David Simmonds: Refugee resettlement has been a British success story. Something we must continue.

7 May

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and Chairman of the APPG on Migration.

Somewhat lost in the press coverage in recent days about reform of the asylum system is news of a success story worth celebrating. As we pledged to do in 2015, in response to the civil war in Syria – which led to the mass movement of people, the UK has now resettled 20,000 people through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

That we reached this goal in spite of political instability at home, with Brexit dominating so much of the domestic political landscape, and despite the pandemic, which temporarily affected our capacity but never our motivation, is a testament to hard work and strategic thinking at every level.

It is a testament to the resolve of successive Conservative governments, which under three different prime ministers have made refugee resettlement a top priority. I have seen this first-hand through my own involvement with the scheme, as Lord Porter, then Chairman of the Local Government Association, and I joined the cabinet sub-committee chaired by the then Home Secretary Theresa May to commence work on the VPRS in 2015.

It is a testament to local authorities, without whom a programme on this scale would have been impossible. Councils have made pledges on the basis of their capacity, welcomed some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and given them the support they need to integrate well. The fact that this has included urban and rural areas demonstrates that the solution to the refugee crisis can include the whole of our country, not just big cities.

It is also a testament to the goodwill of the public. Communities up and down the country have greeted refugees with open arms, befriending families, providing practical support, and helping people take the first steps in rebuilding their lives.

The Syrian refugee resettlement scheme has been a Great British success story. We should be proud of our strategic involvement in tackling a global problem, the transformation of the lives of people who have come here, and the way our communities have been enriched by their presence here. Britain has gone above and beyond in meeting its international obligations, resettling more refugees from the Middle East between 2016-19 than any other European country.

We have also done this in a way that recognises the needs of local communities and recognises the strains that can occur when too many new arrivals are concentrated in one place. Indeed, the refugee resettlement scheme has avoided many of the problems caused by the operation of the dispersal scheme, in which asylum seekers are sent to areas where housing is cheap and easily available, are unable to work, and often wait years for a decision on whether or not they can stay in the UK.

On the other hand, refugees who arrive through resettlement programmes have been vetted prior to arrival, are able to work straight away, and arrive in a community that has the resources and desire to welcome them. We have also taken a manageable number of people. Taking 5,000 refugees annually equates to eight people per parliamentary constituency. Whilst I accept legitimate concerns about stretched resources – and am all too familiar with the pressures faced by local councils from my two decades of work in local government – I believe it is well within our means to accommodate this number of people across the country.

Whilst the VPRS has been a success, we would be wasting an opportunity if we did not seek to learn the lessons from the last six years as we embark on our new resettlement scheme. The UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), the successor programme to the VPRS, reflects the ambitions of ‘Global Britain’, both in its wider geographical scope and in its flexibility, with the ability to respond to unforeseen crises that may arise. That is even more important now, in the context of the pandemic, than it was when the Government first outlined the details of the scheme in 2019. The next decade is likely to be characterised by uncertainty and instability as the consequences of coronavirus, climate change, and conflicts collide. We must recognise that the problems which may seem distant will confront us eventually if we do not face them proactively with compassion and resolve.

The success of the UKRS will depend on the effective coordination of national and local government. In extremely difficult circumstances over the last year, local authorities have stepped up, from housing rough sleepers to providing social care and children’s services. I have no doubt that they will be willing and able to play an important part in continuing our national success story of refugee resettlement. In order to make an appropriate and ambitious number of pledges, local authorities would benefit from clarity around a multi-year commitment on funding, and an overall aspiration on numbers, set by central government.

Refugee resettlement will never be sufficient to solve a crisis that now sees almost 80 million people displaced around the world. The long-term solution to this crisis will involve incorporating our humanitarian principles into our wider foreign and diplomatic aims, which will mean resourcing nation states to resolve conflicts and ensuring that as many people as possible are able to remain in their places of origin. However, for now, refugee resettlement represents an important component of this effort, and I am extremely proud that Global Britain will continue to tackle global problems and provide sanctuary for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

David Simmonds: Cutting early intervention in children’s services would cost more in the long term

25 Nov

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

Throughout this pandemic, government has extended support for children and families. From furlough, to uplifting Universal Credit, to rolling out the holiday food and activities programme for future school holidays, to keeping vulnerable children learning throughout the pandemic.  These have been appropriate and important interventions. However, the foundations upon which we seek to strengthen and support families are growing increasingly unstable.

Councils are at the forefront of delivering life-changing support keeping children safe and families strong. They are duty-bound to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their families, insofar as this is safe and in the child’s best interests. They are also required to deliver a balanced budget. Before this pandemic, the challenges facing local government finances and rising need for support meant that Children’s Services were placing a significant and unsustainable pressure on local authority budgets.  At a time when funding was falling, councils were being asked to do more and not less. This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and despite additional resources from government during the pandemic, there is an acute cash flow problem developing in the sector that means the measures required to balance budgets in year will have a long term impact on children.

Leading children’s charities have also reported recently that those areas the government has promised to ‘level up’ are amongst those where funding for children’s services has fallen the fastest. These also happen to be communities where indicators of demand for children’s services such as rates of domestic abuse, parental mental ill-health, and free school meal eligibility are the highest. Levelling up people and places must mean investing in children and families.

As a former Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, I know the true potential of children’s services: providing relationship support to help keep families together, helping new mothers struggling to adjust to parenthood, working with families and communities to protect children from abuse or neglect, giving children in the care system a second chance at a happy and safe childhood, and care leavers a supported transition into independent living. I also know the impossibly difficult decisions that colleagues in local government are taking right now as they try to balance the books.

