This week I challenged the Government to extend the transition period that refugees face after been granted status to remain in the UK, drawing on the experience of two local charities, City of Sanctuary and Nomad. Sheffield is rightly proud to be a city that welcomes refugees, but Government policies mean that many refugees face destitution and homelessness after they receive their status.
One of the biggest issues is the ‘move-on period’ which doesn’t give refugees enough time to set up their lives and find somewhere to live before their asylum support is stopped. Read my full speech:
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing the debate, and on the characteristically powerful way in which she opened it and made the point so effectively. She is right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), that gaining refugee status should be a moment for celebration, but that for too many it is a ticking clock towards homelessness and destitution.
Sheffield was the UK’s first city of sanctuary. We made a very positive statement that we wanted to welcome those fleeing persecution and war, and to give them a good reception in our city. I am proud that that movement has spread all over the country. We have some of the most organised and best co-ordinated support charities and organisations helping refugees and asylum seekers, but even in our position the 28-day move-on period is not sufficient to prevent homelessness and destitution.
In preparation for today’s debate, I spoke to two local charities about the issues that refugees in Sheffield face at the end of the move-on period: City of Sanctuary, which provides general support, and Nomad, a charity that particularly helps those who face homelessness and that tells me it has seen a steady increase in the number of refugees who are forced to become rough sleepers.
As my colleagues have indicated, there is much that could be done. City of Sanctuary has called for the Government’s urgent guide for refugees to be provided in a range of languages, because many of those granted refugee status are likely to face language barriers in accessing services. It is not on that the guide is currently available only in English.
Refugees also face barriers when opening bank accounts, which they need immediately for payment of wages or to gain access to social security. Banks do not provide interpreters, and many newly granted refugees do not have a support network of trusted English speakers who can help. City of Sanctuary also found that online forms and mobile banking apps do not recognise occupancy status, which is often the situation for those who have been living in asylum accommodation. I ask the Minister, will he commit to working with the banks to resolve those issues?
Internet access is also a real issue. These days almost everything, including universal credit applications, has to be done online, but mobile internet access costs money. There are some places where free internet services are available, but newly recognised refugees may well not know about them.
There are other issues too, but many of the problems come down to the short move-on period. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, asylum seekers have not had the right to work before being granted status, so they have not built up savings because they have not had an income to support themselves. There is cross-party concern about changing the right to work. In the last Parliament, the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Caroline Spelman, led a debate in this Chamber about seeking to change the rules, so that the right to work was granted. The Minister should advocate for that in debates at the Home Office.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton pointed out, there is a real incompatibility between the length of the move-on period and the five-week wait for universal credit. The Red Cross found that 65% of refugees who were supported to apply for universal credit were left with no financial support; the proportion of those who were not supported would be even higher. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West pointed out, a simple measure, such as a cash grant at the point of being granted status, could make an enormous difference.
City of Sanctuary in Sheffield told me that even for those classed as a priority need, 28 days is not long enough, in many cases, for local authorities to find suitable accommodation. Refugee families have been required to stay in unsafe and unsuitable places. Nomad told me that because of that, some refugees who are placed in emergency accommodation decide that taking their chance on the street as rough sleepers is a better option. For those not classed as a priority need, the only option is private rented accommodation, which is difficult, if not impossible, to access without a universal credit payment and the means to put down a deposit, so we return to the same issues again.
City of Sanctuary found that some refugees have received penalty notices from the NHS, despite being in receipt of universal credit. I hope the Minister will consider taking that up with his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care. That reflects a general point that the Home Office needs to work more closely with local authorities and with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that newly granted refugees start getting the support they need as soon as possible.
The key point that has come out of today’s debate is the pressing need to extend the move-on period for people granted refugee status from 28 days to 56 days.