Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 10, 2024


Asylum Policy and Legislation (United Kingdom Government)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11803, in the name of Emma Roddick, on the impact of UK Government asylum policy and legislation in Scotland.

I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I call Emma Roddick to speak to and move the motion.


The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

We recognise that, unfortunately, asylum policy is currently reserved to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998. The Scottish Government has been clear through our building a new Scotland paper “Migration to Scotland after independence” that, in an independent Scotland, we would take a very different approach to asylum and migration, building a new system that is based on treating people with dignity and respect and on upholding our international and moral obligations.

The purpose of holding the debate today is to discuss and to highlight the impact that UK Government asylum decisions have had in Scotland on national and local government, as well as on the third sector’s ability to support asylum seekers who live here.

As the Scottish Refugee Council is fond of saying, powers are reserved, people are not. In Scotland, we are determined to support everyone who lives here to integrate into and contribute to our communities. We want to respect and protect the human rights of everyone and provide opportunity and equality, regardless of anyone’s background. Supporting asylum seekers and treating them fairly when they engage with devolved services is our responsibility, and we have made it our business. However, it is undeniable that UK Government decisions—I will soon speak to a few recent ones in particular—impact on our ability to do that successfully and in the best way.

Earlier today, I spoke, as I regularly do, with representatives from the Scottish Refugee Council and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about exactly that issue. I will lay out some of the most concerning examples that they have shared of the impact of UK Government decisions on their ability to do the work that they do. We discussed how seriously councils take their responsibilities to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and how lack of adequate funding to support that work is impacting how well it can be done. I have also heard how lack of funding to support councils to work with newly recognised refugees is forcing people into destitution and putting councils in the difficult position of dealing with sudden spikes in homelessness presentations.

The UK Government claimed on 2 January that the legacy asylum backlog had been cleared. It published data suggesting that, in the four weeks from 10 November to 17 December last year, 20,481 initial asylum decisions were made. That is more than were made in the whole of 2021, and we know that thousands of cases remain unresolved. Through the Women’s Integration Network in Glasgow, I have heard from people who have been seeking asylum for more than a decade—women who have not left Scotland since before Facebook launched, holding babies who were born here while they have no idea when they might receive permission to stay and to work to support those babies or what they might do if their application is refused.

We have long called for improving the speed and quality of decisions, but the approach of doing so without support or co-ordination with local councils has left people destitute and homeless. It means that receiving a positive decision can be as stressful as receiving a negative one. Suddenly, the very little support that people have disappears, and they have a very short move-on period. For many, the only option is to present as homeless to the local authority. Without communication and financial support from the UK Government, councils are struggling to do right by those who have been given positive decisions but have nowhere to turn and nowhere to live. The new Minister of State for Legal Migration and the Border confirmed to me on 3 January that the UK Government will not provide any additional funding as a result of the increase in asylum support cessations.

In this incredibly difficult situation, local authorities across Scotland are engaging with asylum dispersal; nearly half of Scottish local authorities are now taking part. There are, of course, housing pressures in many of those council areas, but that does not prevent Scotland from doing its part in continuing to support refugees and people seeking asylum. What it does is increase the importance of genuine engagement from the UK Government with local authorities on asylum dispersal and related matters to give them a fighting chance of supporting people to avoid homelessness and destitution—genuine engagement that is, sadly, still missing.

Similar difficulties arise in third sector support. I want to acknowledge, as always, the vital work that the third sector does in Scotland to support asylum seekers. It is one of the privileges of my role to be able to work so closely with the Scottish Refugee Council, which is one of our partners, along with COSLA, in the new Scots strategy. The new Scots approach has now been in place for a decade. It is in the process of being refreshed, with a new strategy expected to be published at the end of March, to be followed by a delivery plan in the summer.

Throughout its life, the new Scots approach has held the core principle of supporting integration from day 1 of arrival in Scotland. However, it cannot directly address issues that are outwith the scope of the Scottish Government, Scottish local authorities and other Scottish organisations. UK Government decisions therefore have a significant impact on what can be done to support people seeking asylum and communities in Scotland, even in devolved areas. We are limited in that aim of supporting integration from day 1.

In a debate last year, I highlighted a comment from the Global Refugee Forum, in which I had been told that there are asylum seekers living in Scotland who have never heard of Scotland and are unaware of which country they are in. If someone is unaware that they are in Scotland, it becomes nearly impossible for us and for the third sector to communicate to them their rights and the Scotland-specific services that are available to them. All the while, the UK Government is seeking to restrict the right of people to seek asylum in the UK at all through the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The third sector and the Scottish Government are keen to mitigate, wherever possible, the worst impacts of that act, but UK Government plans to implement it remain unclear, which makes it challenging for us to consider the best way to do that.

