and the occupancy of a room shall not exceed that specified in the appropriate space standard.”

The space standard set out by an initiative of the European National Red Cross Societies states:

“Single adult residents should, as a rule, be housed in rooms with a maximum of four beds, and have at least have six square metres of space in the bedroom.”

That is clearly not being adhered to in the case I describe.

Inspections have confirmed that many properties remain below the required contractual standard, for reasons ranging from minor to major defects. Weaknesses in the frequency and quality of inspections have resulted in vulnerable asylum seekers being housed in filthy conditions, with witnesses citing bedbugs and sores from living in such accommodation. In another constituency case, a single man was allocated a one-bedroom flat alone. On entering the flat for the first time, he discovered blood splattered on the bedroom wall, which had clearly not been cleaned since the previous occupant left. He reported it to Orchard & Shipman along with the non-locking front door, mould in the kitchen, stains everywhere, the intercom system hanging from the wall with exposed wires, and non-opening windows. The response was

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that he had signed to accept the flat, even though he had not actually seen it, so Orchard & Shipman was not responsible for the flat’s condition. I find that quite disgraceful, and I hope the Minister will respond to it.

In another case, a single mum of two children, aged 18 months and seven months, was housed in a two-bedroom flat with another family she did not know. Unrest towards the young mum from the other family has resulted in them not allowing her to access the kitchen or cooking facilities until late at night, preventing her from being able to feed her young children during the day. She suffers from post-natal depression, which is being aggravated by the situation she finds herself in.

Another of my concerns relates to communication, which the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) touched on. Communications are not routinely translated for asylum seekers, resulting in their not understanding what has been asked of them.

It is clear that my examples amount to serious contractual breaches. I support the review that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth called for, and I ask the Minister to investigate the matters I have raised today. What steps will he take to ensure that service providers are keeping to Home Office contracts?

10.25 am

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this incredibly important debate. My constituency has the highest concentration of asylum seekers anywhere in the United Kingdom. In December 2015, we had 1,042 asylum seekers, which is way in excess of the cluster limit. The Minister may say that the number has been reduced by some small amount, but the figures are clear. In some communities, there is an asylum seeker for every 18 residents, and I hope the Minister will take that fact on board.

I am terrifically proud of Middlesbrough’s long history of compassion and support. We have Justice First, the Churches—Methodist Action, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church—and other faith groups, charities and individuals. A fantastic network of love and compassion underpins all that work, and I am delighted to celebrate it.

It was the red doors issue that brought this matter into focus. While I do not criticise Andrew Norfolk of The Times for his excellent piece of work that brought the issue into the light, I do not agree that the local contractor, Jomast, deliberately set out to mark the properties occupied by those seeking sanctuary, but it was clearly known to the contractor. They were its properties and it painted the doors red, so for it to plead ignorance of the issue is indicative of the arrogance that characterises how it goes about its business. However, it was not deliberate so let us paint the doors in other colours and move on.

G4S is the main contactor in my region. It has no record of running housing contracts and yet it still got the contract. The local subcontractor, Stuart Monk of Jomast, then had them over a barrel. He held out for the best deal that he could possibly extract, because he had the properties and G4S did not, and he has made a mint. G4S says it does not make any money out of the contract. Well, diddums. If it does not like it, let us bring the contract to an end and get G4S out of the

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picture as quickly as possible. It has demonstrated that it should be nowhere near Government public service business. Just look at what it did in our prisons. We only have to cast our minds back to the dreadful fraud it perpetrated on the taxpayer over the prisoner tagging contract. It is not a fit and proper company and the sooner it is out of our national life, the better.

The arrogance and contempt that characterises so much of G4S’s behaviour was never more evident than when John Whitwam, a managing director, recently appeared before the Home Affairs Committee. He quite deliberately tried to leave the Committee with the impression that the local authority was totally engaged throughout the process, but that is simply not true. Indeed, the problem is that local authorities have no standing in the business of housing asylum seekers and have been cut out of the loop. Following Mr Whitwam’s suggestion that local authorities are somehow involved in the approval and inspection of properties, I trust that the Minister will speak to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee because I think that Parliament was grossly misled and I hope that action follows.

What on earth are we doing as a country? Why do the Government think that the right thing to do in response to a humanitarian crisis is to create a structure that is all about making money—profits created by handing over taxpayers’ money to private companies? There is something wrong here. Of course, we want to carry on providing succour and support for our sisters and brothers, but the Government simply abuse our good nature. That support and sanctuary should come with a commitment to support the local services that have to respond. My town has been hammered by the lunacy of austerity. My local authority has suffered cut after cut, so that I am now questioning whether it can even begin to discharge the barest of statutory functions.

In addition, what do we learn today on the back of the abolition of the revenue support grant, which will cripple communities up and down the country? In The Guardian this morning it is laid bare: again, the Tory Government punish Labour councils and give support to their Tory boroughs. The Government’s behaviour is partial, inequitable, grossly discriminatory and ill-becoming a party that purports to govern for the entire country. It is beneath the contempt of the shires and City bankers to trouble themselves with such matters—leave it to the northerners, the Scots and the Welsh—because those in their cosy world do not want to be troubled.

It will escape no one’s attention that in the Prime Minister’s constituency we will not find a single person seeking sanctuary, even though areas such as his receive the favourable local government finance settlement transitional relief, while areas that take asylum seekers get nothing at all. The unfairness is stark. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s mother should write him a letter. Understandably, the Tories will say, “Look to the regions, look to the Labour heartlands. They won’t protest, they won’t complain, so we can get away with it.” Therein lies the dilemma.

We are proud of our compassion and of the welcome given to strangers in our communities—many of us and the people we represent have been strangers too. We try to recognise our good fortune and to be generous to those who have not been so fortunate. Yes, we will not walk by on the other side of the road and we will try to treat people as we would like to be treated ourselves, but

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we look to the Government to behave in a patriotic, fair and balanced way. That means that we respond generously as a nation and we do not leave it only to those parts of our country that are already facing immensely difficult times.

We look proudly at our history as a nation. We are rightly marking the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We rightly remember the Kindertransport of the 1930s as a positive response to the crisis faced by thousands of children throughout Europe. It therefore pains me to hear the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland describing the modern-day Kindertransportees as a “bunch of migrants”. I want better from our country’s Prime Minister and so do millions of our fellow citizens. I am afraid that that laid bare the true thinking of this cruel and pernicious Government.

If every town and city in the United Kingdom welcomed 5% of the distressed, vulnerable and persecuted people that my wonderful town of Middlesbrough does, no one would even notice that they were here. What happens instead? The whole exercise has been turned into a profit-making, value-extracting one for the likes of Stuart Monk and his company Jomast to make millions of pounds of profit from.

The Minister is a decent man and I look forward to further discussions with him about how things might be progressed. However, I met with him in November 2014 and many of the issues that are being raised now were raised with him then. I regret to note that absolutely no progress has been made since. I hope that he takes on board the comments of hon. Members from throughout the United Kingdom today and accedes to the request for a formal review of a rotten contract. Let us start behaving properly.

