Asylum and Migration

– in the House of Commons am 2:50 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2024, for expenditure by the Home Office:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £5,302,799,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 500,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £578,474,000, be authorised for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £3,400,000,000, be granted to His Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 2:52, 14 Mawrth 2024

Let me start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate.

I think we can all agree that it is an important and vital job for Parliament to scrutinise Government spending in general, and in this particular case the Home Office budget for the purposes of asylum and migration—an issue that I know every Member of the House cares about, and one that the public are rightly concerned about as well. Over the past five years, the Home Office’s asylum support, resettlement and accommodation budget has increased by 733%, which represents a quarter of the Department’s total expenditure.

It is, of course, the Home Office’s responsibility to enable scrutiny to take place with the timely provision of clear and transparent information, but the Home Affairs Committee has been repeatedly hamstrung by its refusal to disclose key details of its spending plans and commitments. We have had to ask for information repeatedly, and on several occasions we have worked with the Public Accounts Committee to obtain financial details which I believe should have been readily available to us.

As the House will know, the terms of reference for the Home Affairs Committee are to examine

“the expenditure, administration, and policy of the Home Office and its associated public bodies.”

We do that, of course, on behalf of the House of Commons as a whole. Ministers should not need to be reminded that parliamentary scrutiny is not a disposable luxury. The Home Office says that it welcomes scrutiny, but unfortunately we have not found that to be the reality. I would argue that scrutiny is a basic necessity to ensure that public money is spent well, appropriately and wisely, but time and again our demands for financial transparency have been rebuffed by the Department, keeping Parliament and therefore the public in the dark about how it is spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Members of the House have therefore not been able to ask crucial questions about spending plans until long after the money has left the Government coffers. Today’s debate will shine a light on the position of the Home Office, and highlight the urgent need for Ministers to change their approach to being scrutinised.

I will set out the current position of the Home Office. It has requested £5.9 billion in additional funding through the supplementary estimates—£4 billion for asylum, £1.2 billion for the implementation of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the 10-point plan, and £0.5 billion for the Afghan resettlement schemes. I turn first to the Home Office’s spending on the asylum system. In publishing and setting out its plans on asylum for the year, the Department has not disclosed its spending plans and commitments in a timely manner, preventing full and proper parliamentary scrutiny. What seems to have happened is that the Home Office, in agreement with the Treasury, completely omitted a significant proportion of expected asylum expenditure from its main estimates. This means that Parliament will not get to scrutinise the Department’s spending plans until after the money has been spent.

The Department is now seeking retrospective approval at the supplementary estimates stage, which goes against the principles of the estimates approval process. Given all the sophisticated modelling that it has at its disposal, I question why the Home Office was not in a position to make available at least a notional figure to put into its budget, which would have needed to increase if necessary. It is wrong that nothing was put in the budget at the start. On 1 February this year, the Home Secretary requested an emergency drawdown of £2.6 billion from the reserves, because the Department had run out of money before the supplementary estimates had been approved.

Further, the level of detail provided on asylum spending in the supplementary estimates is inadequate. A much more detailed breakdown of the asylum budget is required to fully understand the cost drivers and to hold the Department to account for the decisions it is taking. Sadly, that is not what we have been given. Expenditure on asylum has increased rapidly over the past two years. We know that levels of migration have increased due to the number of small boat crossings, the war in Ukraine and the Afghan resettlement schemes, and the departmental settlement in the 2021 spending review was insufficient to cope with the growing pressures. As such, the Department has made large claims on the reserves, as well as extending its use of the official development assistance budget.

Some pressures on the Home Office’s budget are beyond the Department’s immediate control, but others are not. For example, it is down to the Department to decide how it delivers accommodation for asylum seekers. The Home Affairs Committee is very concerned that the former chief inspector of borders and immigration has said that the Home Office did not appear to have an asylum accommodation strategy. Of course, the use of hotel accommodation is due to the backlog—or, as the Home Secretary corrected me at the Home Affairs Committee, the “queue”. It is apparently not a backlog anymore, but a queue. The queue has been allowed to develop because of the failure of the Home Office to invest in processing asylum claims in an efficient way over a number of years. That has resulted in a much larger bill for accommodation, which we are now having to deal with.

We know that the Home Office is currently spending £8 million a day on accommodating asylum seekers in hotels, which amounts to £2.9 billion a year. Despite the Home Office spending a huge amount, it is not predominantly the Department’s money, because the first 12 months of an asylum seeker’s accommodation is funded through the official development assistance budget. Between 2021-22 and 2023-24, Home Office usage of the ODA budget increased by 226%, from £981 million to £3.2 billion. That forced the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to cease all non-essential programmes, as spending was redirected domestically. The implications have been heavily criticised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the International Development Committee.

Also, the Illegal Migration Act, if implemented in full, will restrict the Home Office’s ability to use the official development assistance budget for asylum seekers, as migrants arriving irregularly will no longer be able to seek asylum.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The right hon. Lady is making an important point about the use of ODA. Does she agree that nothing is forcing the Government to spend ODA in that way? Even if the expenditure has to be counted as ODA, they could make up for it in the FCDO budget. The Government have made a choice to take money away from the FCDO and spend it via the Home Office.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a Government choice. Does the Minister think that spending £3.2 billion on asylum accommodation in the UK is an appropriate use of the ODA budget? What does he say about the FCDO having to cease all its non-essential programmes, which could be important to ensuring that people stay in their home country, rather than feeling that they have to become a migrant? Does he have a plan for how the Home Office will fund asylum accommodation if it can no longer take money from the ODA budget?

One of the Home Office’s alternative approaches to accommodating some asylum seekers—a maximum of around 500 at a time—is the Bibby Stockholm barge. In January 2024, the Home Office’s permanent secretary informed the Home Affairs Committee that it costs £120 a night to accommodate a man on the Bibby Stockholm, as compared with £140 a night in a hotel. That figure is based on full occupancy, but the barge was not fully occupied when we visited in January, and we were led to believe that it will never reach its full capacity of 500. We are also aware that the initial figure did not include the barge’s set-up costs, which amounted to around £22 million. The permanent secretary assured us that when set-up costs were included,

“there is a total-life saving from use of the Bibby Stockholm of £800,000.”

However, we understand that the contract for the barge is for only 18 months. Can the Minister say over what period the total-life saving is calculated? At what level of occupancy does the Bibby Stockholm cease to be value for money? What figures has the average cost per person per night fluctuated between over the past year?

We put all these questions to the permanent secretary, and I am aware that the National Audit Office is conducting a value-for-money audit of asylum accommodation, which will not be published until 22 March. In recent oral evidence sessions with Ministers, the Home Affairs Committee has repeatedly asked about the finances of the Bibby Stockholm and other asylum accommodation sites, but sadly with few meaningful replies.

What specifically is driving the capital budget increase in asylum costs? In the Home Office’s proposal, the capital departmental expenditure limit budget will go up to £1,399,800,000—an increase of £468.5 million. That is a more than 50% increase on the initial budget of £931.3 million. Is that due to the Prime Minister’s announcement in June 2023 that two other barges had been procured, in addition to the Bibby Stockholm—there is no explicit reference to that in the estimates memorandum —or is it for the additional detention facilities required under the Illegal Migration Act?

Secondly, why did the cost of processing an asylum claim go from £9,000 in 2019 to £21,000 in 2022-23? That is a real-terms increase of 109%.

Again, Home Office spending on the UK-Rwanda partnership is a familiar story. The Home Affairs Committee has finally been able to glean that large sums of money have been committed to this scheme, but largely via retrospective disclosures and an accidental leak in an International Monetary Fund board paper in Rwanda. The Committee has, once again, had to join forces with the Public Accounts Committee to ask the National Audit Office to find out the costings of the scheme. I reiterate that it is very unsatisfactory that when we have been holding our normal scrutiny sessions with Ministers and officials to try to get detail on spending and any further commitments, we have repeatedly been met with silence from Ministers and been told to wait until the accounts for the Department are published at the end of the financial year.

Let us be clear: the failure to respond to our requests is not because anyone behind the scenes has judged the value-for-money test of this policy to be so overwhelmingly watertight that disclosures to Parliament are completely unnecessary, unsatisfactory as that would be. On the contrary, the permanent secretary required a ministerial direction in April 2022 to start implementation of the Rwanda partnership, because he judged that there was insufficient evidence of the deterrent effect that had been suggested, and therefore of the scheme being value for money. That ministerial direction has not been revoked, and it is in force today, with even more money being committed to this scheme. As the Institute for Government points out, permanent secretaries have a duty to seek a ministerial direction if they think a spending proposal breaches the value-for-money criteria—that is,

“if something else, or doing nothing, would be cheaper and better”.

That makes it even more important that Parliament can scrutinise this scheme and have the full costs available.

Less than two weeks ago, we learned, via the National Audit Office investigation that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and I had sought, that the UK Government have committed to making payments to cover asylum processing and operational costs, and an integration package, for each individual relocated to Rwanda, and that these payments can last for five years and total £150,874 per person. Ministers had previously indicated that the per-person payments in the Rwanda scheme would be similar to the per-person cost of processing claims in the UK. Asked at the Home Affairs Committee what the UK processing cost was, the then Minister responsible for illegal migration said that it was £12,000, although we now know that it is £21,000.

Here is what else we have learned: the Home Office has committed to pay the Rwandan Government £370 million under the economic transformation and integration fund. It will also pay an additional £20,000 per individual relocated, and a further £120 million once 300 people have been relocated. That is in addition to the £150,874 per person for asylum processing and operational costs. On top of that, we also have the direct costs incurred by the Home Office in managing and overseeing the scheme and transporting people to Rwanda. As of February 2024, the Home Office had incurred costs of £20 million, which it expects to rise to £28 million by the end of 2023-24. The Home Office estimates that it will incur further costs of approximately £1 million per year in staff costs and £11,000 per individual for flight costs. It would be helpful if the Minister could let the House know whether he now has an airline available to remove people to Rwanda, because that is another question to which we have not been able to get an answer.

The Home Office will also incur costs to escort individuals to Rwanda, including training costs of £12.6 million in 2024-2025 and £1 million per year thereafter in fixed costs, plus further escorting costs that are dependent on the number of flights required. That does not include the wider costs of implementing the Illegal Migration Act 2023, such as the cost of providing sufficient detention facilities to hold people before they are relocated. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain what arrangements are in place for that; that is linked to my question on capital costs.