That act, of course, follows the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. Two clauses in the Nationality and Borders Bill triggered a need for legislative consent, which the Scottish Parliament voted to withhold. The UK Government then made no changes in response to the views of, and the lack of consent from, the Scottish Parliament. Then we got the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which is the second piece of asylum legislation that was introduced last year that the Home Secretary could not guarantee would be compatible with the European convention on human rights. That led to flippant comments from some politicians down south about whether we should get rid of ECHR responsibilities altogether.

The Scottish Government has opposed plans to relocate people to Rwanda and to have protection claims considered there since those plans were announced in April 2022, because that undermines the 1951 United Nations refugee convention. The Supreme Court decision in November to reject the Government appeal was important, but we have been disappointed with the UK Government’s reaction since then, in doubling down and introducing emergency legislation to try to force through the measure anyway.

The UK was a founding signatory of the 1951 UN refugee convention, which is hard to picture now, given the current UK Government’s constant attacks on the rights of people to seek safety and sanctuary here. We have a duty to uphold that convention instead of constantly trying to find ways out of it. However, it does not look as though we are anywhere near having a UK Government that will accept those facts. Files that were recently released by the National Archives in London outlined consideration given by the former Labour Government to accommodating asylum seekers in Mull.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am sure that the minister will want to note that that suggestion, which came from civil servants, was not taken forward by the UK Labour Government and was, in fact, dismissed. For the accuracy of the debate, she will want to acknowledge that.

Emma Roddick

I will certainly be pleasantly surprised if a Labour Government comes in at the next UK election and makes big changes compared to the UK Government that we have now. However, based on the rhetoric coming from the current Labour and Conservative campaigns, it seems to me that the First Minister was right to describe an apparent “race to the bottom” on immigration policies. No UK Government in recent memory has attempted to move towards a humane and dignified asylum system that promotes integration and welcomes people.

The broader rights and freedoms of asylum seekers are also a concern. People seeking asylum who would otherwise be destitute can apply to the Home Office for accommodation and financial support while they wait for a decision. Asylum accommodation is provided on a no-choice basis and, as of two days ago, we understand that asylum support rates have been reduced to £8.86 per week for people in catered accommodation, which is about £1.25 a day. New maximisation policies also increase risk and misery by requiring unrelated adults to share hotel rooms in contingency asylum accommodation. Further, there was a complete lack of engagement with Scottish local authorities prior to procurement of hotels in their areas for that purpose or, after that, on the decision to bring in the new maximisation policy.

People seeking asylum are restricted from working unless they are granted permission by the Home Office and, in most cases, we are prevented from supporting asylum seekers due to the application of the no recourse to public funds system. We owe those people better. Their human rights are not being realised through the financial support of £1.25 a day, the inability to go out to work to earn for themselves and the terrifying uncertainty over their future, which casts gloom on every single thought that they have.

Every person who is living in Scotland and who does not have the right to work or enough money to support themselves is a huge waste of potential. All those people could be making positive change for others, running popular businesses, supporting our public services or contributing to our local economies. That is why we are developing a proposal for an asylum right to work pilot in Scotland, which analysis has told us could add an estimated £30 million a year to the Scottish economy and help to fill vital but currently vacant roles.

I discussed with the Scottish Refugee Council the impact of divisive rhetoric and inhuman language, and the importance of showing political leadership in promoting the positive impact that a fair and sensible approach to asylum and migration would have on Scotland. Together With Refugees recently commissioned research that showed that 80 per cent of people in the UK want an approach that is fair, compassionate and well managed. The current mess does not work for anyone, whether it is asylum seekers, employers, businesses or Governments. People want others to be treated with fairness, and they want those who live in Scotland to be able to engage with their local communities and employment opportunities.

That is exactly what the fair begins here campaign calls for, so I take the opportunity to welcome that campaign and direct all those with an interest towards it. I know that many of my constituents—and probably constituents of colleagues across the chamber—want to do their bit to make positive change for asylum seekers in Scotland, and I hope that others will join in sharing the spirit of that campaign and calling on the UK Government to deliver.

Having met a few of the people involved, I know that there are incredible success stories of where integration has worked in Scotland. MSPs across the country will be aware of such stories, too, so please talk about them and highlight the benefits of migration and supporting others. Let us shift the rhetoric to a more positive place.

Scotland should be a good neighbour and a contributor to global priorities. We should encourage migration to Scotland and enthusiastically welcome people who want to live here and contribute, but we cannot do that if we are seen as a country that sees incomers as worth less than others. Legislation such as the Illegal Migration Act 2023, as well as commentary that suggests that human rights are optional or even unwanted, do no favours to the UK’s international reputation, and Scotland is at risk of being dragged right down with it.