Graham Stringer (in the Chair): Before I call Stuart McDonald, I advise the Minister that the proposer of the motion does not require the two minutes or so at the end of the debate.

10.33 am

Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this timely debate and on an excellent speech. Indeed, I am in the happy position of having agreed with pretty much everything that everyone has said so far—though I might yet disagree with myself.

The red doors and red wristbands have rightly grabbed a lot of headlines. As I said in the Chamber at the time of the urgent question on red doors asked by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), such issues have to be looked at and dealt with urgently, but the real concern is that they are only the tip of the iceberg. What hon. Members have set out in the Chamber today about asylum accommodation confirms that to be the case. Members have spoken about the poor quality of accommodation, which is overcrowded and unsafe, inappropriate sharing, poor placement facilities, short notice evictions, issues of privacy and unannounced visits to the property, poor treatment by staff and many other problems.

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Red doors and red wristbands were perhaps crass and eye-wateringly negligent rather than anything else, but the growing number and widespread nature of the complaints we are hearing suggest that we need to look much more closely at the operation of the contracts. There is also now a good spread of research that backs up the view of all hon. Members that there are fundamental problems with the operation of the existing contracts. It is worth looking briefly at the detailed evidence and research available.

Back in 2013 the Home Affairs Committee reported:

“The reports that we have received on the quality of the accommodation are extremely worrying...Problems cited in evidence include pest infestations, lack of heating or hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked, lack of basic amenities including a cooker, a shower, a washing machine and a sink and a general lack of cleanliness. Furthermore, many of those who submitted evidence cited difficulties in contacting housing providers and the slow resolution of problems.”

All that sounds incredibly familiar.

In 2014 a National Audit Office report criticised G4S and Serco for “poor performance” and

“still failing to meet some of their KPIs”.

The report found that the companies had taken on rented

“housing stock without inspecting it, and subsequently found that many…did not meet the contractual quality standards.”

The Public Accounts Committee later published a report concluding:

“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families.”

In 2014 the Scottish Refugee Council also undertook research into the extent and impact of accommodation issues in Scotland. In short, it pointed to poor standards, poor treatment by staff, poor information on rights and entitlements, and poor oversight by the Home Office of whether contractors are meeting obligations.

Alison Thewliss: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the practices of some of the companies, Orchard & Shipman in particular, which turned up one night with no notice at 9.30 pm to evict one of my constituents? Only by good luck was he able to contact my office and prevent his eviction. Does my hon. Friend agree that such practices also need to be reviewed?

Stuart C. McDonald: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. That case fits in exactly with the narrative that we have heard from so many hon. Members today.

A final piece of evidence comes from an October 2015 investigation by Jonathan Darling at the University of Manchester, which highlighted similar problems, including increased distance between asylum seekers and providers, with buck-passing between contractors and subcontractors; breakdowns in communication between key partners; and considerable variations in dispersal accommodation quality, support and opportunities for community integration. In any view, all that is a considerable evidence base and a considerable cause for concern.

As hon. Members have noted, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), is always quick off the mark, so we have already heard evidence from G4S and its Middlesbrough subcontractors about the red doors incident, and yesterday we heard from the contractors responsible

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for the wristbands in Cardiff. There was extraordinary consistency between the two evidence sessions. Everyone in essence said, “Our performance under the contract is fine”, and, “We meet our key performance indicators”—indeed, staff at one contractor were actually paid bonuses for meeting those KPIs. “We are inspected”, they said, and Clearel even said that Home Office inspectors were well aware of the wristband scheme and had raised no complaints. Clearel also said, “We don’t get many complaints.” In fact, at one point the Clearel manager seemed to be saying that there had been about 19 complaints from 6,500 householders over a certain period of time, if I noted his evidence correctly.

I am not usually a cynical person, but what all that says to me is that we should also be concerned about the key performance indicators, the complaints system and the inspection system, because those processes are not flagging up red doors or wristbands and, too often, not flagging up the myriad of other complaints that we have heard about today. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth made that point well.

Jo Stevens: On the KPIs, I understand from the evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that nine or 10 things are looked at monthly by the contract management board. An executive oversight board provides further scrutiny. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that that system does not seem to be working at all, because nothing is picking up the problems that we have all been talking about this morning?

Stuart C. McDonald: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I agree wholeheartedly. Having only 17 Home Office inspectors for some 36,000 placements seems wholly inadequate. Furthermore, the lack of complaints is not surprising given the vulnerable nature of many of the people who use the services, as hon. Members have said, and given the evidence that induction packs are often insufficient, if they are even given out at all. It is little surprise that it is not the KPIs, inspections or complaints that are throwing the problems up—it is campaign groups, non-governmental organisations and diligent investigative journalists.

The question is, what more would we discover if we had a thorough inquiry into how the contracts are working? At the moment we can only speculate, but we can all agree that there are enough danger signs for us to say that we definitely need such an inquiry. I have asked for the Home Affairs Committee to undertake that task, although I agree that other possibilities exist.

In fairness to the Immigration Minister, he did not make the decision to switch to the COMPASS contract. That decision was made in 2009, with the then target contracts phased out in time for COMPASS kicking off in 2012. As the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) pointed out, the ambition was to save £140 million on services over seven years by replacing 22 separate contracts with six larger COMPASS contracts.

Although the Minister was not responsible for instigating the contracts, he will soon have to decide whether to extend them and I hope that he will not do so without a thorough and wide-ranging review of contractor performance. I also hope that the Home Office will wait for such a review before pressing ahead with the welcome plans to broaden the number of local authorities involved in dispersal.

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We on the Opposition Benches doubt whether such services can ever be amenable to contracting when the only possibility to maximise returns is cutting corners and costs and the people accessing services have no choice in who provides their housing. In other words, they have to like it or lump it, and many asylum seekers will lump it silently. Serious consideration should be given to changing fundamentally how we provide housing for asylum seekers, including a possible return to provision by local authorities. We also have to consider whether the savings envisaged by the COMPASS contracts have been delivered.

Andy McDonald: The hon. Gentleman is making an important contribution. On local authorities stepping back into the breach, does he share my concern that while that is desirable, it would be a disaster if money did not follow that move? If that path is pursued, my fear is that Government will simply expect local authorities to take that on without that qualification.

Stuart C. McDonald: Absolutely. There is a huge question mark over whether sufficient resources have been provided to fund the contracts and that remains as a question whether services are returned to local authorities or not.

We must consider whether the savings envisaged in the COMPASS contracts have been delivered by so-called efficiencies or simply by lowering accommodation standards. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for ensuring that the House considers asylum support contracts, which will require even more detailed and thorough consideration in the months ahead.

10.41 am

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the debate and for the powerful speech he made at the beginning of it. I pay tribute to all this morning’s speakers not only for their contributions, all of which were powerful and excellent, but for the good work they have done in their constituencies to try to alleviate the problems and shine a torch on where things have gone wrong.

This is clearly a timely debate. As Members have touched on, the provision of accommodation services has a sorry history. The contracts were awarded in 2012, and as has been mentioned, the National Audit Office looked at the transition when it produced its report in January 2014. Already at that stage it flagged up the fact that the transition to the new contracts had been poor, that there was a lack of inspection by the incoming contractors of the accommodation that they would provide, and that the Home Office was failing to apply its key performance indicators.

