Yesterday (10 January 2024), I spoke in the Scottish Government Debate around the impact of UK Government Asylum Policy. You can watch the video above, or read the full text of my speech below.

Full text of speech

Scotland should rightly be proud of its record on welcoming refugees and asylum seekers, as well as migrants more generally. We should acknowledge the moral responsibility of nations—including, of course, Scotland—to meet our international humanitarian obligations and the imperative to have an ethical and humane asylum and immigration system.

We should be clear about and acknowledge the huge contribution that migrants to Scotland make to our society and the vital roles that many migrants play across society, be that in the care sector, our NHS, science and technology, research and higher education, our business community or many other areas. Just think what more they could do if they were all allowed to work. We should also acknowledge the contribution that migrants make to our arts and cultural communities and how they enrich society more generally. I want to express my thanks for the contribution that migrants make to the communities that I am privileged to represent.

Scotland’s national responsibility is clearly complicated by the reserved nature of immigration and asylum policies. Let us be clear that the UK Government’s responsibility is to fund appropriately the support that is required across Scotland’s local authorities to ensure that vulnerable refugee families who have come to Scotland and our wider communities are appropriately supported.

I will spend much of my speech focusing on that matter, but, before I do, let me put on record what I consider to be the UK Government’s approach to asylum and immigration more generally, which my constituents expect me to do. I find it repugnant. Trying to offshore to Rwanda our moral obligations to refugees, seeking to demonise those who come to our shores on boats despite the dearth of any legal routes to the UK that they could use and tacitly encouraging the normalisation of right-wing rhetoric across society are just some of the aspects of the UK’s discourse on immigration that I am deeply concerned about.

As imperfect and flawed as the current asylum system is, and despite its being a reserved matter, the Scottish Government and our councils have a clear duty to do all that they can to provide a welcoming, integrated and inclusive approach to the immigration and asylum system. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is in our self-interest, given the needs of our economy and our public sector. We need a committed, skilled and growing working-age population, and migration to Scotland makes a key contribution in that respect.

The Scottish Government has, rightly, highlighted in its motion concerns over the increased reliance on contingency asylum accommodation that is caused by a backlog in Home Office decision making, as well as various other concerns. However, I will focus on the streamlined asylum process and the limited move-on period that is allowed once a decision has been made—the fast-tracking that we have heard about in the debate.

What does that mean for Glasgow? Rather than a manageable flow of asylum seekers staying in the city and requiring to be rehoused from Mears accommodation into mainstream accommodation after they secure a positive decision, there will be a significant spike in the numbers for the city to manage without one penny of additional financial support from the UK Government. Let us remember that that spike is due to the UK Home Office having a dreadful record over many years of failing to determine asylum decisions timeously.

I have referred to a spike, but we are talking about vulnerable asylum-seeking families in very large numbers having to move from the designated asylum accommodation that they are currently in to a homelessness system without the UK Government offering any financial support. That cannot be fair on anyone.

When I met Mears at the start of December last year, it indicated that there were 560 overstayers, mainly in Glasgow, who are defined as people in Mears accommodation 28 days after that positive decision. I am unclear how many of those overstayers with a positive decision are now homeless.

To have no UK funds following a positive decision was always unfair on councils, but to potentially have hundreds of families being made homeless within a short space of time with no UK Government financial support is scandalous. It is not fair on the families who are facing homelessness, whether they are asylum seeking or not, and it is not fair on Glasgow.

There is an acknowledgement from the UK Government that there are initial costs for local authorities when they first host a vulnerable asylum seeker. Every time a bed is identified, it triggers a payment of £3,500. Why is there no acknowledgement of the need to offer support to local authorities when vulnerable asylum seekers are at a point of transition into our mainstream system? It makes no sense.

I also discussed with Mears how it works with councils across Scotland to ensure that we have a Scotland-wide approach to supporting asylum-seeking families. It was encouraging to hear that councils outwith Glasgow are working constructively to identify 2,000 additional bed spaces in around 600 to 700 properties.

That led to a discussion about how Mears or Glasgow City Council could work with asylum-seeking families ahead of any positive decision in order to prepare them for transition. For example, could Mears or the council help them to save for a deposit for a private rented property in the future, if only they were allowed to work? Could councils discuss with them what their housing options might be more generally? Would families wish to remain in Glasgow? It is understandable if they do, because kids might be at school and families might have put down roots in communities, but could families be asked if they would consider moving elsewhere in Scotland? What support package could be offered for them to do so? What would accommodation options look like? What would schools look like? What are the local amenities in any given area? Are there support networks elsewhere in Scotland, should families wish to move there? I should put on record that I am happy for those families to stay in Glasgow, but options should be discussed.

The response that I received from Mears was that not only are such systems not in place but Mears is specifically restricted by the Home Office from having any conversation of that nature whatsoever. That is crazy, that is wrong and that is unacceptable.

I understand that there is a test of change group, which includes Glasgow City Council, the Home Office, the Scottish Refugee Council and Mears, to look at solutions to housing issues. I would welcome an update from the Scottish Government on where that has got to.

In the chamber this afternoon, much has been made of the polarised debate about visions for an immigration and asylum system and the kind of society that we want to be. That is absolutely the case, but I also live in the here and now. In my communities, vulnerable asylum-seeking families need support in the here and now. That has to involve partnership working between the UK Government, the Scottish Government, Scotland’s councils and all our stakeholders, including those with lived experience.

I commend the Scottish Government’s motion.

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