I am committed to continuing to raise issues relating to reserved asylum decisions, to pushing the UK Government to make sensible changes such as allowing asylum seekers the right to work, and to continuing partnership working with COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council. However, I want to be clear that my job—whoever carries it out—will continue to be extremely difficult, with our future uncertain, while we remain in the United Kingdom and beholden to UK Governments with increasingly concerning ideas about how to treat asylum seekers and refugees. The only way to ensure that we meet our moral and legal obligations to the people who seek sanctuary here, the only way to direct resources and spending to where they are needed and the only way that Scotland will have an asylum and migration system that works for our needs is through independence.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the impact of UK Government asylum policy and legislation in Scotland, including the effect of the complex asylum system on people who have applied for protection, restrictions on the right to work and limited support available to people awaiting a decision, the increased reliance on contingency asylum accommodation caused by a backlog in Home Office decision-making, risks of maximisation policy and inadequate engagement with Scottish local authorities or public services prior to procurement of contingency accommodation, the streamlined asylum process and limited move-on period allowed once a decision has been made, and consequent impact on both newly-recognised refugees and local authorities, and the restricting of the right to seek asylum in the UK under the Illegal Migration Act 2023; is opposed to the UK Government’s pursuit of plans to relocate people to third countries to have asylum claims considered there; recognises the ruling of the Supreme Court in relation to the safety of Rwanda, and acknowledges the comments of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that the Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP) between the UK and Rwanda undermines the established international refugee protection system and that the UNHCR does not consider the MEDP to comply with the UK’s obligations under international law; notes the engagement of Scottish local authorities in asylum dispersal, and agrees that the UK Government needs to engage positively with devolved governments, local authorities and public services across asylum matters to reduce negative impacts on people, communities and services.

I gently remind members who are looking to participate in the debate but have not yet pressed their request-to-speak button to do so now or as soon as possible.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The United Kingdom has a proud history of supporting refugees. Since 2015, as a country, we have offered a home to more than half a million men, women and children who have sought safety, including those from Hong Kong, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as, most recently, those fleeing President Putin’s illegal attack on Ukraine. To put that in context, it is equivalent to the population of Edinburgh being resettled in the UK. We all agree that it is right that we respond appropriately to the plight of individuals and families who are escaping violent, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that systematically persecute and even execute their own people.

Recently, as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on Bangladesh, I visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I think that I speak for all MSPs who were on the trip when I say that it was a deeply humbling experience. It demonstrated not only the vulnerable humanitarian situation but the unstable situation that the Rohingya people continue to face. The on-going civil war in Myanmar is deeply concerning, and an estimated 1.4 million Rohingya people have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since 2017.

I pay tribute to the Bangladesh Government’s response to the crisis and, indeed, to the global response, including the support that has been provided. I very much welcome the UK Government’s leading role in that regard. Since 2017, the UK Government has provided £370 million to support Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh, and it has provided nearly £30 million to support Rohingya and other Muslim minorities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The UK Government is a force for good in the world and a global leader in supporting refugees. Although Scottish National Party and Green ministers do not wish to acknowledge that and have tried to make the debate about independence, the UK has a record that we should be proud of.

I agree with the minister that the backlog and the time that is taken to decide whether a person can remain in the UK are not acceptable. It is vital that agencies process asylum claims quickly and efficiently for the good of all concerned. It is welcome that the UK Government has taken steps in recent months to address that situation.

Emma Roddick

Given that the member has a keen interest in housing and homelessness issues, will he back our calls for the UK Government to extend the move-on period for positive decisions to 56 days from the current period of 14 days?

I can give you the time back for the intervention, Mr Briggs.

Miles Briggs

I will come to that point later in my speech. The briefings that were provided for the debate make a very important case for that extension and it is something that colleagues across the UK should look at. I am more than happy to assist in trying to find resolutions to improve that situation and create more safeguards.

With regard to the minister’s comments about the 4,500 complex cases that have been highlighted, we know that those need additional checks and investigations. They are hard cases that often involve asylum seekers who present as children, where age verification must take place; with serious medical issues; or with suspected past convictions that need to be checked. There is therefore more complexity to those cases.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Does Miles Briggs recognise that the values that the UK Border Agency employs in matters such as age verification do not necessarily match the values that we hold in this Parliament, in that those processes often exist in an atmosphere of disbelief and people are required to evidence past trauma and even torture before their asylum claims are assessed?