That NAO report was followed pretty swiftly by the Public Accounts Committee’s report in April 2014. I remind hon. Members of the early warning that report gave:

“The transition to six new regional contracts to provide accommodation for destitute asylum seekers, and their operation during the first year, did not go well. Only one of the three contractors had past experience of managing asylum accommodation and overall performance has been patchy: there were delays at the outset and the Department and contractors have all incurred additional costs. The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor and the providers failed to improve quality in a timely manner.”

The Scottish Refugee Council also carried out work in 2014.

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Since then, and particularly in recent months, there has been example after example of the continuing problems. The issue of the red doors in Middlesbrough has been highlighted not only in the press but by my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who have spoken powerfully about it. When it was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Minister rightly accepted that the red doors were inappropriate and wrong, and that what happened should not have happened. He instigated a review, and it would be useful to have an update on that.

In the debate on the Floor of the House, I asked whether the case of the red doors was an isolated example or whether there would be others. Within a few weeks we had the example of the wristbands in Cardiff. That is a different part of the country and a different issue, but again, as soon as the torch was shone on that policy, it was declared by all to be inappropriate, wrong and something that should not have happened. In this debate we have heard powerful examples of other contracted provision that is inappropriate and wrong and that should not have happened. That seems to be the pattern: the flushing out of examples of the inappropriate, wrong use of contracts and then, after the event, a review. Can the Minister give us any assurance that those are the last examples of their type, or whether there are others in the pipeline? The concern when the red doors were first identified was that that was not an isolated example, which gives strength to the call for a proper review.

I suspect that there are further examples to come, and it may be that in the course of the Minister’s inquiry he has already uncovered examples that will need to be dealt with. There is now a short period until most of the contracts come up for renewal, so now is the time for a review to be carried out so that whatever mistakes were made in the past can be avoided in the future. I think some contracts will expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension clause, so time is of the essence.

Last Thursday and Friday, I visited Wolverhampton, Dudley and Oldham. I want to touch on what I found in Oldham, where Serco runs the contract. More than 600 asylum seekers are being accommodated in a town that struggles economically and with the provision of public services. The more I dug down into why so many asylum seekers were being housed in Oldham, the more it became apparent that it was not because someone had assessed the provision of services and decided that Oldham was an appropriate place for asylum seekers, where their needs could be dealt with better than in other places. Nor was it because the local community thought that was the right way to approach accommodating asylum seekers.

I spent the whole day in Oldham, and in the end I came away with the conclusion that the only reason why more than 600 asylum seekers were there was because the unit price per head of accommodating them was lower there than anywhere else. That was the sole driver, without regard to the destitute, fleeing individuals who are in great need, as hon. Members have pointed out, or to the needs of the community. It was solely by reference to the unit price. That needs to be part of a much wider-ranging review.

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I will put on the table one further concern that has not been addressed, by mentioning the position of a young Syrian woman I met in Oldham. She was 26 years old. She was grateful that the Home Office had processed her claim within three months and given her refugee status, and I applaud that example of a woman in need being recognised and dealt with efficiently by the Home Office. As a result, she came off the support provided to her as an asylum seeker and lost her accommodation —that is a natural consequence of the support regime, and I accept that. She applied for accommodation in her new capacity as a recognised refugee and was told that she was not in priority need and that she would not be so unless and until she slept on the streets of Oldham. She relayed that to me face to face. She is a 26-year-old architect from Syria and the prospect of having to spend some time on the street in order to have priority support filled her with horror. As it happened—and as happens in many other areas—people providing voluntary support for asylum seekers stepped in. There may have been a glitch in the system or a misunderstanding of the rules, but I ask the Minister to look into not only that example but others in which individuals have been told they must spend a period without accommodation before they can move from one regime to the next.

I lend my support to the call for a review. There is now a window of opportunity. I suspect we shall hear further examples of the provision of wrong or inappropriate support, and that the Minister and others will say that it should not have happened. That means, I think, that it is time for a review of the contracts, and of support for asylum seekers in the round.

10.50 am

The Minister for Immigration (James Brokenshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate, and on his approach to it. I want to give credit to the charities and organisations that he referred to, which provide support to refugees and asylum seekers in his constituency and across the country.

This country has a proud history of many years of offering sanctuary to those genuinely fleeing persecution. We can look at our record with pride. That was underlined in the speech of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who also described the welcome that asylum seekers and refugees fleeing conflict receive in his area. It is important to recognise that clear message, and the Government remain committed to providing an asylum system that protects and respects the fundamental rights of individuals who arrive on our shores seeking refuge from persecution. I have made it clear in previous speeches in the House that I expect those who arrive and receive support to be treated with dignity and respect. I have also underlined the fact that actions that stigmatise, isolate or publicly identify asylum seekers should not be taken. Obviously, several cases that have been mentioned this morning highlight such a picture. Such actions are completely inappropriate, and I welcome what has been done to remedy the situation.

I will come on to the inspection regime and reflect on some of the results of the audit of properties in Middlesbrough. During this financial year, about 50% of properties in Middlesbrough have been visited as part of the most recent audit, in addition to ongoing work.

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The focus of the team of inspectors is on inspecting about one third of all the properties in the overall portfolio.

The Government provide support through the COMPASS contracts with three contractors—Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Ready Homes. Those contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board accommodation in so-called initial accommodation while their means are assessed and, following that, in dispersed accommodation in dispersal areas throughout the country. Since 2012, following a rigorous governance and approval process, UK Visas and Immigration has delivered asylum support services via the COMPASS contracts with the three external providers: Serco in the north-west, Scotland and Northern Ireland; G4S in north-east Yorkshire, Humber and the midlands; and Clearsprings Ready Homes, in London and the south and Wales. The COMPASS suppliers are contractually required to provide safe, habitable, fit for purpose accommodation to comply with the Housing Act 2004 and the decent homes standard. The Home Office has governance and approval processes for all services that we procure externally, including consultation with other Departments as appropriate. All Home Office service contracts include performance standards, which are defined in the contract and managed using key performance indicators.

I want to talk about the issue raised in the National Audit Office report, and some of the assessments that have been made since. As the report highlighted and as hon. Members have said in their speeches, it was clear that the transfer to the COMPASS contracts in the initial period was difficult and bumpy. There were issues, and that was reflected in the fact that the service credits that we impose where key performance indicators are not met stood at £5.6 million in 2012-13 under the COMPASS contracts.

Since the NAO report we have worked closely with COMPASS suppliers to improve standards, using the NAO’s recommendations. That has included conducting joint accommodation inspections and training to ensure consistency in monitoring activities. It has also involved suppliers improving the policies and processes that they use to deliver their maintenance service, investing in existing stock, and replacing properties that did not meet quality standards. In the early years quality standards were not good enough. The situation has improved since then, and in the financial year 2014-15 the service credits that were levied had fallen to £158,000.

Jo Stevens: Is there anything in that contract—because, of course, we cannot see it—that provides for the Government to terminate it if there is persistent failure against the KPIs?

