West Berks’ refugees – the guidance, politics, policy and reality

The background

As we reported in August 2023 (here and also here – see 31 August (28 days or seven?) and 8 September (Asylum News) – the processes for dealing with the final stage of an asylum seeker’s journey through the UK’s system seem far from perfect. Delayed letters and incorrect documentation have been the two main problems. As their backdrop, these have some confusing messaging from the Home Office. It is this which WBC, local charities and of course the asylum seekers themselves have been grappling. This has particularly been the case in the last few months when the number of people being granted the confusingly-named status of leave to remain (ie permission to stay) has increased.

The situation is only likely to get worse. The government’s figures show that the number of applications awaiting an initial decision was 52,467 on 31 March 2021, 89,344 on on 31 March 2022 and 133,067 on 31 March 2023. An informed estimate I was given on 10 October suggests that the current total is about 170,000. The number of new applications is currently rising at about 75,000 a year. Given all the global factors contributing to this there seems little prospect of these falling.

The Home Office thus has a major problem on its hands in dealing with these cases and it’s impossible to pretend that it’s been doing that well. In the EU, the number of cases which take more than six months to resolve has remained fairly consistently at between 40 and 50% since September 2021. In the same period in the UK, the number of such cases is only 25 to 30%. The Institute for Government reported in 2021 that the UK had 14.9 cases per 10,000 population in the asylum backlog, more than France (7.3) and Germany (13) and slightly less than Spain (15.3), despite the UK receiving far fewer applications per 10,000 people than the other three. That’s right: other countries are facing worse problems than are we and seem to handling them rather better.

Eventually, people make it out of the system (or most do – in 2022, about 75% were granted either refugee status or, more rarely, humanitarian protection). It is at this point that a whole different set of problems set in.

Escaping the system

Until then, the asylum seekers have been living in accommodation, such as the Regency Park Hotel in Thatcham. Unlike in Germany, they are unable while in this limbo to work: they are, however, able to volunteer and take part in English classes. In general, their life drops to the kind of supervised, slow and unfulfilled pace one might expect if serving time in an open prison or recovering from a major operation. Then, with no warning, the long-anticipated day comes when the leave-to-remain status is granted. At this point everything has to go into hyper-drive if they are not to find themselves homeless.

How well this is dealt with depends on a number of things. These include the refugees’ mental health and preparedness, the ability of local charities and councils to offer support and consistent procedures being applied by Whitehall. The first will vary massively depending on the individual. The second seems to have been done excellently. The success of the third is, at best, indifferent…

The official guidance…

An undated Home Office guidance document, which was received by local charities in West Berkshire on 11 August 2023 and so presumably issued shortly before this, says that the department is “taking steps to discontinue support in line with our legislation.” The key issue is that of notice to quit any temporary accommodation. The guidance notes state that “Where someone is given notice that their asylum claim has been granted, their appeal has been allowed or their asylum claim has been refused but they have been given leave to enter or remain, the prescribed period is 28 days.”

No definition of “prescribed period” is provided here or, as far as I can see, in the legislation, but it appears to refer to the period at the end of which any financial support will cease. These seven-page letters do therefore contain notice of a kind – but not notice to quit accommodation.

That is the subject of a separate letter. As the guidance notes explain, “As per Regulation 22 of the Asylum Support Regulations, individuals will receive a ‘notice to quit’ support letter, which will be issued in writing at least seven days before the individual’s accommodation and support payments are due to end.” The first paragraph of this describes the letter as being “a formal notice to permanently vacate the premises” by a specified date. One that I have seen was dated twelve days before the notice came into effect. I understand that others have different periods.

The legislation – 22, 3 (a) – specifies the notice to quit period, for cases where the asylum application has been determined, as being “a period of not less than seven days.” Slightly confusingly, 4 (b) goes on to say that is some cases the notice period can be less than seven days. So, it can actually be any length of time. This provides an infinite range of notice periods, without any need to change legislation or perhaps even official policy, depending on whatever political or administrative exigencies prevail at the time.