Miles Briggs

How verification can take place has changed. That process has seen reforms from the UK Government recently, which should be welcomed. Documentation is a key aspect of that. If someone arrives in a country without a passport, it takes time to verify who they are and their age. I think that even the member would accept that our systems must be able to verify people, particularly with regard to past criminal convictions that would bar a person from asylum in this country. So far in this debate, I have not heard any member say that that should not be the case.

However, the UK Government has been directly helping people from regions of conflict and instability. The best help for the most vulnerable people is for them to come to this country through safe and legal routes. That will stop what can only be described as the evil criminal gangs—the minister did not touch on this—that are preying on vulnerable people, including children. That is where we need policy solutions. I have never heard SNP ministers say what they would do to stop criminal gangs preying on those people.

Will the member give way?

Miles Briggs

I want to make some progress. I have taken two interventions and I am not sure that the Deputy Presiding Officer would give me that much time back.

Uncontrolled immigration and unchecked illegal immigration can have very serious consequences. We have seen that with the unacceptable loss of life in the English Channel. That is why it is right to find solutions to stop people putting their lives at risk by crossing the English Channel in small boats and coming to this country illegally. We must ensure that those who come to this country to seek asylum do so through legal routes.

The significant increase in dangerous journeys across the Channel is something that we in Scotland do not directly witness. However, working to stop people traffickers and those who put people’s lives in such great danger should be a priority for us in this place, too. Those who are in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach, rather than risking their lives and paying people smugglers to take them on illegal and dangerous journeys.

We all want to see an effective asylum system, and it is wrong to suggest that the UK Government does not take the welfare of people in the asylum system extremely seriously. At every stage of the process, the UK Government seeks to ensure that the needs and vulnerabilities of asylum seekers are identified and shared with local authorities and health partners. That is why the UK Government has spent £3.7 billion in the current fiscal year alone to support refugees in the UK. The minister should maybe also reflect on the decisions that the Scottish Government has taken to cut council budgets and the impact of those on housing in Scotland. Both of our main cities have already declared a housing emergency.

There has always been a need to review policies and look at how support can be provided, working closely with the national health service, local authorities and non-governmental organisations to ensure that people can access healthcare and the vital support that they need. In my casework since I was elected, I have come across the need for mental health support in particular. We know about the challenges with regard to mental health services not just for those who are seeking asylum, but for all of us in this country.

Asylum seekers have access to health and social care services from the point of their arrival in the UK. All asylum seekers, regardless of the type of accommodation that they are in, have the same access to free NHS services as British citizens and other permanent residents. Getting access to those services is often the problem. The Home Office also operates safeguarding hubs to support vulnerable individuals in quickly accessing healthcare services and information.

I also pay tribute to the third sector, which is doing much good work in the policy area. A number of organisations made important points in the briefings that they provided ahead of the debate, including the British Red Cross’s call for the Scottish Government to better monitor, inspect and regulate the use of housing in Scotland by empowering local authorities and regulatory agencies such as the Scottish Housing Regulator. We should look at that. Conservative members would be open to considering it actively as part of the housing bill, which the Government is still to introduce.

Delivering a modern and responsive immigration system for people who are seeking asylum is not easy but, in an ever-changing world and with growing pressure from the global movement of people, such a system must be based on people coming through safe and legal routes. We understand the pressures that our asylum system faces, but I hope that the Scottish Government and the UK Government will commit to working together this year to put solutions in place.

I move amendment S6M-11803.1, to leave out from “the impact” to end and insert:

“that the topics of immigration and asylum are reserved to the UK Parliament and that it is therefore not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate on these issues; further recognises that the UK Government spent £3.7 billion in the fiscal year 2022-23 to support refugees, that it continues to provide asylum seekers with financial support to cover essential living needs and that it is committed to delivering an asylum system that protects individuals from persecution based on their protected characteristics; agrees that the Scottish Government must engage positively with the UK Government, local authorities and public services across asylum matters to reduce negative impacts on people, communities and services; expresses concern over both the pause of the Scottish Government’s Super Sponsor Scheme for displaced Ukrainians and the Scottish Government’s inability to renew the £10 million in funding initially granted to local authorities to support resettlement for displaced Ukrainians, and calls on the Scottish Government to declare a housing emergency, given the increase in homelessness applications by 9% and the record number of children placed in temporary accommodation for the fiscal year 2022-23, which is likely to be exacerbated given the recent cuts to the housing budget.”

I advise members that we have a bit of time in hand, so members who take interventions will get the time back.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

We gather in a new year but, in many ways, not much has changed on the issues that we are debating or the approaches that are being taken to asylum policy and legislation. Prior to Christmas, we had no fewer than five debates on asylum, which covered issues ranging from the Illegal Migration Bill—now the Illegal Migration Act 2023—and the provision of free bus travel for asylum seekers to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s important inquiry into the experience of asylum seekers and refugees and the Scottish Government’s latest independence paper on migration. Those debates have been most beneficial when we have found consensus on our approach and discussed how we can use the Parliament’s powers to make a real difference to the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland and continue to support them. I point to the important recommendations in the committee’s report in that regard.