Will the Minister comment on whether it was a mistake not to make the full set of costs I have just listed known to Members of this House, especially given that Members were legislating on this policy but did not have the information available on cost to make a judgment on value for money? Why did it require an investigation by the National Audit Office to get basic, factual information? Does the Minister think that the permanent secretary is wrong in his assessment that there is insufficient evidence

“to demonstrate that the policy will have a deterrent effect significant enough” to justify its cost? Is the Minister also able to assist the House on the number of people who will be sent to Rwanda under the Illegal Migration Act after the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is enacted?

In recent days, it has appeared that the Government will offer asylum seekers whose applications are unsuccessful £3,000 to relocate to Rwanda voluntarily, alongside those forcibly removed under the scheme, and that they too will be entitled to support for five years.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right: the justification that we hear time and again from those on the Government Benches for the Rwanda scheme is that it will break the business model of the people smugglers and traffickers. Does she think that providing a voucher scheme for people traffickers is going to break their business model?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point very clearly. To go back to that new development that we have heard about in recent days, will the Minister be clear with the House about what offer is being made for voluntary relocation? How many individuals will be eligible for the scheme? How much has the Home Office budgeted in total for support costs? The press are reporting that Home Office officials are calling asylum seekers to ask them if they would like to be sent to Rwanda. Is that correct?

In conclusion, for Parliament to be able to do its job, we need a major culture change at the Home Office. Calls for financial information must never be treated as irritating requests to be swatted away; they should be treated as part of the effective lifeblood of scrutiny and good governance. Big question marks hang over Ministers’ spending decisions on asylum and migration, particularly on accommodation and the UK-Rwanda partnership. If the Home Office is confident about how it plans to spend public money, it should have no problem letting Parliament see the full details in advance of how that money will be spent. If it is not confident, then it must change tack, let the light of scrutiny into the Home Office, and develop spending plans that it is willing to share with Parliament and the public.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Ceidwadwyr, Witham 3:11, 14 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful and considered remarks of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and her forensic analysis of the funding. That funding has not been as transparent as it should have been, and I will expand on that point.

I am pleased to be able to speak on the estimates for the Home Office, and to make some wider observations about expenditure. Controlling expenditure in any Government Department has its challenges, especially when events and circumstances, largely beyond the control of any Minister or Government, land on a Government. The covid pandemic, during which I was at the Home Office, was one example of that. There have been other unforeseen events, such as the war in Ukraine, although there was some planning for that, and Operation Pitting, which was a significant cross-Government initiative; funding for its operational costs was worked out by Departments after the event. As a result of such events, spending profiles change.

I can say this because I was in the Treasury a long time ago, and people know my view on fiscal form and fiscal fitness in government: domestic events can create inflationary pressures, just as macro-global economic pressures such as the war in Ukraine can. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee pointed out the inflationary pressures that were created during the pandemic, because the Government effectively had a monopoly on hotel rooms, which drove prices up. There was no real alternative that could have been adopted, because the Government did not have a plan. I will come on to the type of plan that would not have led to the fiscal situation in which the Home Office now finds itself.

During the pandemic, inevitably, public health advice relating to asylum accommodation resulted in the Government no longer being able to detain people, and distancing measures in asylum accommodation being put in place. That led to the use of hotels and a response to the growth of illegal migration, as highlighted by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. Helpful financial numbers provided by the House of Commons Library show an increase in the figures over the past five years. Moreover, since the publication of the baseline figures of the last spending review settlement, increases have gone up by 110%, so, clearly, there are some significant challenges in this area.

As the wonderful figures in the Treasury’s supplementary estimates demonstrate, the Home Office has a wide range of responsibilities, including vital work around counter-terrorism activities, keeping our streets safe, supporting the police uplift programme, and the work around violence reduction units, which were announced by the Chancellor last week. A lot of the investment that has gone into tackling domestic violence against women and girls, and the lead that the Department has taken on modern day slavery, are critical. That is now business as usual and absolutely important.

The documents mention the responsibilities around issuing visas and passports, and the income and revenue that comes in from that to sustain the system. Then we have control of our borders, immigration and asylum matters. At the heart of these activities must be transparency. Ministers and budget holders must always put transparency and value for money at the forefront of their actions. My mantra was very well known in every Government Department in which I served: we must follow the money, people, activities and outcomes and be fiscally responsible.

As this debate has shown, thanks to the introductory remarks from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, we must have transparency. It is right that there is accountability and transparency around our key policy decisions, but having seen the figures in the supplementary estimates covering the Home Office, including more than £4 billion of additional funding for resourced staff, asylum support and resettlement and accommodation, a number of issues have been raised, which I know the Minister will seek to address in his response.

I will, if I may, mention something that has been touched on already, which is asylum accommodation. It is obvious that that is not working. Serious questions need to be asked of the Department in relation to ministerial directions and decisions over, at least, the past 14 months. Again, that goes to my point about public expenditure and transparency—and I will come on to Rwanda shortly. Many of the proposals link in with the Nationality and Borders Act 2022—I know that the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the Illegal Migration Act 2023 as it now is.

When I was in the Home Office, we developed the new plan for immigration, which provided a clear policy on not just asylum accommodation, but reform of the entire system. That enabled us to break down the ultimate cost and be quite transparent about that when planning for future accommodation needs. We were working to establish Greek-style reception centres and to increase detained sites. We wanted not even to use hotels, but to have Government-funded accommodation, which would have assisted the Government in processing claims quickly and promptly. Clearly, that is the crux of the matter, as the Chair of the Select Committee has pointed out, with processing claims going up by more than 100%. Serious questions need to be asked. Why, for example, was the digital level of processing asylum claims that would have taken place in these centres not forthcoming? Why did that information not materialise? That was only one aspect of what should have been the new plan for immigration. Implementing these serious measures would have led to financial transparency and, quite frankly, accountability around public spending.

It would also have had a deterrent effect on those trying to enter the UK through dangerous and illegal routes, reducing the pull factor by having accommodation that is about not just moving from one hotel to another, but processing claims in these centres and having cost-effective solutions. The development of the site at Linton-on-Ouse is one example. That site should have been up and running by October 2022 and would now be in use, supporting the efforts to tackle illegal migration by accommodating more than 1,500 people, addressing some of those wider issues that the Government at the time sought to address. There were, of course, start-up costs involved, but they are all now blended into the estimates, the supplementary estimates and the £4 billion of additional spending being retrospectively sought. As a result of abandoning the plans, the Home Office has, again, fallen behind where it should have been on establishing a robust network of detention sites, proper accommodation facilities, proper processing plans, and transparency and digitalisation, which would have led to fundamental reform of the asylum accommodation system.

Instead, this time last year, what did we have? The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee touched on the infamous barge, Bibby Stockholm, and its set-up costs. In my district of Braintree, we have RAF Wethersfield and all the established problems there, the additional start-up costs, and all the supplementary costs of dealing with problems that were not even anticipated at the outset. Some of those problems were ones that I had raised, such as ill health outbreaks, additional resourcing for policing, and costs that the local council has to pick up, including the county council. When those decisions were made, concerns were raised about the suitability of the locations. It is incredibly disappointing that Ministers at the time were incredibly tin-eared about all this, and not transparent on the funding or the decision making.

My local authorities had to work with me to get the information out of the Home Office. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee will know, none of the information was readily available to the Committee, which is simply not acceptable. I am conscious that my colleagues on the Front Bench are having to pick up a lot of this, because they were not Ministers in the Department at the time. It is incredibly unfair. The money in the supplementary estimates is retrospective, but there is an opportunity to be much more transparent, demonstrate that the Department has learned lessons from frankly the most appalling processes and the ministerial indifference in the Home Office over the past 12 months or so, and improve the situation.

That is incredibly important, particularly while we are still dealing with many issues at Wethersfield, which is supposed to reach a full capacity of about 1,700 people. Currently onsite we have around one third of that level, but we have a lot of issues, which again cost money. The Home Office will bear the brunt of that through the various local authorities that are having to deal with this—Braintree District Council and Essex County Council in particular. The issues include onsite medical facilities, access to primary care, mental health, reasonable accommodation, the cost of transport, and all the various associated costs. We now have an issue around class Q, the special development order that has been issued, and what that means for the long-term costs to the Department and for running the site. Again, nothing has been published, leaving my Braintree residents in the dark, along with Parliament, frankly, on the wider cost implications.

The costs associated with illegal migration are clearly staggering, as has been exposed. This may speak to the recent publication of a report by the former chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal. Other reports, which the Department not only commissioned but sought to publish, would have led to a much more robust approach around Border Force, agreements with France, and how the Home Office conducted its business. They could have led to some serious reform, good prudent fiscal management, and importantly, proper investment in technology at the border. I suspect that some of that was touched on by David Neal. Alexander Downer conducted a review of Border Force, and gave an excellent report. I do not know whether the Home Affairs Committee even saw it; it seems to have been buried. I know for a fact that it included some very serious and good recommendations, which would have led to fundamental reform at the border. I suspect that David Neal would have agreed with some of the measures.

The Department has been silent on this. I do not think that there has been any progress or implementation of any of the recommendations. Basic things such as better engagement with industry, developing better technologies and taking a more long-term strategic approach to border security are what was planned at the Home Office. It is somewhat unfair to demand that those on the Front Bench explain what happened, but the House should know, because at the end of the day those reports were commissioned to invest in a digital border and in long-term measures that would make our border much more secure and efficient, and to tackle issues such as illegal migration and documentation being disposed of when people entered our country, as well as all the wider challenges that the Minister is familiar with. That touched on the work with France and the funding we gave France, which since my departure has increased to more than £500 million. Again, the public should know and hear much more about the value for money and, more importantly, the outcomes, because those sums are unprecedented.

Also, how is increasing use of surveillance at the border being leveraged to go after the criminal gangs? What about more activity on patrol and in law enforcement along the French coast? I should add that the French coastline is very difficult, given how large it is and how difficult it is to police. I pay tribute to everyone who works in that area, but again, so far this year the number of Channel-crossing arrivals has passed more than 3,500, which is higher than at the same point last year. When half a billion pounds is being spent, it is important that the public and the House see a level of transparency with what is going on.

