|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The last occasion that noble Lords discussed this matter in detail was in a debate on the regulations initiated by my noble friend Lord Dholakia on 20th April. I do not wish to revisit the ground covered in that debate. Instead, I suggest that, in spite of the great degree of unhappiness expressed about the regulations, what we are dealing with now is the regulations as they are being applied in practice. I contend that the regulations are not being observed properly and people are therefore suffering.
Over 3,000 dispersals have taken place so far under the new system, which was implemented on 3rd April. Those dispersals have been undertaken by NASS. Reports have been received from all around the country that the system is not providing vulnerable asylum seekers with the safe, secure and supportive provision which, not only do they need, but to which they are entitled under the law and under the regulations which have been approved. They are being denied help and services. Furthermore, in many places, they are also being subjected to intimidation and harassment.
A great deal of evidence is being amassed by various bodies, such as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the Refugee Council, local authorities and the media. I have collected quite a lot of evidence from my own contacts around the country and from my own experience. I ask the Government to take this matter seriously and to attempt to do something about it.
My involvement with this issue began in my own area of Pendle, in Lancashire. The first that anyone knew of the fact that NASS was sending anyone to our area was when a young man from a North African country who could not speak any English presented himself at the check-out at Morrison's with his vouchers and managed to make it understood that he wanted English lessons. The person on the check-out had the good sense to refer him to the local FE college. Inquiries that were then made indicated that about 20 people had already been dispersed to Nelson, and there are now about 120 reinforcements.
These are small towns with fairly closely knit communities. There are a large number of people who are used to tackling problems, so people cannot be dispersed to areas such as ours without it being widely known and without an attempt being made to provide them with help, support and assistance. So the initial major area of concern was the question of secrecy. Whenever anyone asked questions, there was a blanket silence, a wall of secrecy.
We discovered that an organisation called the "Burnley and Pendle Housing Agency" was busy trawling for empty houses among house owners in the area and offering them perhaps £40 a week for five years if they would allow the housing agency to take a tenancy. It then become clear that the agency consisted
But there was still a huge blanket of secrecy over everything. In particular, local authorities were being kept in the dark. Local groups were having to find out by accident who the people were and where they were living. The local college, which was providing English classes, was having to arrange them by word of mouth. Whenever people asked, "Why cannot somebody locally be told what is going on, so that they can engage the resources of the community to help?", they were told, "No, it's against the Data Protection Act". They were then told that the information was covered by the Official Secrets Act. Even people offering their houses are made to sign documents promising never to tell anyone that the conversations had taken place or that anything was going on--on pain, it seems, of being locked up in the Tower! They were told that the matter was covered by considerations of commercial confidentiality. Fourthly--at which I pricked up my ears--people were told that nothing could be said until the matter had been raised in Parliament.
Like many other communities around the country, we have experience of dealing with Vietnamese boat people, of the dispersal of Kosovans 12 months ago, and of many other cases. We have a history of welcoming such people, and a history of providing help and support. The way in which this was done, with a great wall of silence, was guaranteed to start the local press sniffing, smelling a rat and creating difficulties among members of the local community, who are rightly asking, "Who are these people who have come to live in our street?"--and no one will give them any information.
There is a great willingness around the country to help, particularly among local authorities. The Chester Chronicle for Friday, 30th June, reported the Conservative county councillor, Neil Fitton, as saying,
The second main area of concern is over the service that is provided by local providers. NASS has contracts with about a dozen national providers and they contract with local landlords and local providers. The local providers are simply not giving the service for which they are paid.
The Model Contract for the Provision of Accommodation and Related Services for Asylum Seekers (Private Sector Providers), which I was able to consult in the Library, makes it clear that a whole series of support services are supposed to be provided for asylum seekers. But the experience of people all over the country is that that is not happening.
The document lists a whole series of services that providers should make available. Without going into detail, the provisions are excellent: there should be full-time, trained staff; there should be police checks where there is contact with children under 18, and so on. I do not believe that any of that is being done by the service providers that I know about in many different areas.