On each of those occasions, and in many other debates last year, Labour members condemned the shambolic and uncaring asylum system that the UK Conservative Government operates. On each of those occasions, we reiterated the need for a more humane approach to asylum processing and migration and that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers should feel safe and welcome when fleeing persecution, war and violence. Each time that we have come to the chamber to debate those issues, Labour members have asked the Scottish Government what more it can do to support asylum seekers, address the issues that are outlined in the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report and respond to the challenges that are posed by the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

It may be a new year, as I said, but we have not seen a new approach from the UK Government, which continues to press ahead with the Rwanda scheme despite it being ruled illegal. Next week, it will again be rushed through the House of Commons in its new form. Suella Braverman may have gone as Home Secretary, but the pernicious approach persists, with Tory MPs now battling it out to see how the plan can be made even more deplorable. We have a Prime Minister who now privately thinks that it does not work but clearly sees culture wars as his last throw of the dice this year. I quote Yvette Cooper in the House of Commons yesterday:

“In the end, the only deterrence that the Prime Minister believes in is deterring his Back Benchers from getting rid of him. It is weak … and the taxpayer is paying the price.

It is a totally farcical situation: a Prime Minister who does not think it is a deterrent, a Home Secretary who thinks it is ‘batshit’, a former Home Secretary who says it will not work, a former Immigration Minister who says it does not do the job and everyone”

else who thinks that it is a complete

“sham”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 9 January 2024; Vol 743, c 228.]

Labour has been clear that we would scrap the Rwanda scheme. It is unethical, unworkable and extortionate. We need real policy changes to deal with the challenges that we face, not the gimmicks that the Conservatives continue to pursue. That is why Labour has set out a five-point plan to fix the asylum system—to form cross-border policing units to crack down on the smuggler gangs that are trafficking people and putting people into unthinkable situations; to clear the backlogs, which we have heard about, to end the long waits and the expensive use of hotels; to reform legal routes for refugees coming to this country; to negotiate new returns and a family reunion agreement with France and other European countries; and to tackle humanitarian crises at source and better support refugees in their own regions. It is simply disingenuous—

Will the member give way?

I will finish this point and then I will give way. It is disingenuous to say that there would be no change with a Labour Government.

Would a future Labour Government—were the hypothetical situation to arise in which we had a Labour Government—process applications abroad?

I advise members that, even if they are quoting other members, there are still requirements that must be met with regard to the language that is used in the chamber.

Paul O’Kane

I am very sorry, Deputy Presiding Officer. I blame Yvette Cooper rather than myself, but I take the point, which was well made. I apologise to any colleagues who may have found the language in question offensive.

I want to answer Donald Cameron’s question directly, because there was some commentary on the issue over the Christmas period. It is clear that the processing of asylum claims in third countries can and does happen in a number of scenarios. For example, people from Ukraine and Hong Kong can have their cases considered while they are in those countries. We can certainly look at the processing of people’s asylum claims when they are in a safe country. For example, it would be worth looking at whether the asylum claim of an asylum seeker who had arrived in France could be considered while they were there. What the Labour Party is absolutely clear about is that we should not offshore asylum claims to third countries such as Rwanda. We stand against the proposal that the Conservative Government continues to make in that regard.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I want to focus on the approach that we should take in this Parliament. Over several debates, I have raised my concern that we must do more to ensure that our local councils and communities are able to support asylum seekers when they live in those communities, and to ensure that we are taking the action that we can take against the Conservatives’ Illegal Migration Act 2023 and its immigration policies.

I have raised with the minister a number of times the importance of having a mitigation plan and the work that the Scottish Refugee Council is calling for in that regard. In our most recent exchange, the minister committed to engaging in on-going work with the Scottish Refugee Council. It is clear that commencement of the IMA is definitely upon us in 2024, so I am keen to hear more from the minister or Christina McKelvie in her summing up—

Will the member give way?

I will.

Emma Roddick

I would absolutely love to be able to provide more information but, as the member will know, we are still in the position in which we are desperately asking the UK Government to give us more information. As soon as we know what the plans for implementation are, we will know what we can do to mitigate the worst impacts.

Paul O’Kane

That said, the Scottish Refugee Council has highlighted a number of issues on which action could be prepared and planned. It is incumbent on us and on the Government to ensure that those preparations are well advanced, because we know where some of the most serious impacts will arise.

