Bishop of Durham leads House of Lords debate on Refugee Welcome report

On the 19 July 2017 the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler held a short debate on the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, Refugees Welcome? The Experience of New Refugees in the UK. The Bishop  asked the Government to appoint a Minister for Refugees and to implement the report’s call for a national refugee integration strategy. Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State at the Home Office responded to the debate for the Government. Her speech and that of the Bishop, are reproduced in full below. All speeches in the debate can be read in full: here

The Lord Bishop of Durham: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, Refugees Welcome? The Experience of New Refugees in the UK, published on 25 April.

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The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to introduce this short debate on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees’ report, Refugees Welcome?. It was a privilege to serve on this group. It was also often disturbing to hear the stories of those who, having experienced years of difficulty as asylum seekers, found the joy of being finally given refugee status taken away by the poor ways in which they were then treated. As a nation, we had agreed that they deserved to be fully welcomed—but our systems often left them bereft and destitute. As the report makes clear, we have work to do as a nation to ensure that those who we have agreed are refugees and whom we believe have much to offer our land are made truly welcome.

A couple of months ago, I hosted an evening about community sponsorship of refugees in my diocese. During the course of promoting the event, a member of my staff was contacted by a Syrian who had previously been resettled locally. He made contact to let us know that not only would he be attending but that he would be happy to assist if we needed any help with the organisation of the event. The welcome that he had received made him passionate about offering a welcome to others. His story demonstrates that we are able to get it right. The problem is that we have great inconsistency and lack a well-integrated strategy and system.

Defining successful integration is incredibly complex, but I think my Syrian story gives a picture of it: someone is well-integrated when they want and are able to give of themselves for others in the community that they have entered. Members of Survivors Speak Out gave a similar message when they described integration to the APPG inquiry. One said it was, “the ability to feel at ease in the new country whilst also not forgetting your own culture”.

Another said that integration was, “when you feel really proud to be British”, while a third described it as, “being able to participate in social life here and be part of the community”.

These aspirations are not exclusive to refugees. They are things that we all want for ourselves and those we love. Similarly, integration is not something that you can do to an individual; it is a process that a whole community must go through. The findings of the report emphasise that successful refugee integration takes a whole-society approach; it is a two-way process. It is as much about capacity building in communities as about building resilience in individuals. This requires action from both civil society and government. That is why we should welcome both the innovation of the community sponsorship scheme and the inclusion in the Cabinet of the Minister for Immigration—but more needs to be done.

During the course of this inquiry, it became clear that the difficulties facing refugees extend beyond a simple lack of co-ordination. Instead, refugees find themselves up against processes that are in some sense biased against their success. One prominent example of this is the perilously short time that refugees have to move on from their support once their refugee status is confirmed. The stories that we heard suggest that the destitution of the vulnerable, whom we have committed to welcome, is currently a structural feature of the system. We can and should fix these structural and process issues. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who also served on the APPG, and perhaps others, will outline more specifics of how we could do so. But I want to take a step back and ask what we need to put in place to prevent instances emerging in the first place. The report’s answer has two parts: a national integration strategy and a Minister for refugees to implement it.

Throughout the inquiry, discussion kept returning to the importance of an integration strategy. While it was mainly policy specialists who made this point to us, you do not have to spend years immersed in refugee resettlement and Home Office policy to think that having a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to achieve it might be worthwhile. A strategy becomes particularly urgent when we consider all the competing priorities in government. Unless we have a strategy by intention, we are left with a strategy by implication, dictated by other priorities. Our work with refugees needs to be led by and organised around a vision for thriving individuals and communities. At present, the report makes clear that refugee support is often organised by the quirks of the DWP and short-term cost cutting. Refugees deserve better. As it happens, so do our national finances.

So a specific national refugee integration strategy makes sense. All the evidence indicates that it would have a positive impact on outcomes for refugees and, through them, for wider society. Still Human Still Here and Refugee Action both highlighted the positive role of previous UK-wide strategies in securing better outcomes. It is therefore also in our own best self-interest. Simply enfolding it into a broader social integration strategy will not be adequate. There are specifics about refugee integration that need their own clear strategy. According to the Scottish Refugee Council, the Scottish experience demonstrates that even the process of designing a strategy is beneficial, simply in getting all stakeholders around the table and buying into a common vision.

Over the course of the inquiry we identified six areas that any national refugee strategy should address: first, transition from asylum support to other forms of financial support and accommodation; secondly, ESOL provision; thirdly, employment and training; fourthly, health and well-being; fifthly, access to education; and sixthly, community empowerment. I trust that subsequent contributions may draw out some specifics in these areas.