James Brokenshire: The contracts, with commercial details redacted, are available through the gov.uk website.

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Obviously I can point the hon. Lady to the relevant details. However, I want to underline the change in the KPI position and the fact that sums levied under service credits have markedly reduced. That is not to say that I am satisfied with the issues that hon. Members from across the House have presented to me today, particularly about the complaints process and the complaints that are being raised.

One issue that has come from the Middlesbrough audit, which I hope to publish later today, relates to inspection. I mentioned that a third of properties were being inspected, and I believe the focus is primarily on the accommodation itself—whether the decent homes standard is being met and what steps are being taken to remedy defects that are identified. The audit has not indicated complaints coming through about the red doors issue, for example, or indeed wristbands. Therefore, as one of the actions coming out of the audit, I have asked my officials to review the issue of complaints and how they are escalated, as well as the questions that inspectors ask the people who use the accommodation, to see that any concerns related to the performance indicator on complaints can more readily come to our attention.

Stephen Doughty: Given the points that have been made today, is the Minister satisfied with what is happening in relation to the specific issues affecting women and children? Is there is the right staffing balance to deal with them, and is there the right level of training, particularly for dealing with people who may have been trafficked or subjected to sexual violence? Will he commit to looking specifically at that issue?

James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am happy about the steps that we have taken with the national referral mechanism, and he knows the importance that we attach to the issues of enslavement and trafficking and. The information received from Europol is that about 90% of those who arrive on our shores have been trafficked in some way to get to their destination.

I want to underline the message that the COMPASS contracts are delivering savings. We see them as being on track to deliver about £137 million of savings. Two of the contractors have said publicly to the Public Accounts Committee that they are making losses in this context, so we believe we are getting value for money. We are getting improvements in the quality of the accommodation; it is the issue of complaints that concerns me. Some of the refugee charities have highlighted issues, which I will reflect on in light of the audit and inspection. I will see how things can be better targeted, how the contracts can continue to deliver and, equally, how the voice of the recipients can be better reflected. That will enable us to improve the way we pick up on issues such as those that have been identified, which have rightly caused concern.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Digital Democracy Commission

11 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the implementation of the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Just over a year ago, the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission published its report. The commission had been established by Mr Speaker in January 2014 because he was concerned that the world outside Parliament was leaving Parliament behind, and that outside of this place, digital tools were being used to enhance engagement and interact with the public, but we were still living in a different century.

Mr Speaker set up the commission, bringing together a group of outside experts and two MPs: I was one, and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was the other. The eight commissioners pledged that the publication of the report would not be the end of our engagement, which is one reason I am here today. I pay tribute to my fellow commissioners for their continuing scrutiny, support to officers of this House and for challenging and ensuring that the recommendations are carried through. They are doing too much to highlight in the time I have for this short debate, but I was impressed to work with a number of them on Monday, when we had updates from the House of Commons authorities.

The Digital Democracy Commission labelled its report “Open Up” because it was about opening up not only Parliament but democracy as a participatory exercise, rather than just using technology to carry on doing what we already do. In January last year, we published our report—online, of course—and made five headline recommendations that I will remind the House of, though I know that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons was present at the last debate as well.

We recommended that, by 2020, the House should ensure first that everyone can understand what it does and secondly that it should be fully interactive and digital; we felt that those two things were connected. The third recommendation was that the newly elected House of Commons in 2015—today’s House—should immediately create a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons. Fourthly, secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Finally, by 2016, all published information and broadcast footage should be freely available in formats suitable for reuse and Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015. At the same time, we adopted a declaration on parliamentary openness, which commits us to making parliamentary information more transparent and providing easier access to the public—the very reason the commission itself was established.

I am pleased to tell Members that the new forum for public participation, which has been dubbed by many a “cyber Chamber”, has made great progress in the short time since it was created. The idea was that a third Chamber would be established in Parliament, allowing the public to debate an issue ahead of MPs. We all know from our constituency work how often there are hidden experts out there who have a lot to contribute, if only we know where they are. Sometimes they find us, and this forum is a way to enhance that participation.

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The forum has been open since June last year and has so far focused on debates in Westminster Hall. The idea is that, ahead of a debate, the Member who leads it is asked to engage in an online debate with interested members of the public. Up to 1,000 people have participated in a single debate via that route. I pay strong tribute to the one member of staff in the House of Commons who has single-handedly turned that idea into the reality it is today. On Monday, she reported to the commissioners on progress, and we were keen as a group to see more support for embedding the idea of a cyber Chamber as business as usual in the House.

On Monday, we also received updates on the Data.Parliament open data project, on the ease with which anyone can now clip a video from a debate and on how our publications, web content and social media are being developed to make engagement easier and more meaningful—for example, through the use of plain English.

The Petitions Committee deserves a special mention for its swift embrace of the commission’s principles from the onset. Of course, that Committee was only established in this Parliament. It enables hundreds of thousands of individuals to better understand how they can influence policy making, and sets an example for how other parts of the House can embrace engagement better.

When we published our report, we very much saw it as a road map to improve the way that MPs engage with the public and to allow the public to better engage with Parliament. As a commission, we were mindful that we were reaching out to under-represented groups. My fellow commissioner, Helen Milner, who runs the Tinder Foundation, had particular expertise in that area. We touched on how to ensure that we do not leave behind those who are digitally excluded—it is not our intention to do so—but rather, to use digital tools to reach more people where they are willing.

Just as with Government services that are going online, we need to be mindful of those who are unable to use digital options. We see digital as enhancing and improving what we do, rather than replacing human interaction. We want to expand the human interaction we have as MPs week in, week out on doorsteps to digital methods and to the wider House.

Today, my comments will be a little more parochial, focusing on the changes that still need to take place in Parliament and that are within the hands of Members of this House.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): Does the hon. Lady agree that the electronic voting systems in place in Scotland and Wales free up a significant amount of time for Members there to focus on more important matters, rather than spending 20 minutes going through the Lobby for each vote?

Meg Hillier: The hon. Lady must be a mind reader as well as an MP, because I was just about to move on to the issue of electronic voting using MPs’ smart identity cards. We had some serious discussion about that on the commission. I will touch on the history of the idea, which might inform the hon. Lady’s thinking.

The commission’s headline recommendations 29 and 30— we had many more—were as follows. Recommendation 29 said:

“During the next session of Parliament”—

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this Session of Parliament—

“the House of Commons should move to record votes using MPs’ smart identity cards but retain the tradition of walking through division lobbies.”

Recommendation 30 said:

“The House of Commons should also pilot an electronic version of the practice of ‘nodding through’ MPs who are physically unable to go through the division lobbies, which would enable MPs who are unwell, or have childcare responsibilities, or a disability, to vote away from the chamber.”

This is not the first time that electronic voting has been discussed here; we may be slow, but we sometimes come back to things. In 1998, the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons issued a consultation paper to Members of the House at the time on voting methods. Just over half of MPs—53%—preferred the current system, with 70% finding it acceptable, although there were suggestions that voting could be made quicker by the use of smart cards, fingerprint readers or even infrared handsets.