I will touch on the Rwanda partnership, which is important, and there will be a debate in the House on Monday, when the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill comes back before us. I say that the partnership is important, because I negotiated the original one, but I came to the House and at the outset set out the original costings of £120 million. It was a migration and economic development partnership. Clearly, the principle of the Rwanda partnership as it now stands has moved miles from the original. That is deeply concerning. There has been zero transparency. As the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, what on earth has gone on with the partnership over the past 12 months, other than more cash being funnelled into it and to the Government of Rwanda?

I will say something about the Government of Rwanda but, on the original partnership, which was world leading, other countries in Europe are still to this day—as I know from conversations that I am having—looking at the model and may follow it. Various European countries have taken an interest because of wider migration issues across Europe and because of destabilisation in the world. However, I add that there has been far too much criticism of the country and Government of Rwanda, and much of that has been ill-informed, misleading and inaccurate. The country has experienced significant economic growth, rising living standards this century—with 1 million more people lifted out of poverty in their country—and increasing life expectancy, so it is important that we do not malign Rwanda.

Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009. It has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to support more than 130,000 refugees. It is a country that is committed to playing a leadership role on the African continent and to make a contribution to tackling one of the biggest challenges that they and we face—I say “they” about those on the African continent—which is mass migration. I pay tribute to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Vincent Biruta, and to the High Commissioner in London, because they were outstanding in their engagement with our Government, including me and others. It is important that we make this partnership work.

I am sceptical, I have to say, about what we have read in the press this week—I think that is the best way to put it—on how the partnership will work. That brings me to the issue that has been touched on already: we have to be practical. The Home Office is an operational Department, and day-to-day operational costs are inevitably high. Given the voluntary returns, removals and reception centres—which we do not have now—and the cost of running detained facilities with the required support staff, it is right to negotiate the contracts properly and transparently. Everyone needs to have the right kind of scrutiny.

I say that because something might go wrong, not just with the contracts but when incidents happen—they have happened in the past. The Home Office might have legal action taken against it, such as on the handling of a voluntary return or removal of a migrant. The challenges are enormous, and the reputational—

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when it was announced that £500 million was being made available to the French for some form of processing centre, the European Union announced the very next day that it was not going to allow them to do it? Does that not send us a big message about the potential waste of money on quite a big scale?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Ceidwadwyr, Witham

My hon. Friend makes an important point and gives me the chance to expand on that from an operational perspective. That was over a year ago. It was considered a flagship announcement from the Government, but we have not seen that detention centre in France open up yet. Although I think it was due to open in 2025, the Government should report back on it. What has happened to the money? What processes are in place? Are there any updates on that partnership?

My hon. Friend mentions the EU—that would have been the Commission in particular. I have spent a lot of time with the Commission. It was important to have those discussions. Let us not forget that the EU Commission funded the reception centres in Greece, which have gone a long way towards deterring illegal migration to Greece and stopping the awful crossings that were taking place. I pay tribute to the former Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, who did an outstanding job. I worked with him on the replication of the Greek-style reception centres in the UK, because, as we showed in the new plan for immigration, we could follow the money, develop transparent operational plans and see their deterrence impact. That is critical.

My final point is about the legislation that this House has passed in the last two years in the asylum and illegal migration space: the Illegal Migration Act 2023, and the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which was passed when I was Home Secretary. Ministers and everyone in Government know my view on this, but I want to put on record that it is really not good enough that the legislation that we have passed has not been implemented.

I will speak in particular to the Nationality and Borders Act. If we want to follow the money and drive outcomes, implementing the legislation is crucial. We left in the Department a fully costed operational plan for the implementation of the NABA, as it now is, which would have introduced the one-stop shop. That one-stop shop—the immigration courts and tribunals—would have gone a long way towards reducing costs and the time it takes to process cases. Here we are, 14 months on since the 2022 legislation was enacted, and that has not happened.

Ditto on the reception and accommodation centres. At the time, the costs were envisaged to be £120 million, including for start-up. Processing costs would then have come into it through digitalisation of asylum cases. It is inexcusable that the needle has not been moved on that. It is no longer acceptable for people to just discard such plans, as a result of the revolving door, and say, “Actually, we don’t need these; we can have newer plans.” All that does is kick the can down the road and increase Government expenditure. We are now in the unprecedented situation of the Home Secretary of the day retrospectively trying to get approval for more than £4 billion of public spending for asylum accommodation.

Whether on a partnership with Rwanda, cross-border work with the French authorities, implementation of provisions in our legislation, or delivery of accommodation centres, I can say that plans were in place—absolutely. We must get back on track. This debate should send out two messages—to the Home Office, yes, but also for future spending reviews. We have had this period of annual spending reviews, but we must go back to five-year SR periods, with proper fiscal transparency, led by the Treasury, and Ministers must be held to account on public expenditure. We must go back to the core principle of following money, people and outcomes.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:34, 14 Mawrth 2024

I beg to move amendment (a),

“That resources for use for current purposes be reduced by £740,850,000 relating to asylum and migration.”

The amendment stands in my name and that of my honourable colleagues. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Dame Diana Johnson, has so clearly laid out, there has been frustration among members of the Committee about the opacity of Home Office spending. There has been obfuscation, delay, denial and downright sleekitness over many months, and from reading the supplementary estimates in front of us, it is still very difficult to get to the bottom of what money has been spent when those estimates come forward for retrospective approval today.

Members on the Government Benches, including current and former Home Office Ministers, are prepared to weigh in publicly and call outrage on the spending of the Home Office, but trying to get any clarity on how the Department utilises its budget has been like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I agree that spending appears to be out of control, but the utter incompetence and abject cruelty at the heart of the Home Office makes things so much worse. If the Home Office was overspending, but at least having a decent set of outcomes and treating people humanely, I would perhaps be a wee bit more forgiving. Instead, it is presiding over a chaotic, mean and dangerous system, where those who are unlucky enough to come within its orbit are drawn into a dystopian nightmare.

It is a pity that due to the timing of this debate, we were not able to have sight of the National Audit Office’s report on asylum accommodation, which is due to be published on Wednesday. I hope the Minister will come to the House next week to speak to that report. We do, however, have information on what kind of service is being provided. Just this week, the food charity Sustain, working with Jesuit Refugee Service UK and Life Seekers Aid, published research that found that,

“People seeking asylum do not have access to sufficient money, kitchen facilities or food to meet their needs, are provided with food that does not meet food hygiene or nutritional standards, in some cases resulting in hospitalisation. Experiences of food were broadly experienced as degrading and dehumanising, especially for mothers unable to feed their children adequately.”

That desperately poor and deeply harmful experience is being provided by Home Office contractors, who have seen their profits soar. Clearsprings and Stay Belvedere Hotels Ltd, for example, have made a combined profit of over £113 million, and Serco and Mears are also profiting handsomely from those lucrative contracts. The UK Government often claim that they want to support displaced people closer to the place from which they have fled, yet the supplementary estimates reveal that they are now quite brazenly pochling the official development assistance budget to the tune of £3.2 million, a staggering 389.6% increase just from the sum in the main estimates. That money is supposed to help the world’s most vulnerable—to support countries and help them flourish. Instead, it is simply boosting the profits of companies that are demonstrably not even providing the very basics of humanity.

Facilities such as the Bibby Stockholm, Napier barracks, Wethersfield and Scampton are being presented as some kind of alternative to hotels, but in many cases they cost just as much if not more, and are no better run. Hotels cost so much because of the delays that the Home Office is presiding over: people left waiting, not just for months but for years at a time, without a decision. The former Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, had the cheek to say on Sky News that this was quite deliberate; the Government do not want to speed the process up, because that would make the UK too attractive. They are presiding over their own failure quite deliberately and purposefully, so if the Minister says today that it is terrible that we are spending so much money on hotels, I would ask him to speed up those applications and let people get on with their lives.

The Bibby Stockholm barge is estimated to cost taxpayers £41,000 a day or £15 million a year. With around 300 asylum seekers being housed on that barge, that equates to a cost of about £205 per day per person, the same as an overnight stay in a four-star hotel. Thrown into an indefinite stay in a shared room on an industrial barge moored in an operational port, however, you get the bonus of legionella bacteria in the water supply, as well as anxiety, depression, respiratory illness, infectious diseases and, unfortunately, seeing some of your fellow inmates committing suicide.

I have not had much of an opportunity to speak about the Home Affairs Committee’s visit to the Bibby Stockholm, but I will take this opportunity to put on record the sadness, confusion and frustration of those on board. Those men felt that they were being punished for some unknown misdemeanour—unable to get any peace and quiet, living in impossibly close proximity to people for months at a time, with no certainty as to when that will end, and their health needs not being properly assessed. The vessel was not intended to be lived on 24/7, and despite the tabloid rhetoric, none of those I met on that boat had come on small boats. Some had been international students, forced to claim asylum when the political situation in their home countries deteriorated. One told me:

“The longer you are in here, you turn into a person you don’t know”.

How incredibly sad it is that the UK Government see fit to treat people in that way.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I completely agree with what the hon. Lady has said about our visit to the Bibby Stockholm. Does she agree with me that what Wendy Williams said in her review on the Windrush scandal about the Home Office remembering the “face behind the case” seems to have been lost in the way we are now treating some asylum seekers?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Member is absolutely correct to point that out. From reading some of the reports of the independent chief inspector, it is very clear that that policy has all but been abandoned. People have lost the sense that they are dealing with actual human beings —with stories, with dignity, with a past and a future—and that these things have been completely lost all together. People are treated as so much less than as if they were actual human beings, and that is quite appalling from any Government. It is appalling to listen to those stories, and to hear what people had been through and what they continue to suffer in those circumstances.

Home Office officials have reportedly raised significant concerns about the cost and feasibility of housing asylum seekers at MDP Wethersfield in Essex and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. In addition to the near £15 million to another private contractor to set it up, it is estimated that it will cost about £72 million per year to accommodate people at Wethersfield—a site about which the now former chief inspector of borders and immigration raised concerns about safety. He said that

“there was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness caused by boredom which invariably, in my experience, leads to violence.”