The inquiry also heard about the importance of monitoring outcomes. While monitoring has previously taken place, Refugee Action noted that there are no current data on levels of employment rates of refugees and the number accessing ESOL classes. Before we even consider how to improve refugee integration, we need to know where we are as well as where we are trying to get to.

The Government already recognise the importance of outlining targets for refugees. The Government have produced a statement of requirements for local authorities for those resettled under VPRS. This captures a wider theme that emerged during the course of the report: the harm caused by the current two-tier system. I have seen first-hand the hurt and confusion caused to those who have not come through VPRS when they see the greater resources for ESOL and other provision available to those who have. Unequal treatment is causing resentment and actively impeding integration for those arriving under both schemes. There is of course something helpful in having a variety of parallel schemes: it becomes apparent what works. Best practice for VPRS is already being shared horizontally between local authorities. My hope is that the report will help the process of sharing best practice across all levels of government and all parts of the UK.

The work of discovering, implementing and sharing best practice needs a champion in government. The decision to end the role of Minister for Syrian Refugees was regrettable, particularly just as the legislative agenda threatened to sideline refugees. We are fortunate to have many Members across both Houses and all parties who are passionate about welcoming refugees, including the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. Yet, as my brief outline hopefully demonstrates, improving integration is an incredibly complicated task. It will involve at least the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and DCLG. Meaningful improvement across this number of departments will not take place naturally. If we are serious about leading the way in responding to the global refugee crisis, we need a Minister to head it up.

It was noteworthy how many agencies we heard from that operate in the voluntary sector. Refugees themselves offering evidence also spoke highly of the support that they received from such organisations, nationally and locally. It was heartening to see evidence of the work of churches during the course of the inquiry. Churches have been and plan to be at the heart of welcoming refugees to our country. We do so to join in the work of the one whom the psalmist describes as, “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows”, who, “sets the lonely in families”.

We are a welcomed people who desire to welcome others. We join faith and other communities in being committed to playing our part in improving the welcome offered to refugees. We are not simply asking the Government to do something for us, though obviously the report recommends specific action from them. Instead, the report is an invitation to work with us so that the whole of British society can benefit from the full contribution of those who have chosen, and have been chosen by, Britain.

In conclusion, will Her Majesty’s Government appoint a Minister for refugees? Will they implement the report’s call for a national refugee integration strategy? Will they seek to ensure that, when people are given refugee status, their experience will consistently be one of support and welcome rather than the varied and often distressing experience that is the reality for too many at present?


The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate and all noble Lords who have taken part in it. We are grateful to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees for its report and the opportunity to debate it this evening.

As the report highlights, the point at which someone is granted protection or resettled in the UK and the time thereafter can be absolutely critical to the integration process. This is more important than ever given the Government’s commitment to resettle 23,000 refugees on top of our long-standing resettlement schemes, as my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning pointed out. This commitment to resettle refugees involves not only central government but the work of local authorities and local sponsorship groups.

Last year—noble Lords referred to this—the Government launched the community sponsorship scheme, a pioneering initiative that enables community groups to welcome and support vulnerable refugee families into their communities. Many noble Lords referred to the Canadians. I met with some of them last night when I was in Manchester celebrating their community sponsorship scheme in Trafford—one of the first ones launched. I was delighted to meet a little boy who spoke perfect English with a Mancunian accent. He told me that he did not support United—who of course are based in Trafford—but supported City. He was a delightful child. Meeting the people last night was proof that community groups provide warm and welcome support for refugee families, including in housing, English language tuition, access to local services, employment and self-sufficiency.

All refugees in the UK should and do have broadly the same entitlement to public services and mainstream benefits as British citizens. However, integration goes far wider than that. It also involves a respect for our laws and values, and a willingness to participate in the society to which the new refugee has become connected.

The report touches on some important points and I shall try to respond to them in turn. The first, widely mentioned, point is the “move on” period, about which |I know the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is particularly concerned—but others also referred to it Where an asylum seeker and any dependants supported by the Home Office are granted asylum, humanitarian protection status or another form of leave to remain, Home Office support continues for a period of 28 days —something of which noble Lords are well aware. The purpose of the 28-day period is to allow newly recognised refugees and those granted leave to remain the time to obtain employment or to apply for any mainstream welfare benefits to which they may now be entitled.

We are aware that some refugees have not been able to access these benefits before the 28-day period elapses, and this is why the Home Office and DWP have been working together to establish a new procedure to ensure that recognised refugees are able to access welfare support as soon as possible. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, pointed out some of the impediments.