They will be thinking about where they can deliver dramatic savings as they have in most years of the past decade. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto committed this Government to champion family hubs. It is exactly this type of provision that is needed, but that councils find impossibly difficult to fund as there is no duty or resource to do so. Perversely, this inability to fund early intervention will increase costs to the public sector in the long run as emerging problems go unaided until urgent and crisis-based intervention is required, adding pressure on other services such as the police and A&E. The life-long human and financial costs associated with childhood trauma can be significant – we ought to reinvigorate our collective efforts to prevent this.

Councils have done an incredible job of maintaining support by a combination of creative partnerships with other councils, charities, and the private sector, but as we see in adult social care, rising costs and market conditions are creating significant headwinds.  We are already well down this path with the numbers of children in care the highest they have been for several decades and rising still, and the cost of care placements skyrocketing as demand outstrips supply; and as costs have risen we have not seen a corresponding improvement in outcomes.

Helping families is core to who we are as Conservatives. As a former Local Government Minister, the Chancellor will be very aware of pressures on council budgets. I recently spoke with a  number of Conservative colleagues heading Children’s Services in local government. They were each honest about the difficulty of the challenge before them and they were all too aware of the cost of failure.  But they were also proud in the knowledge that every day their teams are doing the best they can in unenviable circumstances for their families and vulnerable children. The Spending Review is Rishi Sunak’s moment to deliver urgently needed investment to place children’s services on a sustainable footing.  If we are to build back better for children and families we need to stabilise the foundations. Only then will we truly be able to stand with families through the tough times ahead and turnaround the outcomes of vulnerable children.

David Simmonds: After six months of disruption, refugee resettlement must not be forgotten

5 Oct

David Simmonds is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and the Conservative principal of the cross-party Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project (RAMP)

As chairman of the Local Government Association’s, Asylum, Migration and Refugee Task Group, I had a privileged insight into the efforts required to make a success of resettlement. The joined-up approach, with international agencies working with refugees in conflict areas, and local authorities receiving the necessary funding and support from the government, made a meaningful and lasting difference to people in need of protection and a new start.

Indeed, the UK’s refugee resettlement programme has been one of the quiet success stories of Conservative governments since 2015. By the end of last year, nearly 20,000 refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria were settled into communities across the country through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS). Half of all those resettled have been vulnerable children. This has been achieved with strong community support, in contrast to the concerns provoked by trafficker-driven, illegal channel crossings.

Understandably, given the disruption to international travel and the unprecedented challenges facing the government and local authorities because of the pandemic, the resettlement scheme was paused in March, and the new Global Resettlement Scheme – under which various existing schemes will be brought together – has yet to launch.

However, the need for safe, legal, managed routes into the UK remains as important as ever. As we maintain our proud record of welcoming those in need, and address practical concerns regarding our borders, this is an opportunity for us to reflect on why the VPRS worked so effectively, with a view to resuming refugee resettlement at the earliest opportunity.

During the summer, the focus has been on the increasing number of people making the dangerous journey across the Channel, often at the mercy of criminal gangs exploiting their misery and desperation. We need to discourage people from making a journey that puts their lives at risk and undermines the legal processes by which people should come to this country and make it their home. Human traffickers prey on the misery and desperation of those seeking sanctuary and safety, and we must ensure that they cannot continue to profit in this way.

Along with my Conservative colleagues, I was elected on a manifesto that commits to granting asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution. Much has changed since the general election, but it remains within our power to meet the commitment made to those who have experienced violence. Given that asylum claims can only be made by those who are physically in the UK, we need to offer safe, legal routes for people to come, rather than risk people arriving on small boats across the channel.

This is not, as it is often unhelpfully framed, a choice between compassion and robust management of our borders. Offering safe legal routes into the country is part of our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable. Resettlement allows us control over how many refugees come into the country, and the voluntary aspect of the scheme means local authorities can welcome people on the basis of their capacity and the particular needs of their community.

Crucially, we have shown over the past five years that we can resettle refugees successfully. The effective interaction between international agencies working with refugees on the ground and the coordination between national and local government led to a scheme described by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as meeting the ‘gold standard’.

UNHCR selects people on the basis of need – with a particular focus on families, children at risk, and those who have survived violence or torture – and the International Organisation for Migration arranges their relocation. The Home Office considers referrals and matches them to participating local authorities, and the accommodation and support on arrival is offered by local authorities that have opted into the scheme and been given the necessary funding to house people and help them integrate smoothly into their new surroundings.

We know who is arriving, because applicants have been through a robust selection process on the ground and vetted by the Home Office, and there is a community ready to welcome them here in the UK. The voluntary nature of the scheme has meant that communities across the country, in urban and rural areas, have benefitted from the positive contribution of those who have resettled, are entitled to work immediately, and put their skills to good use. In areas where depopulation is a significant issue, the VPRS has provided an opportunity for local authorities to address the needs of their community, from unused housing, to dwindling workforces, to schools struggling to stay open because of declining pupil numbers.

This community participation and support makes resettlement considerably more effective than the dispersal scheme, under which destitute asylum seekers are not evenly spread around the country, live in cheap and often substandard accommodation, and are unable to work legally whilst they wait for their case to be determined. This situation simply wastes the skills of people who are here, and often does not garner community acceptance because of the disproportionate number of asylum seekers in certain local authorities and the lack of funding available to support them.

The recent fire at a migrant camp in Lesbos, which has left approximately 13,000 asylum seekers homeless, is a stark reminder that displacement is not an issue that will disappear as we confront other challenges. As France and Italy have resumed their refugee resettlement programmes, the moment has arrived for us to consider how we can contribute constructively through similar provision.

In 2015, when the resettlement scheme was extended rapidly in response to the growing humanitarian need, we demonstrated our ability to increase our support in difficult circumstances. Resuming resettlement now will allow us to support those in need, manage our borders effectively, and demonstrate our enduring commitment to tackling global challenges.