The reason that the commission did not push hard for remote voting in the end was a strong concern from Members about losing the opportunity to speak informally with Ministers in the Lobby and to have contact with other Members; the Lobby is dubbed the Lobby for a reason.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I am interested to hear the points that the hon. Lady is making. While it is important for people to be physically present in the Chamber or in Parliament to vote, does she agree that a key part of having an electronic method of recording votes is that people could quickly find out how their MP voted? We would then not have situations such as the one we had yesterday, when an hon. Member asked the Deputy Speaker in a point of order how three members of the Cabinet had voted. Of course, the Deputy Speaker could give no answer.

Meg Hillier: Absolutely. The problems with the current system will be evident for many people. I have talked closely with the Clerks of the House about how they record votes. For those who are not initiated, once Members have been through the Lobby, we are crossed off a list with a black marker pen. That piece of paper is then taken by parliamentary staff and reconciled. It not only takes us about 15 minutes in total to walk through the Lobby; it is a considerable length of time—some hours—before the vote is published digitally.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Lady on both her work on this issue and on securing this important debate. I very much welcome the commission’s findings, in particular those on electronic voting. My office worked out that in the previous Parliament, we spent 245 hours queuing up in order to cast 1,153 votes. Does she agree that having an electronic way of voting would also mean that we could record abstentions? Abstentions sometimes matter. They do not just mean that MPs were not here; they mean that neither of the two choices in front of them were any good.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Lady raises an important point. These are all issues that we need to debate and discuss if we are going to make any progress. I hope that, at the end of this debate, we will get some assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House that the matter will be taken seriously and that further work will be done.

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As I said, a vote takes about 15 minutes in total—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has also done her maths. In the previous Session of Parliament, there were 544 Divisions in the Commons. Even if three minutes had been saved on each one—a modest improvement on our current practice—it would have meant a time saving of up to 27 hours for each MP. I hope we would have used that time productively; others may want to comment on that. That just goes to show that an awful lot of time is spent on something that could be done more quickly. We have also recently had experiments with iPads. They certainly speed up digital recording, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) indicated, but there are still issues with human error and accuracy.

The record of votes is important. In the modern age, it is ludicrous that people have to wait several hours to find out how their Member of Parliament voted on an issue. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, other things are not recorded. People get confused about what was an abstention and ask, “Was someone not there?” We should be able to record if someone is absent, for instance, because they are on maternity leave, or absent because they are sick or because they chose to abstain. That is common sense, one would think.

Clearly, any new approach will have problems, so it is worth teasing out what some of those are in the hope that they will be openly discussed and resolved. MPs could lose their smartcards, if that system is the one implemented, which may mean that fingerprints could be a preferred method. MPs could pass their cards to the party Whip or other MPs who could impersonate them or vote in their place, so we would need a system for verification. Verification currently allows for those who are on the premises but unable to vote in person to be nodded through by the Whips. I voted that way a number of times after my youngest daughter was born. The Whips nodded me through, but only after an Opposition Whip was satisfied that I was present, so we have a very crude way of verifying now. I think that could have been done differently and, certainly, we could look to improve it.

The cost of upgrading the system is not to be sniffed at. On Monday, the commission had reports from Officers of the House that it could cost more than £500,000 over the next three or four years, if decisions were made quickly. However, the long-term benefit could justify the one-off cost. Restoration and renewal of this Parliament provides a big opportunity to modernise this core activity of MPs.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and apologise that I cannot stay until the very end. On time-saving, time represents cost—it is not just about time for MPs, but for staff and security, especially when Divisions go on late into the evening. The costs involved in a one-off cost would surely be offset by the time saved.

Meg Hillier: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about time-saving, because clearly, some votes are consequential on other votes, so there is always going to be a time when we may have to wait for the result of a vote before we can vote again. However, sometimes, as with deferred Divisions, a number of votes could be carried out simultaneously, whereas currently we have to queue for separate 15-minute time periods to go through the Lobby.

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It is worth stressing, as the hon. Member for Torbay said and as we heard from many Members—this is why we did not go for distant, remote electronic voting as a recommendation—that the ability to work closely and talk to Members on a daily basis is a very big part of the work of this House. It is important that that spirit is seriously considered in any change. However, I am directly asking the Deputy Leader of the House to take this matter very seriously and to ensure that the Government do not knock it into the long grass. It is a matter for the House. She is our champion, along with the Leader of the House, to Government. I hope she takes this seriously, because we need a green light to investigate change.

From talking to officials in the House, I know that, at the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm for embracing the commission’s recommendations. A number can take place without interference—dare I say it?—from hon. Members. However, this is one where we really need to be engaged and I hope that today, the Deputy Leader of the House will set out a clear timetable on the measure and commit to serious consideration of its potential benefits and to reporting back to the House on that progress.

We can look at other examples in other Parliaments. Egypt, only two weeks ago, introduced an electronic voting system. It has had some problems with impersonation, so that is a lesson to be learnt. In Romania, politicians have 10 seconds to vote once they have initiated the smartcard voting system. In the United States, electronic voting was introduced to Congress in 1973. Members there vote by inserting their voting card into an electronic dock and by pressing the appropriate button. In South Korea, they vote electronically and can change their vote as they go, so there are very important issues that we might want to discuss about the change of culture that this would bring. Of course, as hon. Members have highlighted, in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, voting is done electronically. It is not a new phenomenon, and we need to ensure that it is properly embraced.

In my lifetime, Parliament has evolved very slightly to reflect technological change. Voice recording was introduced in 1978, when I was a schoolgirl. In 1989, the Chamber was first televised, and only last year, a low-level camera was installed—I was a student in 1989, and I hope that, before I am a grandmother, we might have considered electronic voting, bringing Parliament into the 21st century.

Caroline Lucas: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. In the European Parliament model, people can see instantly how the vote has gone. Does she agree that, if we had the technology to see how a vote has gone, it would enable us to hold over votes to a particular time in the day—or at least a couple of times in the day—which would, again, mean that we are not running backwards and forwards from one part of the Estate to the other?

Meg Hillier: The hon. Lady brings valuable experience from her time in the European Parliament. All these things need to be thrown into the mix. We need to have a discussion about our culture here—it is an important part of this—but there are ways of resolving the issues without sticking rigidly to the current system. A change would save time and money, and critically, just be clearer to the public, so that they can see what is happening.

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Overall, in terms of engagement, many people are keen to get involved in Parliament and politics but find them very opaque. This would be one step to improving that. Evidence from a survey carried out by Cambridge University showed that 46% of people say that they would like to get involved in politics and Parliament if they could, but less than 10% are currently engaged with Parliament. As we know, there is often a large gap between those who say that they will get involved and those who actually do, but even if half those who wanted to were able to, it would be a significant increase in the number of people engaging with what we do. That is not to decry what hon. Members do; week in, week out, we engage with and talk to people on the doorstep, but we reach relatively few. With better digital engagement overall—so, just moving away from the issue of electronic voting—we can enhance the face-to-face contact that we have. There are other elements of the DDC that we need to make sure we set in train and with which we can bring about change.

