On 15th March 2016, Baroness Lister moved an amendment to the Government’s Immigration Bill which would extend the period for those transitioning from asylum support to work or benefits from 28 to 40 days. The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, spoke in support of the amendment. Lord Bates responded on behalf of the Government.
116: After Clause 62, insert the following new Clause—
“Asylum support move-on period
Persons in receipt of asylum support shall cease to receive such support 40 days after receiving a biometric residence permit following the granting of—
(a) refugee status;
(b) humanitarian protection status;
(c) discretionary leave status;
(d) indefinite leave to remain; or
(e) limited leave to remain for 30 months.”
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 116 largely as a result of past involvement with UN gateway resettlement programmes in Norwich for Congolese refugees. I discovered then how long it takes asylum seekers, once granted refugee status, to set themselves up so that they can live as citizens. The transition into work or even to mainstream benefits does not come at all quickly. Applying for national insurance numbers and biometric residence permits is slow going. Completing benefit application forms, and even getting hold of the right ones, is difficult because refugees are not always given the correct advice.
As the noble Baroness has just said, the possibility of getting what was most wanted—refugee status—and then finding that it is followed up by the removal of financial support and no accommodation is not so much an irony as a tragedy. We need a bigger window before asylum support is terminated. Starting the clock only when a biometric residence permit is obtained would inform the situation. I do not need to labour the point because it has already been very well put, but it is a terrible experience for refugees in a country to which they are immensely grateful to then experience the trauma of destitution when they have experienced so much trauma already. I warmly support this very straightforward amendment.
Lord Bates: I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich for bringing forward Amendment 116 concerning the transition off Home Office support of asylum seekers granted refugee status or other leave to remain. I agree with them on the importance of these arrangements, which we discussed at our meeting on 25 February. I also thank the British Red Cross for its excellent work in this area and for its advice ahead of this debate.
We allow a grace period of 28 days before Home Office asylum support ends in these cases. This is to provide time for the person to make other arrangements and move on from Home Office support. Many refugees have much to contribute to our economy as well as to our society, and work and integration go hand in hand. But some need support while they find work. I do not dispute that there is evidence—from the Department for Work and Pensions research in 2013 and the British Red Cross report of 2014; those two dates are relevant to the point I will come on to later—that some newly recognised refugees do not secure DWP benefits within 28 days. But the reasons for this are complex and the evidence does not show that the problem would be easily fixed simply by increasing the grace period to 40 days.
Our investigations into this show that there are two main reasons for delays. First, there is a lack of awareness among refugees of the need to apply for welfare benefits as soon as they are granted refugee status. Of the 16 people sampled in the Red Cross report, only three applied within the first three weeks of being granted status. That is a problem. Of course, they should apply for their biometric residence permit as soon as they get an indication, and that should take just a matter of days.
Help is on hand. I repeat that people are not left on their own with this. They are given advice and leaflets about the information and help that are available to them. Refugees can also seek help from the free telephone advice line run by Migrant Help—an excellent service that the Home Office funds. Migrant Help provides advice and support in building a new life in the UK, including help with housing and other issues. Refugees can also apply for integration loans. These can be used, for example, to pay a rent deposit or for essential domestic items or for work equipment. My point is that when we are identifying the problems, we must first make sure that people who are granted refugee status immediately understand what help is available to them and what they should do next. A new information leaflet for refugees was introduced in July 2015. In oral evidence in 2015 to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee session on benefits, the British Red Cross said the new leaflet provided “good guidance”. It supplements the advice and assistance available from Migrant Help, which I referred to.
Secondly, the DWP research identified occasions on which a lack of awareness among staff of the correct processes contributed to the problem. Updated guidance and instructions have been issued to DWP front-line staff to address this. We welcome the Work and Pensions Committee’s report on benefit delivery published on 21 December 2015, which recommends further work in this area. DWP will respond shortly to the report but intends to carry out an evaluation later this year of the impact of the improvements I have described.
The key point I make to the noble Baroness in assuring her that we take the concerns very seriously is that it is important that we have up-to-date evidence. I mentioned the reports from 2013 and 2014. We are now in 2016. Since those two dates, there has been a significant number of new initiatives and changes. We want to understand what the up-to-date periods of delay are.
The noble Baroness and others have otherwise made a strong and persuasive case for this amendment to which I have listened very carefully. The length of the grace period is set out in the regulations for Section 95 support. I can confirm that, if the further DWP evaluation which will be undertaken later this year—I have referred to that—shows that it is necessary to increase the length of the grace period consistently to enable newly recognised refugees to begin to receive the welfare benefits for which they are eligible before their Home Office support ends, we undertake to return to Parliament with a proposal to amend the regulations to reflect that. Immigration regulations can be amended at any point in time. We are not bound by primary legislation having to go through to do that. We will come back with amended regulations to reflect the evidence which we receive.