Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of Durham tables amendment to restrict use of accommodation centres for families and vulnerable groups of asylum seekers

The Bishop of Durham tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill on 28th February 2022, seeking to restrict the use of accommodation centres for asylum seekers falling under certain categories, such as families and vulnerable adults. The amendment was not moved to a vote, following a response from the government with more information on proposed accommodation:

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I have tabled Amendment 29, with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I declare my interests in relation to RAMP and Reset, as set out in the register.

I have tabled this amendment again because in Committee we did not have as satisfactory a response to our questions as we had hoped on the basic details of what these accommodation centres will look like. We do not know how many or where these will be. We do not know how many people will be accommodated in each one. I am not assured that the previously terrible, and now still wanting, conditions provided at Napier will not be repeated. We are being asked to agree to the use of accommodation centres without any information or reassurances of what they will look like, where they will be, and so on. We can only go on what we see as existing provision on MoD sites. That makes me very concerned—I remind the House that I had the privilege of visiting Napier barracks recently—and gives me strong reason to call for their use to be restricted, so that the vulnerable groups set out in this amendment cannot be accommodated in them. I continue to believe that placing people seeking asylum in housing in communities is much better for everyone.

I therefore ask the Minister for her agreement that we are given opportunities to discuss the design of these centres before the relevant regulations are laid in draft and before contracts are offered. We would like some clarity on when the regulations will be laid, a clear commitment that no unaccompanied children will be placed in such centres, and, although we would prefer no families at all in such centres, if there were to be families with children there, that suitable family accommodation and suitable safety arrangements for them would be provided in them. It is not my intention to press this to a vote. We hope that this debate will give an opportunity for the Minister to place some further reassurances on the record about accommodation.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): I am very pleased to support this amendment. When we debated it in Committee with regard to children and families, the Minister said that there were no current plans to place them in accommodation centres but that if a child was destitute and there was a place for the night, she could not say that the child would not be so placed. However, she promised to think further on the points made and I hope that she has been able to do so. I have two reflections which build on what the right reverend Prelate has said.

First, the Minister suggested that a child in a family, who was destitute, might have to be placed in a centre, but given that she told us that such centres were only for people who are destitute anyway, I am not sure how much comfort to take from that. Can she elucidate further please? Can she also confirm that it would only be for a night, or possibly two, that a family would be housed in an accommodation centre as an exception, which was what she implied? Can she give us an assurance that no family with children will be placed in a centre for more than the briefest of time in an emergency?

The Minister also reminded us that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children would not be placed in such centres. As the right reverend Prelate said, it would be good to have absolute assurance to that effect. Can she tell us what will be the position of a child who turns 18? Might they be moved into such a centre at that point? It is impossible to consider this group without also taking into account the fears expressed by many organisations that the age assessment clauses, which we will debate later, could mean many more children wrongly being assessed as adults. Therefore, in practice, unaccompanied children might be housed in such accommodation, which clearly the Government rightly consider unsuitable for unaccompanied children. What safeguards can there be against that? In Committee, I also asked the Minister what assurances she could give us that the use of accommodation centres will be accompanied by more robust screening and protection than exists at present, to ensure that those with particular vulnerabilities are not housed in such centres.

Baroness Hamwee (LD): My Lords, I do not make light of the difficulty of providing accommodation. Batting the blame between central and local government, as is sometimes done, is not going to advance the issue at all. As the right reverend Prelate has said, the debate in Committee focused on Napier. I thought it rather conflated accommodation of asylum seekers on arrival with long-term accommodation. Only a decade ago, my honourable friend Sarah Teather MP—as she was then—achieved very significant change, as a Minister, in both the law on, and the attitudes towards, the care of children with families in detention and subject to removal. More recently, we have had Stephen Shaw’s report on the impact on vulnerable people, and so on.