I think we are on the cusp of a revolution. The Digital Democracy Commission’s report lays out a pathway. We hoped on that commission that the new Parliament elected in 2015 would see the opening up of Parliament as nothing revolutionary, but as business as usual in the modern world. In preparing for this debate, I have been heartened by the number of hon. Members who were keen to register their interest, even if they were not able to be here for a short half-hour debate today. I had more than 30 Members who were keen to speak had this been a longer debate, and we may seek a further opportunity to raise the matter, perhaps when we hear from the Deputy Leader of the House about her timetable.

If we are to be more accountable and accessible to the people whom our Parliament serves and whom elect us, we must not let this opportunity pass. This could be the Parliament when we finally get into the century we are in. As Members of Parliament, we need to be bold and embrace this change to engage more constructively with the public. We need to open up Parliament, listen to our constituents better and not simply broadcast what we do, which I am afraid to say, is a tendency of this institution.

Mr Speaker had the vision and the commission has done its work. We are now a year on. Officers of the House have made huge progress and I pay testament to them, as do other commissioners, on opening up data, making House publications more accessible, making it easier to use broadcast clips, improving our web and social media interaction and on developing a cyber Chamber. It is now for Members to show that we are firmly in favour of modernising our working practices. We who are privileged to be elected to this House must be the facilitators of this change. We need to lead by example.

11.17 am

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Dr Thérèse Coffey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer, and to contribute to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She is a member of the Speaker’s Commission and has spoken with passion about its work and her views. I thank her for the update on the progress made, including that reported at a meeting of the commission earlier this week.

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The commission outlined five key targets, but as the hon. Lady has already stated those, I will not repeat them. There are further recommendations in the report, many of which are for the House to consider and debate. To some extent, a large part of that should be done, in my view, via the Procedure Committee. I will try to highlight key areas where, in particular, the Government can contribute to that debate.

Promoting public awareness of the role of Parliament and of Members of Parliament, and increasing public participation and engagement, are both worthy aims. Much has been achieved, particularly in recent years, as a result of the efforts of many hon. Members and our dedicated House staff—the service and the Clerks—and undoubtedly, that engagement will continue to increase.

The attempts to engage the public in different formats are very valid, as there are several recognised ways of learning and engagement, and people will have a natural tendency towards one or two. Traditionally, people have always had the written word, in terms of Hansard, legislation and business papers, accompanied by the occasional visit to Parliament to see how it works in practice, elements of which are open to everyone in this country. Aural transmission through radio and the screening of proceedings has been a step change. Further elements such as videos explaining Select Committee reports and the use of social media have continued to reach different audiences and interact with people in different ways. They are to be welcomed.

I will try to address the points raised by the hon. Lady and by other hon. Members during the debate. Turning to some of the commission’s recommendations, particularly focusing on the targets, the House service continues its work on engagement and outreach, guided by its strategy—I believe that was praised at the commission the other day—although I think it has found the feedback from the commission helpful, in that it was not necessarily achieving all that it thought it had and had a higher bar to reach. That said, I congratulate those involved in some of the improvements. Improvements to the digital service for both internal and external users are a key priority but there is still a considerable way to go.

The Commission made some useful recommendations about engaging the public. Some aim to improve understanding of Parliament and the work of MPs— for example, simplifying language, clarifying online publications and improving the website, including for people with disabilities or sensory impairments. Much has been achieved in these areas already, but I am sure that there is further to go. Making it easier for people to track specific areas of interest to them is one example of how we could improve interaction. I think some MPs are not aware of some innovations that would be useful to them. I am an evangelist for the apps for tablets and smartphones that have been created and help both MPs and the public in their daily work and to access documents that can be read alongside debates.

The public inquiries team has reviewed and rewritten every Commons glossary entry on the Parliament site and about 400,000 users access this. Content now focuses on explaining in clear, plain English the word, phrase or acronym, and includes links to further learning and business content to extend users’ knowledge. Previously, content had been overly long and often unclear.

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A recommendation that cuts through to the legislative process is the commission’s suggestion for a new procedure for amending Bills so that amendments are written in plain English. In my view, this is where the role of explanatory notes comes in. We saw in the last Parliament, and see it more and more now, that Members are encouraged to add explanatory notes to the amendments they table.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation they put before Parliament is of a high standard, but I know we can always do better. It is vital that Parliament has the necessary means by which to perform its scrutiny. Further recommendations to change that process further are for the House to decide, but I suggest to the hon. Lady that we are creating law, so to some extent, the clarity and the explanation come from the debate on Second Reading and the examination in Committee, where the Minister and the Opposition—any Member in fact—can to talk to amendments. We could do more and, in my role on the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, I often push for further detail on the explanatory notes when I do not think they are clear or we need to be more explicit in stating the intention of amendments and clauses.

One recommendation is to improve the search engine. There are other search engines, but many hon. Members use Google to find information on the external parliamentary website. That is a shocker and apparently work is being done on it, but perhaps we should just leave it to the market. If Google and other search engines have already cracked the issue, we may want to use the House’s financial resources for other matters.

Kevin Foster: The Minister is rightly talking about how better to explain legislation, but sometimes we need to explain better to the viewer what is going on. For example, the most common question I am asked on school visits is why MPs are standing up and sitting down.

Dr Coffey: That is an interesting point, and new Members often ask that question when they arrive. To some extent, the induction process helps with that. There are matters not covered by the commission that many Members would like to see changed but—dare I say it?—some of the more traditional people, and I include the Speaker in certain elements of this, are resistant to that change. Examples include speaking lists and understanding how to participate in a debate. Perhaps we can do more on the video front and if we stop trying to improve our own search engine, it could free up a bit of cash to do that.

On crowd sourcing questions, the party leader of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch is doing that for PMQs, which is an interesting experiment. I will leave it to hon. Members to draw their own conclusions on whether it is successful, but I am sure it is good for the Labour party’s communications database. It is an interesting approach and some Select Committees have considered it as part of their reviews. I seem to remember the use of #AskGove to generate questions for a Select Committee. It is for Members to decide how best to use that and to manage expectation without just using it as a gimmick.

Meg Hillier: The Minister rightly highlights managing expectation. I refer her to the Petitions Committee, which has done a good job at a very early stage of beginning

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to make sure that engagement happens. It is about managing expectation, which is where the clear circulation and exchange of information is important. There is a precedent in that area. I hope that she will have time to touch on electronic voting.

Dr Coffey: I certainly will—I assure the hon. Lady of that. I want briefly to flag up some of the other recommendations before coming to the issues on which she spent a lot of time in her speech.

For young people the new education centre has been a huge success and I hope the House will record how successful it has been throughout the United Kingdom.

In terms of the new forum, the cyber chain has been talked about. The Petitions Committee and the debating of e-petitions have probably been the most significant change in that regard. Parliamentary time is provided to the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers, and now the public, through the organisation of petitions, also have time for their business to be debated. That is a welcome step and although it is in its infancy, the hard-working Clerks and the Chairman of the Committee to whom the hon. Lady referred—the interface between the House and the public—who have taken on the challenging job of moderating petitions, are to be commended on their work to extend that engagement.