It is stated that interpreters should be available on arrival; that there should be induction to premises; that all necessary safety and operating instructions should be provided; as should a local map; and that providers should facilitate registration with GPs, dentists and local schools. That is not happening according to the information that I have from the length and breadth of the land. All that is happening is that people are turning up once a week to obtain the signatures of the "service users", as the asylum seekers are called, on a piece of paper so that they can send it off and get their money.
It is further stated that details of local solicitors and registration advisers should be available. There is a huge problem over the provision of proper and adequate legal advice to asylum seekers. I was talking to two people only a few days ago. One had a local solicitor who had been signed up for the scheme by the Government. Such people are very competent solicitors, but they do not have a clue about asylum law. People have been seen opening up the books, looking up the regulations, and so on, while interviewing an asylum seeker. They are people who have no experience whatsoever in this field--and why should they have? On the other hand, I spoke to another asylum seeker two days ago who seemed to have an excellent lawyer
The document also states that people should be given contact numbers to phone, that there should be complaints procedures in place, that written material should be provided in an appropriate language, and that occupancy agreements should be in the language understood by the service user. In my experience, none of that is happening.
I can tell noble Lords lots of horror stories but I quote just one involving a traumatised teenage girl from another North African country. Her home was in a village in a war zone which had been recently bombed. She was placed alone in a house without any contacts or knowing anybody. In the middle of the night she awoke with severe stomach pains. The only people she knew were others who had arrived with her on the same bus. They happened to live across the road. She managed to wake them and, somehow, they took her to the casualty department of the local hospital. Two days elapsed before the hospital discovered who she was and why she was there. The hospital only discovered her identity when a teacher in a local FE college was told in an English class that a girl had been taken to hospital. She rang the hospital and spoke to the ward sister, who said, "Thank goodness someone has rung. We have no idea who this girl is". Such events occur because the Government rely on private sector providers at local level to provide a whole range of services of which they have no experience and understanding; and some of them have no intention of providing these facilities.
At the other extreme, people are supposed to be provided with cutlery and crockery. In Nelson it was discovered that most of these people did not have tin-openers. The local support group had a whip round to provide tin-openers.
The vouchers give rise to huge problems. People must have a document to obtain the vouchers and then claim the vouchers. Vouchers appear in Burnley but the documents are sent to Manchester, or vice versa. There is huge confusion and a great many people have to wait weeks and weeks before they receive the vouchers that they are meant to have.
There is one local problem that I have already raised and will continue to raise until it is dealt with. The NASS told me, helpfully, that post offices where vouchers could be obtained should not be more than three miles away. The fact is that Nelson is well over four miles from Burnley. A return on the bus costs £1.30. One has a voucher for goods and also a voucher that can be cashed for £10. To get that £10 one must
What is NASS doing to check it? My honourable friend in another place Simon Hughes has discovered this week from a Question for Written Answer that there are 433 staff employed by NASS: 423 in Croydon and one in each region. Therefore, there are 423 staff in Croydon and one who has just started work in the North West to check up on all these people. I suggest that that balance is wrong.
Around the country there are far worse stories than have occurred in Nelson. I highlight just one. In Chapeltown, Leeds, Angel Group Ltd has two hostels: Angel House and Angel Hall. There have been complaints of cramped accommodation, intimidation and threats by staff and poor food. That accommodation was visited by some BBC journalists this week. While they were there drug dealers were dealing in heroine outside during the day and a young lady was offering her services on the opposite corner. Recently, a shotgun has been fired into those premises. One of the asylum seekers has been stabbed. That area is totally unsatisfactory to house these people, yet it happens because it is organised by people purely on the basis of housing. People are asked whether they have accommodation. If they do they are allowed to provide it regardless of other factors.
I could also talk about racist attacks around the country which the Refugee Council is monitoring. Perhaps the Minister will follow up that matter. There is a good deal of profiteering going on. The going rate for accommodation in the private sector is about £110 per week per asylum seeker. In Nelson three or four asylum seekers are housed in small two up and two down terraced houses which have separate rooms and communal kitchen and bathroom facilities. Those houses are rented to local providers for £40 per week. Therefore, perhaps £300 to £400 is being shared between the national providers and local agents. If one deducts the £40 per week for the cost of the accommodation and bears in mind that the services being provided are the absolute minimum, a good profit is being made by the companies engaged by the Home Office and NASS.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page