That was before the site was even at full capacity. It would be useful to know from the Minister what he is doing to address the concerns about violence at the site, because the chief inspector was very clear to the Committee how worried he was about that.

A report published in December by the Helen Bamber Foundation and the Humans for Rights Network found that the asylum accommodation site at Wethersfield is causing “significant” and “irreparable” harm to residents, and recommended that it be shut down as a matter of urgency. Not only will the public cover the cost of the woeful conditions at Wethersfield, but they are also het for the Government’s court fees in any upcoming legal battles. Scampton, similarly, comes in at an estimated £109 million this year.

The detention estate has been growing arms and legs over the past few years, and the estimates provided by the Home Office suggest that the trend is only set to continue. The cost of detaining someone for one day is estimated at about £113 per person. Expanding the detention estate at Campsfield House and Haslar immigration removal centres is expected to come in at about £260 million. Ludicrously, the Home Office has made quite a deliberate choice to pursue these more expensive and more punitive options, despite having clear evidence from the pilots of alternatives to detention, which it itself commissioned, that were found to be significantly cheaper, more effective and with much better health outcomes for those in that system.

It is no secret that the SNP thinks the Rwanda scheme is irredeemably awful. It is unworkable, conspicuous punishment. The Supreme Court has found the scheme to be unlawful. On top of all that, it is of course eye- wateringly expensive. I would like to thank the National Audit Office for its report setting out the known sums so clearly. I find it quite wild that the former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, came here today to criticise the ball that she herself started rolling. I guess it has not worked out the way she expected, but I could not really see what she thought would be so great about the scheme in the first place.

The UK’s Rwanda scheme has cost about £220 million so far under the UK-Rwanda partnership, not including the UK Government’s legal costs for defending the plan in the courts. The Home Affairs Committee finally received evidence in November last year that, in addition to the money already sent, additional payments will be made to the Government of Rwanda each year. Quite unbelievably, some of this was only uncovered because somebody in Rwanda let it slip to the International Monetary Fund; it was not through due diligence to our own Parliament or the parliamentary Committees that are supposed to scrutinise these things, but because of a slip in some other documentation.

There is a direct cost of £20 million to the Home Office, which the National Audit Office says is expected to rise to £28 million by the end of 2023-24. There will be £1 million a year in staff costs, £11,000 in flight costs per individual and the as yet unknown costs of escorting individuals to Rwanda. There is also the bounty to Rwanda for the delivery of the first 300 asylum seekers, which is a further one-off £120 million. Whether or not Members believe 300 will actually be sent, the fact is that this is within the documentation.

The National Audit Office report sets out a further payment schedule for each person removed to Rwanda up to a total of £150,874 each. Again, it is entirely unclear how much this will all add up to in the end, because it depends on somebody staying put once they have got to Rwanda, which nobody can guarantee. The NAO says that the numbers are “inherently uncertain”; I would say that that is putting it mildly. Of course, this does not save any money. The UK Government’s own figures estimate that moving an asylum seeker to Rwanda would cost £63,000 more than keeping them in the UK to be processed, so it is no wonder the permanent secretary would not sign it off without ministerial direction.

I do not seek to malign Rwanda or its Government, but we hear a curious dichotomy from Government Members, whereby Rwanda is safe enough that the legislation can pass, but sufficiently scary to serve as a deterrent to those desperate enough to risk their lives crossing the channel in a flimsy inflatable. It cannot be both scary and safe at the same time; it cannot be a deterrent and something that is perfectly reasonable. Those two things cannot exist together.

Bizarrely, we have heard the news just today from Lizzie Dearden at The Independent that the Home Office is so desperate to fill up these flights that it is offering those who have been unsuccessful in their asylum claims £3,000 to go to Rwanda. This is wild stuff, and again it has not been brought to this House as a proposal and has not received any further scrutiny.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Annibynnol, Islington North

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Not every country in Europe behaves in the same way and tries to outsource or evade its human rights obligations by exporting refugees and asylum seekers. Does she agree that we ought to give asylum seekers the right to work much quicker so that they can join the labour force and contribute to the economy, rather than be held at great expense in totally unsatisfactory and often totally appalling conditions?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and that entirely flips on its head the Government’s argument that asylum seekers are some kind of burden. Many have skills that they wish to bring to the workforce and many have things they wish to contribute; they want to say thank you for being given sanctuary. They have a lot to offer the UK, but the UK Government are not interested and do not see them as people with skills who can contribute in any meaningful way, which is desperately sad.

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has suggested that a value for money assessment should take account of asylum seekers who are neither deterred from coming nor removed to Rwanda, because they are now left in a limbo of the Home Office’s own making. They cannot have their asylum claim processed nor in most cases be removed to their home country because of the Illegal Migration Act 2023. They are inadmissible and are unable to work, to contribute and to move on with their lives. Who exactly does this situation benefit and where on earth is the Home Office going to accommodate them? It cannot say.

None of this is sustainable. The new backlog replaced the old one, and over 12,000 people are now appealing to the first-tier tribunal due to slapdash decisions made in haste to meet the Prime Minister’s target last year. Safe and legal routes have been closed down. Money has been given hand over fist to France and Belgium, while Home Office staff are left without the resources they need to do their jobs effectively. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration noted in his report on asylum casework that staff had taken demotions rather than continue as caseworkers, and managers had tried to shield their teams from difficult messages coming from above. The Guardian has revealed this afternoon that the Atlas database flaws have left 76,000 people listed with incorrect names, photographs or immigration status and cases combined together.

What an absolute guddle this system is. The Home Office is now under investigation, I understand, by the Information Commissioner due to its utter incompetence and inability to process cases properly. The Home Office has pulled off the astonishing feat of creating an asylum system that is simultaneously slow, expensive, shoddy and in some cases unlawful besides. This wastefulness is a pattern of behaviour from a Department that appears to regard those who come to our shores as somehow less than human.

In a cost of living crisis, the Rwanda scheme is a bottomless pit for public funds. The UK Government under either the Tories or Labour cannot find the money for an essentials guarantee, to scrap the two-child limit or for cost of living support for people struggling every day, yet when it comes to dog-whistle politics there is a big blank cheque.

There are limitations on what we as MPs can do about this. The estimates and budgetary processes are entirely inadequate for the purpose, particularly in light of the fact that this is a Department prone to secrecy and misdirection. My SNP colleagues and I have tabled an amendment to reduce the resources for use for current purposes relating to immigration and asylum by £740,850,000. That pertains to our best estimate of how much the supplementary estimate would have to be reduced by to defund the Rwanda plan, the Bibby Stockholm and Wethersfield, Scampton, Campsfield and Haslar immigration removal centres. It is a small part of what the Home Office has wasted on schemes that have absolutely no merit and that cause more harm than they ever will good. I commend our amendment to the House.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham 3:50, 14 Mawrth 2024

I shall speak to the main motion. I listened to Alison Thewliss, and I am not entirely sure that she made the case for reducing resources to the Home Office. I will agree with much, but try not to repeat much, of what the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said.

It has been a long labour of love to try to get relevant information out of Home Office officials. Anything approaching financial figures is always met with a degree of reluctance and opaqueness. Even the Home Affairs Committee—described only yesterday as “Westminster’s best committee” in a leading newspaper by a leading journalist—has been frustrated by the problems we have had when interrogating officials from the Home Office. I in no way direct that criticism at the Minister on the Front Bench and his colleagues, who have been something of a breath of fresh air.

Having been a member of the Committee for 10 years, I can say that our relations with officials and our ability to get information out of them have never been worse. That is a great shame, because we have an important job to do. We are the scrutinisers of the Home Office, not least because it does not have one in the form of a chief inspector of borders and immigration—this debate is on that area—after the recent unfortunate demise of the excellent David Neal, who has yet to be replaced. The Home Affairs Committee’s work is even more important at the moment to try to fill part of that vacuum as best we can.

This is an estimates day debate about figures, and it is a complex area. The whole budget figure that we are looking at is £23.6 billion for the Home Office in 2024-25. The largest increase of £3.9 billion is for asylum support and accommodation. That figure has risen by 733% over the past five years. Net legal migration hit a record 745,000 in the last year, but most of the spend in this area of the Department, and certainly most of the increased spend, is on illegal—or shall we call it irregular—immigration. Those are people arriving without prior permission who are subsequently able to stay, either because they are permitted to stay or because they can for all practical purposes not be deported for various reasons.

The Home Office accounts are split between four areas of spending: day-to-day spending, investment spending, resource day-to-day spend and capital. I want to strip that down into five main areas under irregular immigration headlines. First, there is the money we are spending largely in France on trying to prevent people from coming here in irregular ways in the first place. Secondly, there is the cost of processing irregular migrants when they arrive in our territorial waters and then on our shores, and then the cost of accommodation and policing secure accommodation or hotels, as well as the cost of delays and the backlog—or queues, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said we now have to call it. Thirdly, there is the cost of returning people when we can do so because agreements are in place. Fourthly, there is the cost of those we cannot return or those who do return to countries we could not otherwise return them to because they take a voluntary payment. That includes the cost of the Rwanda scheme.

At the heart of this, the vital question that the Opposition have failed to answer every time they have been challenged on it is: what do we do with people who have come here irregularly—be it through little boats and paying people smugglers, on lorries or through other means—and had their asylum claims firmly rejected, but who come from countries to which it is practically impossible to return them, such as Iran and Eritrea? The purpose of the Rwanda scheme and much of the irregular migration spend is to try to come up with a solution to that particular problem.

Fifthly—this is slightly related—there is the cost of the big net increases in legal migration to infrastructure and services in the UK. Much of the impact of that falls on other Departments. Added to all those areas is the question of who is overseeing whether that substantial investment is achieving what is intended, in the absence of a chief inspector of borders and immigration.