Recognised refugees are contacted by Home Office staff at the point they are granted refugee status, and if they need assistance an appointment is made for them with the DWP vulnerable persons service. This service assists individuals with their benefits application and with other matters, including setting up a temporary Post Office account for their benefits payments to be paid into if they do not yet have a bank account.

The noble Baroness also mentioned that a full evaluation is being undertaken, and the initial results are promising. We are committed to ensuring a smooth transition from Home Office support to mainstream support and have previously stated in this House that if our evaluation shows that the current 28-day move-on period is not enough, we will look again at the appropriate time period. I confirm once again to the noble Baroness that we will keep Parliament and this House updated on that.

On access to employment, noble Lords will be aware that asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK unless their claim has been outstanding for at least 12 months through no fault of their own. Those who are allowed to work are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list published by the Home Office. This policy is designed to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and those lawfully resident here, including those granted refugee status.

Those who are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, including those who are resettled to the UK, have immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market. Finding work is a key stage of becoming a part of your new community. In particular, it allows individuals to move towards becoming self-sufficient. We are aware, however, that for refugees it is particularly difficult to find employment, not least because of the language barriers referred to previously. I will explain how we seek to address that through provision in language skills.

In our approach to skills training overall, we aim to create a fair balance between the investment made by government, the employer and the individual. Adults who are granted refugee status are as eligible for funding from the Skills Funding Agency as any other resident and are not subject to the normal three-year qualifying period. The Government have to identify how to prioritise public funding and we think that this is an appropriate balance that is supportive of refugees. At the moment, it is too early to tell how access to the labour market and skills training will work out for refugees who arrive through the resettlement programme. Many of them will be here because of vulnerability and this may affect the length of time needed and the support needed for them to access the labour market when compared with others.

Language skills are clearly key to participation in the labour market and the ability to speak English is also a key enabler to successful integration. The basis of our work in this area is the support that the Government provide for learning English to speakers of other languages, known as ESOL, as part of a wider strategy to improve adult literacy in England. Colleges and training providers have the freedom and flexibility to determine how they use their adult education budget to meet the needs of their communities. They are required to plan which ESOL courses they deliver locally, within their resources, and through this they can meet the needs of newly recognised refugees. We do expect those attending to make a contribution to some of the cost of ESOL training, but not to all the costs. In fact, we meet 50% of the costs, and all the costs where people need ESOL training to get off benefits and into work.

We also recognise that voluntary and community-based groups can play a valuable role in helping individuals improve their English. Again, I have seen this at first hand in Manchester. They provide support, access to more information, a stronger sense of belonging, and the opportunity to help others and to increase personal skills, all of which are opportunities that should not be underestimated, and we welcome this involvement. On top of that, we are doing more as we learn about the experience of the groups who are arriving for resettlement and who have been identified as having particular vulnerabilities. We are tackling some of the difficulties that they face in attending English language classes. To support local authorities with addressing these difficulties, an additional £10 million has been provided so that they can deliver additional English language training for those arriving under the resettlement programme. A proportion of the funding, up to 25%, can be used to increase infrastructure, for example on training teachers and tackling barriers to accessibility.

Recognising that the need for childcare is a particular barrier to accessing ESOL, we have made additional funding of £600,000 available to local authorities in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, and £500,000 in 2019-20 to enable them to provide additional childcare. We are also providing funding for regional ESOL co-ordination via strategic migration partnerships to promote best practice and map provision, along with support for authorities to commission services and co-ordinate volunteers.

I will turn now to children, as they get a special mention in the report. All children are entitled to free primary and secondary education. This is because the Government recognise that children are children first and foremost and we do not distinguish based on immigration status. Children in full-time education will receive English language support in schools. Further financial support for English as an additional language can be provided and the decisions are made at a local level.

Turning now to the findings of the report on family reunion, we support the principle of family unity and recognise the role it can play in supporting integration. The UK already has several routes for families to be reunited safely. We have reunited more than 23,000 refugees with their immediate family in the last five years and continue to do so. As the report highlights, the point at which someone is granted protection or resettled in the UK and the time thereafter can be critical to the integration process. It is more important than ever, given the UK Government’s commitment to resettling 23,000 refugees on top of our long-standing resettlement schemes.

I am aware that time has moved on and that I will not be able to answer all the additional points which have been made in the debate. I thank all noble Lords for taking part. There are some specific questions which have been put to me, but in 12 minutes I cannot go through them all. I hope that I have outlined the points made in the report and I will write to noble Lords in due course.

(via Parliament.UK)