Given that time in the chamber is limited, it would be productive, as I said, for us to focus on some of the work that we can do. The minister mentioned the new Scots and ending destitution strategies and the fact that a refreshed new Scots strategy is due in March. It is important that we continue to scrutinise that work and ensure that the voices of lived experience and the third sector organisations that are so crucial are heard in the formulation of those strategies, and that we push them forward to ensure that we provide good support to asylum seekers and migrants in Scotland.

Our amendment outlines the challenges that exist in relation to local authority budgets and the provision that local authorities can make, not least in the context of the challenges that exist in housing. The promise to provide 110,000 affordable houses by 2031 is unlikely ever to be met by the Government after it cut the affordable housing supply budget by 30 per cent in real terms this year. It is crucial that it is borne in mind that the decisions that are taken in that regard will have a knock-on impact on all our communities, including on the members of those communities who are new Scots or people who are seeking refuge and asylum.

It is clear to me from speaking to people in local authorities that they are really struggling to keep services on the road and to ensure that populations are being well looked after. It is therefore crucial that we get to the nub of the issue, which is the need for sustainable local authority funding and for local authorities to have the resources that they need to support all their citizens.

It is important that we continue to call out the UK Conservative Government for its failed policies and its callous approach. It is clear that change will come with a UK Labour Government, which will take a different approach to our asylum system and ensure that we treat people with dignity. However, for our part, here in Scotland, we need to ensure that we use all the powers of this place to support asylum seekers and our local communities.

I move amendment S6M-11803.2, to insert at end:

“; acknowledges the pressure placed upon local government budgets after a decade of Scottish Government cuts; calls for fair funding settlements from the Scottish Government for local authorities; notes that Scottish Government commitments to provide safe and secure accommodation for refugees must come with support for local authorities to provide suitable long-term housing, and acknowledges that Scottish Government cuts to affordable housing budgets will negatively affect local authorities’ ability to provide adequate accommodation for refugees.”


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am grateful to the Government for bringing the motion to Parliament this afternoon. As Paul O’Kane said, here we are again. It is vitally important that this chamber comes together as often as possible to reassert our collective view on the UK Conservative Government’s policy moves in this area.

So many times in debates such as this, I have leaned into the words of another. I will do so again, with the words of the author Dina Nayeri, who was just a child when she was forced to flee from Iran. She said:

“It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.”

The “obligation”—her word. I last spoke about our obligation to those seeking safe harbour on our shores when the chamber debated the Equalities and Human Rights Committee report on asylum seekers in Scotland. That has been referenced several times this afternoon, and rightly so. I was heartened by the debate that we had on that occasion, which fostered a largely consensual tone.

Sadly, quite the opposite was true last month in the House of Commons, when the ruling Conservative Party—among them all six Scottish Conservative MPs, including Douglas Ross—voted to pass the Government’s Rwanda plan bill on its second reading. The bill would see planeloads of vulnerable people who have sought refuge and asylum here deported 4,000 miles away to a country that the UK Supreme Court has deemed to be unsafe for them. We hear a lot about moral panic in our society, but I want to see a moral panic about that.

Instead of backing down and seeing the error of his ways, Rishi Sunak is pressing on with ill-fated attempts to pass a bill that states that Rwanda is a safe country—a policy that it now appears he disagreed with when he was UK chancellor. The bill prevents judges from ruling otherwise and lays aside key aspects of our human rights legislation. That, in turn, would bypass the Human Rights Act 1998 entirely, undermine the independence of our courts and, indeed, damage our reputation internationally—if there is much of a reputation left. The bill has yet to reach the amendment phase, where extreme factions of the Conservative Party will undoubtedly attempt to make it even more odious.

We have badly forgotten the obligation that Dina Nayeri writes of. Douglas Ross and his colleagues have forgotten that this country is made up of those who came here from other shores and that the proudest moments in our nation’s history have been defined by offering shelter to those in need, such as those who came here on the Kindertransport during the second world war, or those from Biafra.

Instead, we have asylum seekers living on barges that look more like prisons. The conditions there foster a feeling of such hopelessness that a 27-year-old on one even took his life in the very week that we debated this policy last, at the end of last year. A fellow asylum seeker, and that 27-year-old’s roommate on the barge, Yusuf Deen Kargbo, spoke just today of how those living there

“don’t have any hope for their lives ... that place is not good for them. Every day their stress is increasing, getting worse.”

In 2021, the number of asylum applications in the United Kingdom reached more than 81,000, largely due to war and conflict. Asylum seekers are entitled to a roof over their head and little more. They are not allowed to work and have no access to public funds in the form of benefits and social security. Those rights are only granted if those people are recognised as refugees, which, due to horrendous Home Office backlogs, can still take months or even years. Those who are not granted asylum often find themselves in destitution and at risk of exploitation, with only charities to rely on for support.

Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that we have a human duty to offer protection and safe legal routes to people who are fleeing torment. We need the next UK Government to create a dedicated, arm’s-length unit to make asylum decisions quickly and more fairly, with a new right to work for those who are seeking asylum if they have to wait longer than three months for a decision on their case, in order to treat them more humanely, give them the chance to integrate in their communities and save the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds. Those are people who are hungry to contribute back to the society that is giving them refuge.

We also welcome the recommendations of the recent report, “The Human Rights of Asylum Seekers in Scotland”.

Those seeking safe harbour should always be treated with our utmost respect. Our approach should be guided by compassion and rooted in human rights and respect for international law. Asylum seekers should be entitled to education and information about their rights, particularly in relation to health and mental health. They should not be asked to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles for an assessment interview. Scottish local authorities should be given the resources that they need to provide the language and interpreter services that are vital in helping people to settle here.

We should also offer support to the third sector organisations that often provide the safety net for those whose applications are denied. Liberal Democrats will always stand up for those who are marginalised and demonised. We care passionately about people on the other side of the planet whom we may never meet, some of whom are making their way here with hope and a promise of home. We stand against the dangerous rhetoric that we have heard from the Conservative members of Parliament in London—that is our obligation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before we move to the open debate, I give a timely reminder to members who are participating in the debate that they should remain for opening and closing speeches, unless they have the permission of the chair.


Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Article 14 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads:

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The United Kingdom played its part in drafting that declaration, which, today, the UK Government sadly undermines at each and every turn. It is important to remind ourselves, often, and without apology, of the context in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted—a world that was riven by violence and hatred, and full of displaced people and those fleeing persecution in the chaos that followed a war that we must, again and again, commit ourselves never to repeat.

As we look on from Scotland at the conflicts in Europe and the middle east, it is hard not to ponder the solemn reality that it could be us, our children and our friends, or, as is the case with the First Minister, our own relatives, who are affected. History tells us that these conflicts do not occur in a vacuum, and that we must play our part as a responsible member of the global community.

It is heartbreaking to witness the UK Government continuing its vindictive campaign against those who need our help most, despite what we see happening in the world right now. I want to take time today to dispel some of the myths that are peddled by the UK Government and its Conservative defenders here, in Scotland.

They say that we do not have enough room, but let us look at that a bit more closely. Many of Scotland’s communities, particularly in rural Scotland, already experience acute depopulation and labour market challenges, in part because of Brexit and the end of freedom of movement. Scotland is far from full, and we are ready to take our share of those seeking refuge, but we are unable to do so due to the fact that this is a reserved matter.

The UK Government must cease its culture wars, fulfil its international obligations and invest in tackling the asylum backlog. Providing additional staff and ensuring more humane and efficient processes could mean a system that is fit for purpose. Instead, it has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on its inhumane and illegal Rwanda policy, which has resulted in what, precisely? Not a single thing. It is an abhorrent and immoral waste of taxpayers’ money.

The Conservatives tell us that we are being overrun, often in the most inhumane ways. Former Prime Minister and now Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron once referred to

“a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean.”

Sadly, he is not alone. A former Home Secretary has referred to migrants as a “hurricane” and an “invasion”.

The Conservatives are trying to normalise such dehumanising language. Othering the most vulnerable in society is one of the oldest and, in my view, most despicable tricks in the Tory handbook. That will not wash here, in Scotland, and we will see that reflected in the upcoming general election, when we will see an end to the Scottish Conservatives.

The Conservatives ask us how we will pay for all the migrants. People fleeing conflict and persecution and seeking asylum on our shores have much to offer our communities, culturally and economically. It is therefore a shame that the UK Government continues to deny those seeking asylum the right to work and to contribute to our country.

As is noted in the “Building a New Scotland” paper that looks specifically at migration, we know that leaving the European Union has cut off a valuable and ready supply of workers to fill key posts. There have been fewer births than deaths registered in Scotland since 2011, so it is clear that we need inward migration to ensure that our communities are vibrant, diverse and thriving and to support local economies and the public sector.

Last month, I met fisheries stakeholders to discuss the detrimental impact that the proposed UK Government immigration rules would have on the seafood processing sector. During that meeting, there were numerous examples of seafood processing businesses—some of which are based in my constituency—comprised of workforces of up to 90 per cent migrant workers. The one-size-fits-all, Britain-bursting-at-the-seams narrative simply does not ring true in Scotland. With a hostile governing party and an indifferent Opposition, it is clear that the only way for Scotland to have the levers to reverse projected population decline is in an independent country.