It is important to put in context the whole spend and the whole activity of the Home Office on migration. Too often, we hear, “What a waste of money on the Rwanda scheme.” Much of that is up-front costs, but it must be seen in the context of what we are spending on hotel accommodation in this country while those people who should not have come here are here, and while we cannot send them to their original country or a third country.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Ceidwadwyr, Witham

My hon. Friend is making an important point. It is also imperative that we recognise that some of the spending is based on forecasts. We constantly hear from the Home Office its forecasts on expected irregular migrants, small boat arrivals and so on. A methodology can be applied to be much more transparent about the funding that is allocated and the deterrence measures that can be put in place, along with all the additional costs. The Home Office should be really transparent about all of that.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that a methodology is being used and that the figures could be available, but the opaqueness that is applied to prevent the Home Affairs Committee and anyone else who wants to get to the bottom of the figures from seeing whether we are getting value for money, let alone cost-effectiveness, is really frustrating. The Home Office must have those calculations—I am sure she saw them in her time at the head of the Home Office—and they should be available to Parliament and those who scrutinise the Department’s activities.

Let me look at the first area, which is effectively the £480 million subsidy that we give to the French police force to police its beaches to try to stop these people getting to the boats in the first place. We know that the number of interceptions has gone up; the trouble is that, by and large, the police do not arrest those people, so they are free to try again the following night and so on with a new boat or dinghy from China, Turkey or one of the other sources.

We have seen all the fantastic kit that the French police have—the drones, the rigid inflatable boats and the dune buggies that the Home Affairs Committee has been on—but the trouble is that people are still getting through. We have this problem because of the absence of French co-operation in detaining and processing people in France to determine their status, as is done in Belgium, where we do not have the problem, as the Committee saw at first hand when we went there.

There is also the whole question of what the French are doing with that kit. There are stories that some of the night drone capability that we provided to them is being used in the south of the country, policing the Mediterranean rather than the channel, with the money having gone on microwaves and such things as well. Are we getting value for money from the £480 million that we are giving to the French police force?

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Member is making a valuable point about money. If I heard him correctly, he suggested that we are spending £480 million on protection along the French coast that is not effective. When we add that to the hundreds of millions spent on the Rwanda scheme—which so far has done nothing—does he agree that if we had been less obsessed with solving the problem at the endpoint, and had instead invested the money in improving the conditions in other countries through international development to make it viable for people to stay in them, as well as in safe and legal routes, we would not have this problem now?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

The hon. Lady makes a number of rather conflicting arguments. The point that I made right at the top of my speech—I am not sure if she was here—was that we need to see the spend in the whole context. If we are spending money here, it is because the alternative would be spending even more there, not having solved the problem at source.

As someone who defended the 0.7% overseas spending commitment, I agree that this is a global problem on which international co-operation is needed if we are to ensure that people have more incentive, and it is more viable and sustainable, to stay in the countries that they are departing from, not necessarily because of civil war and danger but because of economic conditions linked to climate change. That is why we have such large migration from equatorial and sub-Saharan countries. I completely agree with the hon. Lady. She knows my position on safe and legal routes; I tabled amendments on the subject to the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

The Government need to do more—and will do more —on safe and legal routes, but that should be coupled with being much tougher on those who do not use them because they have no legitimate case for applying for asylum in the United Kingdom. We need to come down on those people hard, to prevent them coming here in the first place. If they do come here, we need to do everything we can to remove them from the country as soon as possible.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s authoritative speech. There is a paradox that always strikes me about giving money to the French to stop the small boats coming: if they ever succeeded in stopping the small boats coming, that would mean that France would be the end of the line for those illegal immigrants. That would mean that the French would have to start imposing their own borders, which have largely been dismantled in the context of the EU, to stop the illegal migration into their country. Can we ever really expect the French to co-operate in sealing off the illegal route across the channel?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

The response is, “To an extent, Lord Copper.” The authorities around Calais who are trying to deal with the crossings said that the year before last, when the Government announced the Rwanda scheme, they saw a big surge in migrants around Calais approaching the French authorities to try to regularise their position in France, because they did not want to risk being put on a plane to Rwanda. Why are so many migrants in the north of France around Calais? They have come to France because they think that there is a chance that they can get to the UK. They would not necessarily go to France if it were clear that they could not get to the UK because they would be stopped by whatever means—hopefully by the French intercepting them in the water or on the beach and bringing them back—and they would be paying money for a round trip. There are different aspects to this.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

If my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will continue. I know that other Members want to speak, and I have a few more points to make.

My second point is on the whole cost of processing. There are self-inflicted costs, because the Home Office took too long to increase the number of caseworkers to speed up processing time. It has now done that, but it needs to go still further. As of last September, the asylum backlog or queue was 165,411, which was up 11% on the previous year, but up 372% over five years. We have now seen a fourfold increase in the number of decisions.

The Home Affairs Committee was particularly concerned that last year 17,316 asylum seekers withdrew their asylum applications. The permanent secretary and his No. 2 at the Home Office were singularly incapable of telling us what had happened to those 17,316 people and why they withdrew their applications, and of assuring us that they were leaving the UK. It turned out that an awful lot of them had not left the UK, and the whereabouts of rather a lot of them—about a third—are unknown to the Home Office. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what the backlog/queue is now, and what audit has been done on the cost effectiveness of recruiting additional caseworkers, how that feeds through to quicker processing times, how that has benefited us financially, and what the efficiencies are from faster processing.

We also need to know the breakdown of the cost of accommodation and assistance for asylum claims that are in limbo. The former Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick, stated that the Home Office was spending £8.3 million a day, or about £140 per person per night, on hotel accommodation. That was last year, since when some hotels have been taken out of circulation. That is good progress, and hopefully the £8.3 million a day cost is reducing, but how much is spent on accommodating those awaiting initial decisions, especially in the last six months in which they have been waiting?

Secondly, how much is spent on accommodating those who have had their claims rejected but are going through additional appeals processes, or those whom we still cannot deport to their country of origin, although they have gone through appeals processes? Thirdly, how much are we spending on those whose claims have been accepted and have leave to remain, but for whom there is a shortage of long-term and appropriate accommodation to transfer them to? That is the problem we have with Afghan families who, airlifted from Kabul airport, are here legitimately. They are still staying in hotels after many years, largely because it is difficult to find larger houses to accommodate larger families. It is completely unsuitable to have children in hotels for years at a time, when they have to go to school and try to socialise with other children.

As of the end of last year, there were 111,132 individuals in receipt of asylum support. That was down 10% on the figure for September, the previous quarter, but still included about 45,500 people in hotel accommodation. Will the Minister tell us at what rate hotel accommodation is decreasing, and by how much costs are reducing?

I want to touch on the cost of those we can return. An article in the Financial Times earlier this week, in which I was quoted, raised concerns about the shortage of detention spaces. The problem is the growing number of people who have come here since the Illegal Migration Act 2023, and who have no status to be here. They are not in jail; presumably, they are on bail, and some might disappear into the ether. The Home Affairs Committee will visit Brook House next week. Many people have been there a long time because of continuous appeals. How much is that costing? What is the cost of the returns agreements with countries such as Albania? All those are costs on the immigration and asylum budget.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Ceidwadwyr, Witham

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. There is an important point to make about returns agreements and removing individuals. Costs aside, section 40 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 amended section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971 to cover re-entry bans. I do not know whether the Government have implemented that, but unless it is enforced, it will lead to the very problems that he is alluding to: further costs, pressures on accommodation, and entire processes restarted all over again.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are stories—they are not apocryphal; I have heard them on good authority—of people who, under an agreement, have been returned from the UK to Albania, accompanied by an officer. That officer has then returned to Heathrow or Gatwick airport, only to see the person they just returned to Albania in the queue ahead of them, coming back into the country. There are ways and means of getting back into the country. Enforcement is absolutely crucial; otherwise the system is a complete joke—and a very expensive joke. We are returning people on a temporary basis when it should be a permanent arrangement, until and unless they apply legitimately, and are accepted as having a reason to come to the UK legitimately.

All sorts of figures have been bandied around for the cost of the Rwanda scheme; the Home Office has disclosed only the £140 million to Rwanda in the first year of the deal. I absolutely accept that there are all sorts of start-up costs, so I am not troubled by the fact that we are paying money up front. The Rwandans have said that if the scheme does not take off, literally, they will return at least part, if not most, of the money, so there are some assurances there. However, even if the amount we are spending on the Rwanda scheme turns out to be, say, £500 million, given that it costs £8.3 million a day to house people in hotels, the cost of the scheme will be just two months-worth of hotels. There is an economic case for investing in the scheme, because the alternative is people staying in hotels at an expensive rate unless we can find cheaper accommodation for them, so it will not be long before the scheme has paid for itself. We must look at it holistically, in the round.

I have a few questions to leave in the lap of the Minister. First, there is the overall question of why we are accepting so many asylum claimants in the UK. France receives more applications, but rejects twice as many as we do. We must also take account of the fact that some of the returns figures have been slightly distorted. In its rush to clear some of the backlog, the Home Office has invariably gone for low-hanging fruit—some of the easier cases to accept, such as children and women—so the acceptance rates are artificially higher, as it has not dealt with the more problematic cases that are more likely to be rejected. In 2023, the number of people granted refugee status was the highest on record, at more than 62,000. Why is the threshold apparently so much lower in this country than in many other European countries, and what calculations has the Home Office made about the financial savings that would result if we toughened up that arrangement and raised the threshold, so that we rejected more claims in the future?

I asked what would happen to those who have been in limbo since the Illegal Migration Act 2023 came into force. Does the Minister think that we may have to issue some sort of amnesty, as we did previously, to enable people to qualify for assessment of their claims?

I welcome the changes to immigration rules that have been heralded by the Minister. Certain people coming here are dependants who do not need to come with the primary visa applicant, and are likely to be a cost, rather than a contributor, to the Exchequer. There are reasons for us to allow that in certain cases, but according to the 2021 census, the size of the population had risen by 7.4% since the previous census, and the volume of resources and infrastructure have not risen comparatively. Over those 10 years, the number of GP surgeries increased by only 4%, and the number of secondary schools by only 4.9%. The population is rising, and it is forecast that there will be 6.1 million more migrants by 2036. Working people aged between 20 and 64 who were born in the UK have a much higher rate of employment than people who have migrated to the UK.

I agree that immigration is good, but not all types of immigration are necessarily adding to the UK economy rather than drawing on it, so we need to be more discriminating in deciding whom we allow into the country. Genuine refugees fleeing danger certainly have a case for safe haven here, but when it comes to dependants who will not necessarily be contributing to the UK, we need to clamp down on that more, which indeed is what was announced today.