I was interested in the idea of trying to delay the selection of Westminster Hall debates to a fortnight to have more engagement with civic society. I think that would take away from Members the element of urgency and topicality.

The daily edition of Hansard, one of the key data sets identified by the commission, is now available as open data in a variety of formats. There is still a lot of work to be done on digital media. “Erskine May” is now available freely to Members and their staff on the intranet. I have spoken briefly to a trustee of the May Memorial Fund about the next edition and I have written to him. He has promised to report back to me and I will share his response with the hon. Lady.

On voting, there are two recommendations. I will touch briefly on electronic voting so that I have time to finish on the other one. What can the Government do on electronic voting? The Speaker’s Commission recommended that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Concern remains about the security of e-voting and it is vital that any new system attracts the confidence and trust of voters. Estonia is often mentioned, but turnover has not increased there and it has a compulsory national identity card. Electronic voting is certainly not a priority for the Government, but the experience of elections, and the referendum on Scottish independence, shows that if people are really

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interested in the issue being debated, they will turn out to vote using the existing mechanism. After the drop in the number of people turning out to vote in the 2001 election to 59%, engagement and voter turnout has gradually increased to about 66%.

On Lobby voting, the House service has been investigating the electronic recording of Divisions and the hon. Lady will be aware that we had several attempts in the last Parliament and this. Errors occurred, but were addressed by the tellers to make sure that Members’ votes were recorded. Full implementation of tablet recording of Divisions is expected later in this Session—certainly before the summer—but among the many goals set out by the commission, it recommended retaining the tradition of walking through the Division Lobbies.

The hon. Lady referred to swipe cards and raised issues such as verification. I understand that some of the early scoping and ideas that are being discussed so far suggest that Clerks would still do a physical check to ensure that an hon. Member’s photograph on their swipe card goes with their face.

The hon. Lady referred to fingerprints. I think hon. Members would be anxious about that and I suggest, in the kindest way, that it needs a lot more work and engagement with colleagues. She mentioned 30 people. Scottish National party Members are obsessed with electronic voting because of their experience in the Scottish Parliament, but I suggest that the Procedure Committee should look at that.

On time saving and cost saving, this Parliament debates more than any other Parliament in the world. On average, we have 48 hours of debate every week and perhaps longer when we sit on a Friday. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) seemed to be suggesting that perhaps we should have a shorter schedule.

Meg Hillier: Will the Minister give way?

Dr Coffey: I have only 30 seconds left, and I suggest I continue the debate with her separately because I want to answer the points already raised.

I value the tradition of linking debates to votes, and I think that matters. I realise that the hon. Lady’s swipe card idea would still do that, but the physical presence of MPs really matters. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to abstention. I suggest that voting in both Lobbies is a way to record that now.

On progress,I cannot tell the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch that I have made a timetable. I suggest that considerably more debate needs to be had with a wider range of Members—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Migration into the EU

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered migration into the EU.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. When I stood in this place last year and said that I thought that Germany was bonkers to give permanent residency to all the migrants arriving on the shores of Europe, that was met largely with derision. I stressed the importance of refraining from doing what made us collectively feel better at a time of appalling images of young children drowning on north African beaches and instead supporting pragmatic and moral solutions that represented the views of the British public, but also effectively served the needs of genuine refugees. I stressed that the message that Europe needed to give should be much clearer that those making the journey will not automatically get the right to stay in Europe if they arrive in Europe, and that if we did not break that link, we would have potentially hundreds of millions of people on the move. Within 3,000 km of the Mediterranean, which is four or five days’ drive away, nearly 1 billion people live. If I came from a poorer or less stable country, I might well make what would be a rational decision for my family and myself to move to a more peaceable area such as Europe to settle. However, we have not managed to break that link—that message has not gone out there in the world—and the drowning and the chaos continue. I believe that collectively we in Europe play a part in that, because we have not yet made it clear that if people arrive in Europe, they will not end up staying in Europe. The only people who have really profited from that chaos are the people smugglers.

Since that debate, we have seen the near-collapse of the Schengen agreement as countries opt for razor wire —some of them—over the open borders of the European Union. Sweden is the first casualty as a country that has failed both those whom it was trying to help and its population. With a proud history of taking in refugees from across the globe during the past century, its Government tried to do the right thing, in their view, by taking 200,000 refugees last year, but they have now had to admit that they do not have the financial means to assimilate such numbers and more importantly they have lost the backing of their population. Indeed, this is the great tragedy that seems to be playing out right across Europe. Governments such as those of Germany and Sweden have created a great backlash against even the most deserving people who require support, as a result of what in my view has been incredibly misguided altruism.

Following the debate last September, some newspapers mocked me for a “bizarre rant” in relation to a comment that I had made about a haircut. That only went to strengthen my point that any talk of what we actually do in response to the migrant crisis is almost politically toxic. Only recently, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was accused of using offensive language when making reference to a swarm of migrants in Calais. In my view, the Prime Minister—I am not known for toadying to the Prime Minister—actually has been ahead of the

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game on this and has realised that, if there is fallout from countries such as Syria, we get the most bang for our buck, in terms of aid, if we look after people in the region. The Prime Minister has also been very clear, which many of us have not been, that there is a very clear difference between a refugee and an economic migrant. It is fair to say that he understands the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. We must talk about these issues. He will be aware that in TheTimes and YouGov poll in January 2016—it was very recent—six out of 10 people put immigration and asylum as one of the top three troubling factors facing the country today, so if we do not talk about that as politicians in this place, we are letting our country down.

Mr Holloway: Absolutely. I read an excellent piece in The Guardian, I think, by Nick Cohen, who said that if we really want to help people who find themselves in difficulties, we have to understand that there is a difference between economic migrants and asylum seekers. Indeed, the vast majority of people who come to live in this country are the former. A friend told me earlier that 90% are economic migrants and 8% are asylum seekers.

To go back to the haircut point, the fact remains that people who have successfully claimed asylum in the UK do indeed go back to places that they claimed asylum from. I would like to thank those members of the public who, after the September debate, sent me emails with many examples that they had known in their own lives. I sense that much of the media and much of the political class are rather out of sync with what the British public think about this issue.

Years ago, I lived covertly in the Sangatte Red Cross camp in Calais. I remember arguing with one of the producers when I was editing the piece, because my experience in the Sangatte camp was that most of the people—99%—were fit young men who had paid people smugglers to make that very long journey and were indeed economic migrants, not desperate refugees. I remember having an argument, when we were going to voice the documentary, about the use of the word “refugee” or “economic migrant”.

During the September debate, one hon. Member accused me of being out of step with what the British public feel about accepting large numbers of refugees, but that does not stack up. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK would resettle 20,000 Syrians, a YouGov poll found that 49% of those asked believed that Britain should be accepting fewer or no refugees, which was a 22 percentage point increase from the month before—my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) pointed that out. I was also derided for “blurring” the boundaries between what a refugee is and what a migrant is, but I think that that point is finally beginning to be taken on board, even by Mr Juncker in the European Commission. I argue that not recognising the difference between migrants and refugees has done more damage to the case of genuine refugees, in terms of public opinion, than any ghastly things that have happened in Paris or may have happened in Cologne. Of course, there is an appetite among Europeans to help people, but there is a limit, and that limit comes in earlier when we fail to recognise that distinction. That really helps no one.

