Easton Labour Councillor Ruth Pickersgill was today praised in Parliament for her longstanding work supporting Bristol’s refugees and asylum seekers by Bristol West’s Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire.
Thangam’s speech can be read in full below, and the full Westminster Hall debate found here.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing the debate. I shall try hard not to repeat what has already been said, so there are lots of crossings out in my notes, but I want to try to pin the Minister down, and I hope she will respond on some specifics.
Someone who was forced to make the heart-rending decision to leave their home, family, friends and community, and who made a long, perilous journey to reach a place of sanctuary and safety, would hope to be welcomed by a country that wanted to pride itself on the welcome it gave to victims of torture and conflict. However, as other Members have said, for too many the welcome is to unhygienic, unsafe and unpleasant accommodation—for which the taxpayer is paying. That serves no one, and I hope that the case has already been made powerfully enough to mean that the Minister will want to take up the cause.
The Government should have known the situation long ago, because the contracts in question are Government contracts, but even if that was not the case, last December’s report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on asylum accommodation should have made the matter clear. I have personally seen cases, through visiting asylum accommodation in my constituency. I have also talked to survivors of torture and trafficking, and to other people who have been in the asylum system. The report made it clear that the incidents in question are not exceptions proving any sort of rule of an otherwise well functioning asylum system. They are symptomatic of wider problems, but they also show specific deficiencies in the design and delivery of the asylum accommodation contracts.
I agree wholeheartedly with the organisations that have provided helpful briefings, some of which are represented in the Public Gallery today. They include Asylum Matters, Freedom from Torture, Doctors of the World, the Refugee Council and many other third sector organisations, as well as others from my constituency, such as Bristol Refugee Rights, Borderlands, Bristol Hospitality Network and Aid Box Community. Also, Councillor Ruth Pickersgill goes above and beyond any example I have known, as a councillor supporting refugees and asylum seekers. All of them have told me that the situation must change. The new asylum accommodation and support services contracts should be an opportunity to right the wrongs and ensure that taxpayers’ money funds decent accommodation, reflecting us as the compassionate and welcoming country that we want to be. I therefore ask the Minister whether she will commit to publishing at least the statement of requirements and performance management regime for the new contracts.
Those of us who have visited asylum accommodation or discussed it with refugees and asylum seekers, as well as with the Government, know that if the implementation of the contracts is delayed, or if providers fail to live up to the terms, local authorities, third sector organisations and compassionate individuals will pick up the pieces, but that is not a good way of running the system. We need nothing short of a completely new approach to the way we take responsibility for refugees. The Minister has been very welcoming to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others in discussing necessary changes, but I want to remind her of how those changes connect to housing. On a global level, the UN global compact on refugees provides a helpful model on resettlement. The Minister knows that I want an end to indefinite detention, particularly for survivors of torture but also for other vulnerable people such as victims of trafficking; increased places on resettlement schemes; the comprehensive introduction of classes in English for speakers of other languages; the abolition of healthcare charges; and the right for asylum seekers to work after six months. Those things could all help to ease the pressure on accommodation, but they would also all require the accommodation to be good.
I invite the Home Office and the Minister to let politicians, local authorities and others, and the public, see what is behind the curtain, and to open the tendering process to proper scrutiny. The quality of the welcome that we extend speaks volumes about who we are and want to be. We are at a pivotal moment. Britain’s place in the world has rarely been subject to so much scrutiny. Sanctuary with dignity and respect for people fleeing unimaginable horror will send out an important and powerful message about who we are.