A large part of this policy is about addressing illegal, irregular migration. It is incumbent on anyone who disagrees with it to come up with their own solution to the problem of how we should deal with people who enter the country with no legitimate, credible case for claiming asylum and being granted safe haven, because that is where an awful lot of the money is going. It is absolutely right for us to be able to scrutinise that money properly, and it is absolutely right to expect the Government to give answers about whether it is being used effectively. However, I give credit to the Government for trying to come up with proper, sustainable solutions such as the Rwanda scheme to deal with all the costs of a very inefficient migration system that treats us unfairly, given that people with absolutely no credible case for safe haven from us are choosing to pay people smugglers to cross the channel in the most dangerous and inappropriate way. Frankly, those people are jumping the queue, and the biggest victims are genuine asylum seekers, to whom we have always had a good and generous tradition of giving safe haven. They are the ones who we absolutely need to focus on, and we are spending far too much money on people who are, frankly, gaming our system.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee) 4:15, 14 Mawrth 2024

I want to focus my comments on the cost of the Government’s Rwanda policy, particularly as I visited Kigali two weeks ago as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Committee will report on our visit in due course, so any comments that I make today are made in my personal capacity.

It was good that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson, reminded us that information about the cost of the Rwanda scheme has come not from the Government, but from the National Audit Office and other sources. I really query whether the scheme offers value for money, and whether it will work as a deterrent. We heard from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee about the huge increase in the asylum support, resettlement and accommodation budget, and it is important to put that in context by looking at how many asylum seekers come to the United Kingdom every year. Looking at the figures, we can see that there were asylum claims for about 84,000 individuals in the most recent year—let us say about 80,000. Bear that figure in mind for what I am going to say in a minute.

I completely agree with Priti Patel that it is important not to be rude about the Rwandans, because they are good people, as I will come back to. When I was in Rwanda, I asked Government officials how many asylum seekers they expect to receive from the UK, and they told me that they expect to receive 2,000 over the first four months and 10,000 over the next five years. That is 2,000 per annum, which is 2.5% of the 80,000 asylum seekers who come here every year. What are the Government proposing to do with the rest of them? We need to know about those costs.

The central point I want to make in what little time I have is that we need a system for asylum seekers who come to the United Kingdom. We need to go back to basics and think about an efficient, cost-effective system, but it must be a system whereby the United Kingdom takes its fair share. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has heard evidence on this issue. Looking at the figures for displaced people and refugees, there are 36 million refugees in the world. The idea that they are all coming to the United Kingdom is absolutely ludicrous.

Returning to my trip to Rwanda, I want to give my own impressions. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss makes a very good point: how can Rwanda be a great place to be and safe, but also a deterrent at the same time? I have formed a pretty clear view as to why it is a deterrent. Based on my visits to Rwanda, I agree with the UK Supreme Court that the Rwandan Government and the Rwandan people are acting in good faith, but I also agree with the House of LordsInternational Agreements Committee, which has looked at this issue, that the relevant legislation has not finished going through Parliament, and that the system and the training are in their infancy. It will take a long time for the Rwandans to create an asylum system.

We visited the accommodation in Kigali, which was of a very high quality. We saw only one of the reception areas, but I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it was a hell of a lot nicer than the Bibby Stockholm. Perhaps that is because so many Rwandans have been refugees, owing to their recent history. They were at pains to remind us of how many refugees they have welcomed from over the borders with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of how they see refugees as their “friends, brothers and sisters”. I was struck by how that does not accord with the current discourse in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the UK Government should take a leaf out of the Rwandans’ book and see refugees as their friends, brothers and sisters. That might make it easier for them to devise a cost-effective system whereby we take our fair share.

Rwanda has a written constitution, but very few people were able to point to any case law showing people taking advantage of their rights under that constitution. In 2016, the Rwandan Government withdrew the right of Rwandan citizens to individually petition the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights because they did not like the court’s decisions on their dissidents. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, the Home Office has prepared a 137-page country information note on human rights in Rwanda that collates sources ranging from the US State Department to Human Rights Watch, and it sets out very serious shortcomings in the protection of human rights in Rwanda. Before we went, my Committee took evidence from dissidents who had concerns about their human rights.

I have written elsewhere about my concern for the protection of LGBT rights in Rwanda. At best, Rwanda is where the United Kingdom was 50 years ago. Yes, it is not criminal to be gay or transgender, but LGBT people have no positive rights, and they live in a society in which stigmatisation and discrimination are common. Nobody was able to give me any examples of anyone being able to exercise their rights through the courts.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black SNP Deputy Leader

Is it not also concerning that the Government’s travel advice for Rwanda states that they cannot guarantee the safety of LGBT people?

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

Indeed, it is. When I guested at the Home Affairs Committee, I raised with a Minister that we tell LGBT Brits going to Rwanda that they need to be careful as we cannot guarantee their safety, but we are now quite happy to send LGBT asylum seekers there.

I could say a lot more about Rwanda, but it is important to understand why it is a deterrent. People often come here to seek asylum because they have criticised their country’s Government, because they are a human rights defender or because they are gay or transgender. Rwanda is not an attractive country for them, as the United Kingdom is at present.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee told us that the UK will pay around £150,000 per person relocated to Rwanda, to cover asylum processing and integration over the first five years. If we apply that to the 12,000 figure given by the Rwandan authorities, that comes to billions of pounds. On what basis can that be said to be cost-effective? Billions of pounds are being spent on sending to Rwanda less than 2.5% of the people who come to these shores seeking asylum. It is a gimmick, and the Government should own up that it is a gimmick. They should not be spending taxpayers’ money on a gimmick and a sop to their Back Benchers.

What does the Minister have to say about the points I have raised today?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

Order. I had thought that we had lots of time for this debate, but everything expands. I would be grateful if the two remaining Back-Bench speakers took around eight minutes each. We will then be able to get everyone in, barely.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 4:23, 14 Mawrth 2024

I will certainly do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, the debate might have expanded even further if any Labour Back Benchers other than the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee had turned up. We SNP Members are accused of disengaging from this place, but four of us have contributed to this debate, compared with only one Member from the official Opposition.

Estimates debates should be among the most important debates each year, as this is the process by which we approve billions of pounds of Government expenditure. Before us is nearly £8 billion set aside for the Home Office. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, many SNP Members take a great interest in the estimates, both the process and the substance. Not so long ago, my hon. Friend Pete Wishart—he should be my right hon. Friend—was called to order and had to leave the Chamber for daring to try to debate the estimates on estimates day. We had been assured by the then Leader of the House that the estimates process is the way to make sure that Scotland’s voice is heard on questions of Government expenditure and Barnett consequentials, and that the English votes for English laws procedure would not stifle the votes or voices of Scottish Members. We may have been delivered from EVEL in this House, but if there is any positive legacy from those unlamented procedures, it is that estimates days are now set aside for the discussion of estimates, and we can debate and indeed vote on detailed aspects of Government expenditure.

That does not mean that the process is not still woefully lacking in effectiveness and the ability to propose substantive changes. In other legislatures, there can be line-by-line examination of a Government’s budget and spending plans, and Members can propose detailed amendments to direct funds to their priority policies or communities. That is not an option available to us, but I congratulate my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss and our estimable colleagues in the SNP Whips Office on their ingenuity in bringing forward the amendment before us today.

The spending of the Home Office, particularly on asylum and immigration, certainly does warrant scrutiny and amendment. When Ministers say that the sums are vast—indeed, the sums spent on asylum accommodation are too high—they are not wrong. But their solutions, their alternatives, are wrong—very wrong. As Jeremy Corbyn said, the most straightforward and simplest—and also the most practical and dignified—solution to the question of asylum accommodation, is to give asylum seekers the right to work and allow them to pay for their own accommodation. Instead of costing the taxpayer money, let them become taxpayers. Let asylum seekers contribute to the Treasury, our economy and our communities. If Conservative Members are genuinely concerned about community cohesion and integration, surely the way to build that is not to ostracise and “other” asylum seekers, but to allow them to play an active, positive role in our society and economy. There are plenty of examples where immigration in that sense has worked, as we see if we look at the contribution that the Syrian community have made to life on Scotland’s islands since that resettlement scheme was introduced, at how Ukrainians have been welcomed into homes and families and schools and workplaces across the country through those schemes. Of course, we have spoken many times about the impact that Afghans have had in Glasgow, not least through the Glasgow Afghan United organisation, headed up by my good friend, Councillor Abdul Bostani. I invite the Minister to come to Glasgow to meet refugees and asylum seekers such as those supported by Glasgow Afghan United and the Maryhill Integration Network.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Annibynnol, Islington North

It was pointed out earlier that the number of asylum seekers, even those coming on small boats, would not be accommodated in Rwanda under the current plan, if that should go ahead. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of those trying to cross from Calais—I have been there and met them—are desperate people, some of whom are victims of war, some of whom are victims of war in Afghanistan and some of whom are victims of war in Afghanistan because they have worked for the British forces there. Surely we need to have a slightly more humanitarian approach to what are desperate people.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Yes, I agree entirely on that. The safe and legal routes that do exist for Ukrainians, Syrians and some Afghans are exceptions to the rule. They are the exceptions to the hostile environment, which starts when anybody gets off a plane and has to wait in interminable queues at the UK to get through passport control. It is a hostile environment that can end with the prospect of being deported to Rwanda if the Home Secretary does not like the cut of someone’s jib.

For the past nine years or so, asylum, immigration and visa cases have been at the very top of my constituency case load. Way back in 2105, a constituent of mine, literally a rocket scientist who wanted to contribute to world-class engineering projects at our universities, came to see me because the Home Office was attempting to refuse her a visa. I have lost track of the number of academics, musicians, artists, religious ministers and sometimes even just holidaymakers whose visits to the UK have been cancelled or curtailed by Home Office hostility and inefficiency. We have seen families whose reunion has been denied, small business owners who have given up and moved away, and funerals and weddings missed because the default position of the Home Office is suspicion and hostility towards anybody who wants to come here, unless they are stinking rich, in which case they are very welcome to come straight through the door, on a gold-plated visa.