What should happen is that people get their seven-page leave to remain letter and, shortly after that, their biometric BRP card which confirms amongst other things their NI number. Then, about three or four weeks later, they get their notice to quit. In the past (before August 2023), I understand that the notice-to-quit period was often a further 28 days. It now seems to have reduced closer to the “at least seven” provided by law.

…and the reality

What actually happens, certainly in West Berkshire, is that these three documents may not turn up at these intervals; or in that order; or at all. I’ve heard of cases where people have received the card but no explanatory letters and others where the notice to quit has been received but not anything else. This makes a mockery of the guidance note’s claim that “we encourage individuals to make their onward plans as soon as possible after receiving their decision.”

This is not helped by local councils being left out of this information loop, such as it it. Portfolio holder Denise Gaines told WBC’s Full Council on 5 October 2023 that the Council “is not informed when asylum seekers’ status was changed to leave to remain after which we would be completely responsible for supporting them.” This seems a staggering oversight.

One of the charities involved, West Berkshire Action for Refugees, told Penny Post on 23 August 2023 that “just in the last couple of weeks WBAR has seen information from the Home Office noting that the housing companies can give the minimum of seven days’ notice. In practice they are serving the notice from the date of the letter even if it takes four days to arrive.”

Whether or not the move from longer to shorter periods is a change in policy or a change in implementation is slightly beside the point. The matter was discussed at West Berkshire Council’s above-mentioned Full Council meeting, as a result of a motion that was put, and carried, that the Council should write to the Home Secretary to request that the transition period to a more realistic time period of eight weeks and that emergency funding be provided to local authorities.

There were eight preliminary points to this (you need to scroll down to the very last page – number 685, if you please – to see them). One said that “the Home Office has reduced the move-on period from 28 to seven days, the time an asylum seeker must transition from their temporary accommodation to become independent.”

Politics

This point was seized on by WBC’s opposition leader Ross Mackinnon who described it as “fake news.” He says that successful applicants receive a letter giving them “28 days’ notice to leave dispersal accommodation.” The letter – if it arrives – certainly gives notice that the money is about to stop and that the end-game has been reached: but it is not a notice to quit. Were it to be, there would be no need for the “notice to quit” letters that follow it (or are meant to). These can – and increasingly do – give a notice period a lot closer to seven days than 28.

The preamble’s other seven points all concern the impact that this had has on WBC’s already hard-stretched Housing Department, which has received praise for the way it’s conducted itself from everyone I’ve spoken to about this. I don’t think politicians from any party would deny that more support is needed. This appears to be yet another matter which the government department has fumbled and then passed down the line to the people on the ground to resolve.

It’s possible the ministers responsible believe that there is still always a 28-day notice period to quit and that all the procedures are working smoothly. The reality, from everything I’ve heard, is that there isn’t and that they aren’t. Such national/local disconnects have happened before.

It’s true that a couple of the motion’s preamble’s points are political in that they attack the government. The local Conservatives’ response is similarly partisan, saying that the Lib Dems were “desperate to throw mud” at the SW1 incumbents. To a certain extent these cancel out. Whether this change of policy, or application, has come from the government for political reasons or the Home Office for administrative ones is hard to determine. I’ve heard theories both ways.

The reality is that the situation is shifting, confused and not being well managed from London. The regulations are open to a wide range of interpretations as regards timing. Communication has been poor and not always in accordance with reality.

Three things in common

Local organisations are, once again, bearing the brunt of this. The motion that was proposed over-simplified the situation but contained no falsehoods, save that the notice to quit period is not always seven days but can be as short as that (or, in exceptional cases, shorter still).

The two main parties at WBC may disagree about a couple of the phrases used in the motion but I think they can agree about a lot more things: four in particular. The first is that the workings of the Home Office have, for reasons that perhaps have nothing to do with politics, been less than perfect. The second is that WBC needs more money, communication and support from Whitehall to deal with the challenge. The third is that there is a case for making the notice to quit period longer. The fourth, as Ross Mackinnon correctly pointed out, is that the whole issue is “difficult and emotive”.

Indeed it is.

 

Brian Quinn

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