I accept that the Minister will say that the accommodation in question is reception and not detention. In a way, that is my point. The objective must be to receive people thoughtfully, humanely and in a welcoming and supportive way. Accommodation centres must not feel like detention. There was some discussion in Committee about whether people would be able to leave them—not for specific appointments, but because they felt like going out for a walk. The way that they are designed, organised and staffed is absolutely essential to their good working. The Explanatory Notes refer to “efficiency”. I do not think that this is incompatible with the approach that I have outlined, but they also refer to “compliance” and that worries me more. I wonder why that merits a separate mention.

This amendment demonstrates the concerns of the sector which arise from experience over a long period. I missed signing it by a couple of minutes on the day it was tabled by the right reverend Prelate. However, on behalf of these Benches, we support it.

Baroness Bennet of Manor Castle (GP): My Lords, I rise very briefly to offer Green support for this amendment and to address one specific point and one specific question. The right reverend Prelate, in introducing this, set out how little we know about what is proposed of these accommodation centres, and how much we know of their horrors. In Committee, the Minister and I discussed a particular horror with which I had personal contact during the Covid pandemic.

I also note that there is a continuing situation where the High Court ruled that people in hotels and other accommodation are entitled to £8 a week to meet some of their basic needs. This includes being able to afford a bus fare to attend an interview, or to buy some basic hygiene products. Looking at the list of people who the right reverend Prelate has included in this amendment, it is worth a question here. Imagine being a parent of a child and not ever being able to buy any sort of treat for your child. If the child really wanted some little piece of food, the parent would not be able to buy it. Instead, they would get only what is provided in the three meals a day in the canteen.

I know that we are still waiting for a description of what these accommodation centres are like. Can the Minister confirm, following the High Court ruling, that there will be at least a very small basic payment for people in the accommodation centres so that they can have some kind of choice and some kind of life?

Lord Rosser (Lab): My Lords, I will certainly wait with interest to hear the response that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham gets to this amendment, because, if I understood him correctly, he said that it is the same amendment he tabled before. I understand that he asked for information and assurances about accommodation centres in Committee, and it is because he did not get them either in Committee or since then—he has had nothing in writing; presumably he asked the questions quite clearly in Committee about what he wanted—that he has had to table this amendment today, and will table it again, seeking to exclude vulnerable groups from the accommodation centres.

I hope that in their response the Government will explain why it has been so difficult to give the right reverend Prelate the answers to the questions he raised last time seeking information and assurances in respect of these accommodation centres. I do not understand what the difficulty can be since, presumably, in putting forward that there will be accommodation centres, the Government have some idea of what they will and will not provide and what they will and will not be like, and are in a position to give assurances when they are sought.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con, Home Office):

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken to this amendment. I just say from the outset that the Bill does not actually create accommodation centres—that was done back in 2005—but when we have more detail on the accommodation centres, I will be very happy to provide it to the right reverend Prelate, including any detail about design.

On the question of how long someone might stay there, the usual time is about six months. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that they have to be humane, welcoming environments.

On the question of who we might accommodate in the centres, as I said before, we will accommodate people only after an individual assessment. There are no current plans to use the centres to house families beyond this. The centres will be used to accommodate only those who require support because they would otherwise be destitute, so those who obtain accommodation with friends or family are not affected by the measure. It is to prevent people becoming destitute. (…)

On whether they are detention centres, the answer is no. I do not think the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was asking whether they were detention centres; she was making the point that they are not detention centres, and that is correct: people are free to move about. Individuals applying for support because they are destitute will naturally be expected to live there because they have nowhere else, but, as I have said, they can leave the centres at any time they wish because they have obtained alternative accommodation.

I had just asked a question of the Box about payment, and I am going to double-check whether I have the answer. Here it is: facilities at the accommodation include catering, therefore individuals will not require cash for food during their stay, but cash might be provided for other essential items not provided in kind. I hope that with that, the right reverend Prelate will be happy to withdraw his amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I thank the Minister. I take very seriously the commitment to ongoing conversations, because the important thing is that the sector and people like us can stay engaged in the conversation to ensure this. We will watch as accommodation centres grow in number so that they are places of welcome and so on, but the purpose was to get some more on the record, for which I thank the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 29 withdrawn.

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