Even as other parts of the Government proclaim that Britain is great, and say that we need and want skilled and talented entrepreneurs and graduates, the Home Office says, “No, Britain is closed.” I have visited British embassies and high commissions in parts of Africa that have been festooned with bunting and adverts for Chevening scholarships, and then gone to dinner that evening with young people who could not take up their scholarship because they had been denied a visa. I have visited the visa processing centre in Lilongwe, Malawi, and I was grateful for the time they gave me and for the efficiency with which they carry out their role. They take the biometrics and process the paperwork, and they do so quickly and effectively. But then the applications get stuck at the point of decision making, not in Malawi, not with input from our excellent high commission team, but at a remote centre in Pretoria, and that causes frustration, confusion and too often disappointment among the visa applicants. All of that speaks to inefficiencies, systemic and systematic failures within the Home Office.

I want to touch briefly on the question of the Rwanda scheme, as many have. According to the National Audit Office, the scheme will cost £1.8 million per person for the first 300 potential deportees. I had a look online the other day—a year’s full board in Disneyland Paris would cost £100,000 a year. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration have said that the reason they think Rwanda is a deterrent is because it is not the UK; well, Disneyland Paris is not the UK, so there is a quicker and cheaper way of deterring people. If that sounds absurd, it is because the whole scheme is absurd.

We have touched on the question of ODA. It would be interesting to know whether any of the funding under the UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership, or the treaty with Rwanda, will be classed as ODA. As I said to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, even if the UK Government have to count some of the money spent on supporting Ukrainian refugees as ODA, that should not be an excuse to minimise the amount of ODA being spent elsewhere by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Government should never have abandoned the 0.7% target in the first place; they broke a cross-party consensus to do that.

In an independent Scotland, the 0.7% target would be a floor, not a ceiling, for our spending on supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world. But then in an independent Scotland, many things will be different and in stark contrast to the decay and decline of Westminster under successive Governments of whatever hue. The Scottish Government have printed commendable papers explaining what a humane asylum, immigration and migration policy would look like. Of course, Brexit has only added to all these costs.

For generations, people have left Scotland to make their homes elsewhere in the world because they were cleared from their land to make way for sheep, because their crops failed, because they wanted to join friends and family who had gone before them, or because they had skills and talents that they wanted to put to use in an economy or society that could benefit from them. Today many people from elsewhere in the world want to make their homes in Scotland and the rest of the UK for precisely the same reasons, but the UK Government say no. They spend vast amounts of money saying no, and they refuse to allow the devolved Administrations to do anything different. So it seems that devolution is in fact the real separatism. With independence, we will rejoin the world and play our part as an open, welcoming, good global citizen.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice) 4:31, 14 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to take part in this necessary and timely debate. It is necessary because the common thread that has run through just about every contribution is the lack of transparency and accountability in the way the Home Office goes about its business, and in how it accounts to this House for the way in which it goes about its business. It is timely because, as Alison Thewliss said, The Guardian has published an article today about Home Office immigration database errors that affect more than 76,000 people. The hon. Lady, I think, said that it was a guddle. If I may say so, I think that is an uncharacteristic understatement on her part; in fact, it certainly meets the test for being called a right bùrach.

At the heart of the system, the Atlas tool is used by immigration officers and Home Office officials for processing any asylum or immigration dealings. That is underpinned by the snappily titled person centric data platform, which stores a migrant’s interactions with UK immigration systems over time, including visa applications, identity documents and biometric information. It stores the records of 177 million people and is part of a Home Office project to digitise fully visa and immigration systems that has cost more than £400 million since 2014. The PCDP records feed into Atlas, so that Border Force officials can view information and some people seeking to track their own applications can access them—and that is where the problems come to light.

There is an issue of something called “merged identities”. Essentially, merged identities, as I understand it, are of two ordinary people; for example, Madam Deputy Speaker, you may have an application that is live, so you might go in and find my picture attached to your data, or vice versa. How on earth can a Home Office official processing applications possibly hope to make sense of that? Indeed, the person accessing this information online will of course immediately be upset and alarmed at what they are finding; this is something that can bring up very profound feelings. It is an issue not just of data mismanagement—as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said, the Information Commissioner’s Office is looking into this—but that strikes at the right and opportunity of an individual to access some of the most basic services, rented housing, accommodation, healthcare and so much else.

There is a substantive matter here. Clearly, this is yet another botched Government IT project, but the issue of process matters as well. Members of the House have been asking about the operation of Atlas and the PCDP and they have been given assurances by Ministers. The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, Tom Pursglove, who I had hoped might be in the debate today—fortunately for him, he is not—has given said in a written answer that no “systemic issues” have been identified with Atlas, but the documents that have been seen by The Guardian today clearly contradict that. Either the Minister has been misled by his officials, or he has been told something by his officials that he did not think would be advantageous for Parliament to hear, so the information and the answers have been framed in a particular way. Either way, it is clear that the culture within the Home Office is one that does not respect parliamentary accountability.

I hope that, when the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration, Michael Tomlinson, comes to reply to the debate, he will tell the House what the Government knew about the problems with the Atlas system and the person centric data platform that underpins it, when they knew that, and why they have not brought information about it to the House. The Guardian has done a tremendous service to this House by exposing the full extent of Home Office failure, but that should not be necessary. We should not be relying on investigative journalists and on people blowing whistles from inside the Home Office; we should be able to take on trust what we are told, but we are told very little, and, on the basis of what we have read in The Guardian today, it seems that we can cannot even trust that.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 4:37, 14 Mawrth 2024

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this important debate and pay tribute to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee for her powerful opening speech and for the outstanding work that she is doing on these issues.

The Home Office spending figures, detailing an astronomical overspend of £5.9 billion last year, represents such a shockingly cavalier attitude to taxpayers’ money that it really does beggar belief. Two thirds of that £5.9 billion was for asylum costs—a staggering £4.3 billion overspend over the past 12 months, taking the total spend on emergency asylum hotels and asylum seeker support up to a quite astonishing £5.4 billion. These costs also include a whopping £1.2 billion to pay for the implementation of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which, let us not forget, has not even been implemented yet.

We also know that, should the Government manage to be able to realise their fever dream of sending asylum seekers rather than Home Secretaries to Rwanda, the first 300 will cost an astonishing £570 million and account for just 1% of the 30,000 asylum seekers who crossed the channel in small boats last year. That works out at almost £2 million per asylum seeker. Just let that sink in: £2 million of British taxpayers’ money to send one asylum seeker to Rwanda. The country knows it, this House knows it, the Home Secretary knows it, and the Minister knows it: the Rwanda scheme is the worst value for money policy in history.

The Conservatives will point to the asylum seekers crossing the channel. It is correct to say that more than 100,000 have made that perilous journey since 2018, which is when the Conservative party started to well and truly lose control of our borders. It is also correct to say that, of that 100,000, a staggering 40,000 have crossed since the current Prime Minister was appointed by default, which tells us all we need to know about his vacuous “Stop the boats” pledge and how it is going. Labour is clear that tackling the Tory boats chaos cannot be achieved through headline-chasing gimmicks, such as the Rwanda plan, which just absorb vast amounts of money, time and resources.

Instead, we need a laser-like focus on practical common-sense measures that get the job done, which is why Labour has set out a detailed plan to smash the criminal smuggler gangs that are running Britain’s borders and trading in human misery. If this Government cannot restore order to the border, then the next Labour Government will, but the fact is that the asylum backlog had already grown fourfold even before the small boats started coming in large numbers. It was the Conservative Government’s decision to downgrade the seniority of asylum decision makers in 2013 that led to the backlog spiralling, due to slower, poorer-quality decision making and larger numbers of appeals, plus high staff turnover, resulting in the total chaos that we are now seeing.

Let us not forget that the Government have an estate of more than 50,000 relatively cost-effective asylum beds that keep the system within budget, but the use of nearly 400 hotels last year to house as many as 56,000 asylum seekers at any one time has sent costs through the roof. According to the House of Commons Library, spending on asylum hotels and support has increased by an astonishing 733% in the past five years alone. That is what happens when we try to cut corners and costs: we end up paying 10 times as much in the long term, clearing up the mess that we have made. It is the definition of a false economy. Labour has a plan to clear the backlog within one year by surging the number of caseworkers, thus saving the taxpayer £2 billion in hotel bills. We will also create a new returns unit, with 1,000 immigration enforcement officers, to remove people from safe countries who have failed in their asylum claims. Those are the key pillars of our plan for a firm, fair and well-managed asylum system.

Of course Britain faces a forced migration challenge caused by increasing geopolitical turbulence and the proliferation of authoritarian regimes, with violence and persecution spreading across the world, but the Government have utterly failed to rise to that challenge. Successive Home Secretaries have had ample opportunity since the small boats started coming in large numbers in 2018 to work with our European partners and allies to end the vile trade of people smuggling in the channel, but rather than seeking to engage constructively they have spent the last six years trashing their working relationships with our European neighbours through their damaging rhetoric and frequent promises to break or ignore international laws and treaties.

The Government have traded hard graft, quiet diplomacy and common sense for unworkable legislation and headline-chasing gimmicks that are not based on reality and are therefore destined to fail. Meanwhile, the public has been forced to watch on helplessly as the criminal gangs have taken hold, with prosecutions of people smugglers down a startling 34% since 2010. We are clear that co-operation with Europe is the only way to restore our border security. Labour has promised a cross-border police unit to go after the criminal gangs upstream by forging a new security partnership with Europol based on intelligence sharing and joint work, paid for by redirecting some of the vast sums of money that are being squandered on the Rwanda shambles.

Given the central role that the Minister is playing in all this, I have the following questions for him. The Prime Minister promised to end the use of hotels for asylum seekers by the end of last year. Can the Minister therefore explain why, at the end of December, there were still more than 46,000 asylum seekers in hotel accommodation? We now know that hundreds of millions of pounds have been committed to the Rwandan Government as part of the Tories’ failed plan. Can he tell me how much of that money the UK will get back if no flights take off?

Can the Minister explain why the Rwanda money could not have been invested in border security instead? Does he truly believe that spending nearly £2 million on every person sent to Rwanda, just to get “a few symbolic flights” off the ground—to quote a previous Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick—in an election year represents good value for taxpayers’ money? Does the Minister agree that Rwanda is the worst value for money policy in history? The NAO revealed that the Home Office would spend £11,000 per person on flights to Rwanda. Can the Minister explain why taxpayers are paying 11 times as much as a commercial flight would cost?