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Do not get me wrong. As I have said already, economic migrants make rational choices for themselves and their families, and all of us would do the same, but either we are a nation state or we are not and either we decide who comes into our country or we do not, and at the moment it strikes me that we are not doing that in Europe and we are not doing it in the UK, either.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying. Does that not underline how important it is that Britain remains out of the Schengen area?

Mr Holloway: Absolutely. That was a great bit of foresight, so I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

Some years ago, as a television reporter, I experienced the plight of refugees—as opposed to the economic migrants whom I met in the Sangatte camp—when I was covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia and I lived undercover as a deaf and dumb Bosnian Muslim in Serb territory. I joined Bosnian Muslims and Croats being ethnically cleansed by Serb forces, and we ended up in a refugee camp in, I think, Slovenia—actually, I ended up in prison in Austria, but that is another story. Those people really were refugees. They travelled en masse as families with their possessions over the border into a neighbouring safe country—very different from many young men who travel to a country of their personal choice.

It is hard to swallow the UN figure that 62% of migrants who arrive into Europe must be genuine refugees purely because they come from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Frustratingly, these people continue to be muddled with genuine refugees, and there needs to be a clear distinction. Since September, the enormous number of migrants has continued with some 55,000 making the crossing last month alone, 244 of whom, I regret to say, drowned or are missing. The breakdown of Schengen and the rise of nationalism have been two predictable results of the mismanagement of the crisis by the European Commission. The only encouraging sign is that the Commission has finally admitted that there needs to be some distinction between the treatment of economic migrants and the treatment of refugees.

Last week, it was announced that 40% of migrants, most of whom are Syrian, require international protection. That is a stupendous revelation following much fudging of the figures but it comes too late to stem the millions who are currently en route for Europe. However, despite that realisation, there is still a bit of a gulf between the beliefs of Eurocrats and those of the ordinary man or woman in European cities, including those in Britain. Juncker and many of the political classes are still pushing the view that the Cologne attacks were a public order problem and nothing to do with migrants from different cultures.

The EU has become emblematic of slow growth and rising unemployment. Unemployment across the continent is currently at almost 10% and youth unemployment is almost double that at 20%. Greece and Spain are suffering from youth unemployment rates of nearly 50% and I believe that Italy’s youth unemployment rate is almost 40%. Unemployment is destroying the prospects of a whole generation of young Europeans and the impact of new arrivals can only have a detrimental effect.

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The British Government suggested that immigration should be brought down to tens of thousands—incidentally, a YouGov poll found that 78% of the population thought that that was a good idea—but despite the best efforts of my right hon. Friend the Immigration Minister, it simply has not happened. It is estimated that more than 1 million migrants will end up in Europe this year, and immigration figures for the year ending June 2015 show total net migration of 336,000 into the UK, of whom nearly 200,000 are non-EU migrants. Under the high net migration assumption of 265,000, the population will grow by 12.2 million over the next 25 years.

The European Commission has proved to be inept at dealing with the crisis and continues, implicitly, to encourage more people to make the dangerous maritime crossing instead of staying in safe countries. The epic mismanagement of the crisis has been politically destabilising for all concerned. The British Government need to push for what I think the previous Government referred to as extraterritorial processing centres—reception centres in safe countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which surround the conflict zones. At the same time, we must stop the boats that are endangering lives and reducing the security along European borders.

European countries should indeed do more—as the Prime Minister has been trying to do—to support countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are hosting huge numbers of refugees in proportion to their resident populations. Britain is already the second-biggest bilateral donor supporting Syrian refugees but, of course, more can be done. I read in The Economist that the amount of money spent by the international community on looking after refugees in the region is the same as the amount that German citizens spent on chocolate last year, so there is quite a lot more we can do.

Many Syrian families arriving in places such as Germany are professional, educated people—precisely the sort of people Syria will need in the post-conflict environment. Having hundreds of thousands of its most skilled and educated people relocated in Europe will not be very helpful when things improve. Recent refugees from Syria are more skilled than other groups and those who came, for example, during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Those skilled, middle-class workers will urgently be required when rebuilding Syria, and they will not be a lot of use if they are living in Germany.

The decent and humane response is to have a systematic manner to process and differentiate genuine refugees from economic migrants, to repatriate those who fail the asylum process and, overall, to try to keep people in their home regions. It is immoral to send out messages to people that if they arrive in Europe, they can stay in Europe. We have to accept some culpability for the deaths of men, women and children in the Mediterranean. As I said in a previous debate, the moral conclusion is that, frankly, we should build a great big bridge from Africa because at the moment we are encouraging people to drown at the hands of smugglers.

The Prime Minister’s recent attempts at renegotiation have shown that the EU is pretty unwilling to change. We go cap in hand and get almost nothing. The British Government currently have a raft of legal constraints. Any one of the people arriving in Europe in a year or two would be able to come to live in the UK. It is self-evident that, as a nation state, we no longer have any meaningful control of our borders. While Britain

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remains in Europe, it will be impossible to control our borders—a point that was described by William Hague in 2008.

Europe lacks a collective voice and has had no greater tragedy than in Syria, where the EU has been pretty ineffective over the past few years. A failure to offer real solutions in regional geopolitics and to understand that conflicts sometimes only finish when agreements are made with some pretty unpleasant people has not helped the untold suffering for millions of people in Syria and on its borders. The resulting exodus to Europe and the ensuing mismanagement by the EU has highlighted that the whole European project is destined to fail.

With each of the 28 member states having its own economic limitations, historical memory and political culture, it is impossible to reach an agreement on almost anything bar trade and logistics. The varying attitudes and experiences that each country brings have shown that they cannot be homogenised because there is no political will in each country for the EU’s ultimate political goal, and there lies the problem. The migrant crisis has exposed the unsustainability of the undemocratic and bureaucratic EU.

The suppression of the fervent nationalism that contributed to the second world war was the noble aim of the EU’s founding fathers. Through the EU’s failure to create a robust and systematic way of coping with the migrant influx in a fair way whereby genuine refugees are differentiated from economic migrants, it has destroyed its founding principle. Through epic mismanagement and failure to agree on anything between the 28 member states, Schengen is in ruins as countries rapidly get on with their own solutions. With hundreds of millions of people in the borderlands of Europe suffering oppression or wanting a better life for their families, this tide of migrants will continue until drastic action is taken. For a country such as Britain, that can only happen outside the EU.

The migrant crisis, like nothing else, has tragically exposed the limitations of the European project. Undemocratically elected politicians in Brussels talking of the redistribution of hundreds of thousands of migrants across willing Governments only strengthens the vast gulf between the political classes and the people they are elected to serve. That has had disastrous results for countries such as Sweden. Either we are a nation state, or we are not. Either we are serious about helping the many millions of people affected by war and oppression, or we are not. We—not the German Government, the people smugglers or the EU—need to decide who comes into this country. Britain needs to take firm action, but that can only take place out of the European Union.

2.50 pm

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Rosindell.