The failures of Home Office Ministers are not just impacting on their own budgets and overspends, but causing severe challenges for other Departments and for local councils. As my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee pointed out, a huge amount of the spending is being channelled through overseas development assistance, which is having a huge impact on the amount of ODA available to spend in countries that are generating large numbers of asylum seekers and in the neighbouring countries. It is a lose-lose situation. The money that should be spent to address push factors is instead being spent on hotel bills in this country. Will the Minister therefore set out whether he feels that using ODA in this way is a viable long-term strategy? Does he agree that that is the very definition of robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that it is working against the strategic objectives of ODA and against what any sensible Government should be doing to address the crisis in our asylum system?

The latest estimates are part of a long-running and increasingly predictable pattern. The Home Office goes cap in hand to the Treasury, asking for billions of pounds, over and above what was already a multibillion-pound annual budget, to deal with a set of crises entirely of the Government’s own making. The Treasury then duly signs blank cheque after blank cheque to the Home Office, and yet still somehow manages to make matters worse. Ministers are trying to claim that an alternative to Rwanda would somehow be more expensive, but the problem with that argument is that they are comparing the Rwanda plan with the cost of doing nothing; they are not comparing the Rwanda plan to Labour’s common-sense plan to go after the gangs, to get removals back up and running, and to clear the backlog.

The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border said:

“It is not acceptable to spend £8 million a day in the asylum system.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2024;
Vol. 746, c. 647.]

That is £3 billion a year, and I could not agree more. It should not be necessary to remind him that it is on his party’s watch that the cost of the asylum system has rocketed tenfold since 2010. That is why the Conservatives need to get out of the way, so that Labour can restore order at our border and fix this broken and unaffordable Tory asylum system. Let us have that general election, and let us have it now.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Minister of State (Minister for Illegal Migration) 4:47, 14 Mawrth 2024

I start, as other right hon. and hon. Members have done, by paying tribute to and praising Dame Diana Johnson, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, which is reportedly the most effective Select Committee in town—I will come back to that point. Seriously, she does an important and vital job.

I gently suggest a couple of things. It is sad to see that the right hon. Lady is so lonely, sitting on her own on the Labour Benches. Patrick Grady made that point—it is nice to agree with him on something, at least. With due respect to her, however, the right hon. Lady has carried out her role forensically and with diligence, as she always does.

Occasionally, the right hon. Lady is critical of those on the Government Front Bench. That is part of her role, so she is entitled to be, but I will gently push back on her accusations about transparency and say what a pleasure it was to appear before her Committee within hours of being appointed to this role, alongside the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove. In fact, my hon. Friend enjoyed his experience so much that he was back in the Committee this week. From the reports I have seen, it was a genuinely constructive and instructive exchange between those on the Committee and those giving evidence.

Before I turn to the details set out by the Chair of the Select Committee, it is right to say that the Government need no reminding that taxpayers’ interests must come first and foremost when determining our approach to the asylum and immigration systems. It is right to say that no one has done more than this Government to shine a light on the overall costs and on the public money that is being spent, not least every day to house asylum seekers in hotels. I will come back in a few moments to the detail of that, but my hon. Friend the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border has confirmed that his pledge has been exceeded: in fact, more than the 50 hotels that he had pledged would close had been closed by the end of January.

On Rwanda—again, I will come back to the details shortly—it is right to say at this stage why the partnership is needed. It is needed because we cannot go on with the situation where there are fatalities in the channel. For the past eight consecutive months, people have died attempting to cross the channel. There is a moral case, a compassionate case, for saying that we must stop the boats. That is the mission—it is my mission, and one that I am determined to carry out.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

Does the Minister appreciate that those of us who question the Rwanda scheme are doing so not because we do not think that the boats should be stopped, but because we think that the Rwanda scheme is not the way to do that and does not provide value for money? Those are the issues that he needs to address in the short time that he has left—whether the Rwanda scheme is value for money.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Minister of State (Minister for Illegal Migration)

I will come back to the hon. and learned Lady’s points—she made a series of points. She is right that she led a Select Committee visit to Rwanda. I very much look forward to seeing the details of that report. My point is that there is a moral and compassionate case for the Rwanda scheme, and if time allows, I will delve into the detail. If time does not allow, there will be further exchanges on Monday, and doubtless in the future, about the Rwanda scheme.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North was kind enough to invite me to Glasgow, so let me turn to his contribution first—briefly, if I may. I endorse his point about there being no one on the Labour Benches. It is perhaps instructive as to where Labour Members’ priorities are that not a single Back Bencher, other than the Chair of the Select Committee, is here in the Chamber to address what is, in my view, the single biggest global challenge facing not just the United Kingdom, France and the EU, but the whole world. Not a single other Labour Back Bencher is here. The hon. Member spoke powerfully on that point, and I agree with him entirely.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I think it worth pointing out that the two other Labour members of the Home Affairs Committee are representing Parliament at the United Nations women’s equality summit this week. I am sure that otherwise they would be here supporting us, like other members of the Committee.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Minister of State (Minister for Illegal Migration)

I am very grateful indeed to the right hon. Lady for that point, but there are Labour Members of Parliament other than those two—at the moment, in any event.

Once again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North for his points on that. Let me say directly that, yes, I would love to come to Glasgow. He teased and tempted me with football. If I could perhaps encourage him to find a cricket team, I would certainly be willing to go up—my footballing skills are not as they once were. But seriously, I take him up on that offer and look forward to being there. I disagree with him on the Rwanda scheme; he will not be surprised to hear me say so. I hope that I have the chance today—and, if not, on Monday—to set out more details on that.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North had an exchange with Jeremy Corbyn about the plea to allow illegal migrants to work in this country. I disagree fundamentally on that point. It will be interesting to see whether the Labour Front Benchers pick up on that and accept it as their policy. It is not my policy; it is not our policy.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Annibynnol, Islington North

The point that I was making was that, unlike other countries, we do not encourage and rapidly allow asylum seekers and those granted asylum to work upon arrival. We lose an awful lot of skill from a great number of people who could make a huge contribution to our lives and our economy. We spend a great deal of money preventing them from working. We could change the attitude and the approach on that.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Minister of State (Minister for Illegal Migration)

I understand the right hon. Member’s point; I disagree with it fundamentally. That would be not a deterrent but the opposite of a deterrent: it would be a pull factor and an encouraging factor. I would be very interested to see whether the Labour party adopts that policy—so far, it has been pretty silent on its plans, but it sounds like that may well be one of them.

I thank my right hon. Friend Priti Patel for her thoughtful and considered remarks. She rightly praised the Chair of the Select Committee, but I also praise my right hon. Friend for her diligence and for being in the Chamber for such an important debate. Her expertise in Treasury matters and in Home Affairs matters has come together during the course of this debate, and the Chamber is grateful for her contribution. I agree with her about the Nationality and Borders Act, and again pay tribute to her for taking that Act through Parliament. I will reflect on her points, particularly in relation to the one-stop shop, which I know is something she has championed.

I also agree with my right hon. Friend about the overall deterrent effect. She rightly mentioned technology and borders and the Downer review. She will, I hope, be reassured to hear that progress is being made, although perhaps not as fast as she would like—she will know of my impatience on this subject as well. We will, and must, crack on with that. As for the money going to Rwanda, she is right: it is an economic, migration and development partnership, as the Home Secretary has set out. That money is going to support things like education, healthcare, agriculture and infrastructure, and I know that my right hon. Friend will welcome that.

Alison Thewliss moved her amendment. I encourage hon. Members to disagree with that amendment—I do not think we should be spending less money in this area.

My hon. Friend Tim Loughton rightly posed challenges: what do we do with those who are here irregularly and have had their asylum cases rejected, but who we cannot return to Iran or Eritrea? That question has been posed time and again to Opposition Members, and answer comes there none. The third country scheme—the Rwanda scheme—is the answer to that challenge, which is why I am so determined to see it through. I am sure we will have further exchanges on that question as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill returns to the House and goes through ping-pong next week.

I also thank and praise my hon. Friend for his diligence on the Home Affairs Committee over the past 10 years. Although he may be superficially charming, he is as challenging to Government Front Benchers as the Opposition Members are, if not more challenging; certainly when he gets his pen out and asks those detailed questions, Ministers have to make sure that they are at the ready. He has rightly challenged the French partnership, and I agree with him. I know that the Select Committee has been out to France to see the work that is taking place there. That work is increasing, more French personnel are now deployed, and that is beginning to have an effect. He will have seen the reduction in numbers from last year: crossings are down by 36%. We must reduce those numbers further and redouble our efforts.

My hon. Friend also asked challenging questions about the backlog. The direct answer is that the backlog stands at 95,252 as of the end of December and is down by 28%. We must increase that downward trajectory, and we must increase the upward trajectory in the number of caseworkers and decision makers. Over 2,500 are in place, and I pay tribute to each and every one.

I must, in due deference, give time to the Chair of the Select Committee to wind up in the final few minutes. We will return to the subject of Rwanda on Monday, but I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North for her forensic approach and for bringing this debate to the Chamber of the House of Commons. There will be further debates on Monday; it will be nice to hear more details—or a detail—of what Labour has to offer in this area, because so far it has nothing to offer at all.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:58, 14 Mawrth 2024

This has been an excellent debate at which members of the Home Affairs Committee have been well represented, including the deputy Chair, Tim Loughton, and the spokesperson for the SNP, Alison Thewliss, who is a very valued member of the Committee. The former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has spoken, as has the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry.

The key theme that I want the Minister to take away, which almost every speaker referred to, is the lack of transparency from the Home Office. That is the issue that I want the Minister and his colleagues to address. Parliament is not a rubber stamp for whatever the Home Office wishes to do; it has to be accountable to the Home Affairs Committee and to Parliament more generally. I look forward to future meetings of the Committee where Ministers come equipped with all the information that is necessary for our Committee to carry out effective scrutiny on behalf of the House.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

I am now required to put the Questions necessary—[Interruption.] The Clerks are wondering if it is 5 o’clock yet. It is not quite 5 o’clock, but by the time I say this it will be. I am now required to put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the estimates set down for consideration this day.

The Deputy Speaker put the deferred Questions (Standing Order No. 54).