Although the Conservatives scream, “Stop the boats!”, and “dream” and “obsess” about front pages full of planes taking off to Rwanda, Scotland has a different dream; our dream is for an asylum system that is founded on equality, opportunity and community. Those three words are a bedrock for the Scottish Government in all that it does. I remind members that that could be us seeking asylum. If it were, would we not want those from whom we were seeking asylum to treat us with the fairness, dignity and respect that we deserve and to be treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves?


Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am delighted to take part in this debate, but not because of the Scottish Government’s position in its motion. Its attack on UK Government migration policy was predictable and the minister’s conclusion was predictable, with its jarring and inappropriate reference to independence.

I point out to Karen Adam that the SNP Government’s 2013 independence white paper said that an independent Scotland would have a “robust” asylum policy that would include the need for “forced removal” of failed asylum seekers. It is ironic to be lectured about dignity, equality and opportunity when those words can be found in the prospectus for independence that the SNP put forward to this country.

However, the debate allows me to shed a little light on the asylum system from a personal perspective, as a result of professional experiences that I gained as a lawyer representing asylum seekers in Scotland. As an advocate in that regard, I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

My experience was gained in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal—as it was then called—in Bothwell Street in Glasgow. Interestingly, that was at a time—I am betraying my age here—when the Labour Party was in government at Westminster. It is important to remember that the Labour Party ran the system for many years.

In the late 2000s, representing asylum seekers was a challenge for any lawyer. I never won a case arguing for asylum to be granted. It was almost impossible to consult with clients beforehand or even to meet them face to face. Asylum seekers were kept in that tribunal, in what most people would view as prison cells, and they would be brought out for their cases before being returned.

Cases would be dealt with very swiftly—too swiftly, in my opinion. The Home Office presenting officer—or HOPO, as they were known colloquially—would present the case on why asylum should be refused. The immigration judge would respectfully listen to people such as me, but it was hard to make submissions about the facts on the ground in countries in the developing world and argue that asylum should be granted in the UK in light of dangerous or risky conditions in the applicant’s home country that were directly applicable to that particular individual, such as fear of persecution, and to do so with any credibility and confidence.

What can we draw from that experience? I can only speak about how it was in the late 2000s. The system did not appear to work for those who were seeking asylum, and it did not answer the wider legitimate concerns that many people had and still have about migration. Even looked at impartially and independently by a professional simply trying to work in the system, it did not appear to be effective. Trying to act in the best interests of a client was undeniably a challenging experience. I wonder whether much has changed in the 15 years or so since I was in that tribunal.

However, there have been some changes. There has been an administrative overhaul of the tribunal system and, in defence of the UK Government, it should be recognised, as our amendment states, that the UK Government spent £3.7 billion in the fiscal year 2022-23 to support refugees. It should also be recognised that the same UK Government continues to provide asylum seekers with financial support to cover essential living needs and that it is committed to delivering an asylum system that protects individuals from persecution based on their protected characteristics.

On the other points that have been raised in the debate, I have very little to add to Miles Briggs’s skilful and measured opening speech and the fundamental point that he closed with—that the Scottish Government and the UK Government should work together. It is a shame that we are yet again debating a reserved matter and not a policy that falls within the Scottish Government’s remit.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

On partnership working, Glasgow could face having to welcome hundreds of families who have had positive decisions on their asylum claims entering Glasgow’s homelessness system at the same time, without one single penny from the UK Government to support them and Glasgow. Does Donald Cameron think that a partnership working funding model should mean that the UK Government should contribute to that?

Donald Cameron

My response to that is to point Bob Doris to the comments of his party colleague Susan Aitken, who said that she would fight plans to relocate more asylum seekers in Glasgow.

I would like to develop one theme that has not been—

Bob Doris

On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer. I apologise for this, because you will probably tell me that this is not a point of order, but Mr Cameron has just made a really important comment and I genuinely could not hear it. It is quite important to the debate that I hear what he said, so could he please repeat that comment?

For the record, that was not a point of order.

Donald Cameron

I will just continue because I am running out of time, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I would like to develop one theme that has not been covered: Ukraine and the supersponsor scheme. When the minister gave evidence to the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee last month, I asked her about the scheme and whether there was any intention to restart it. She said that the Government had been reviewing the pause and that the next review would happen this month. Perhaps she can answer now or in closing whether that review has happened. Are we any closer to reopening the scheme?

I suggest to the minister that that has been a failure by the Scottish Government. The scheme was announced with great fanfare, but it has been beset by problems. Earlier last year, there were reports that some 7,500 Ukrainians, including almost 1,900 children, were stuck in temporary accommodation. We know that the SNP Government slashed the resettlement budget by more than £25 million and that it will not renew the £10 million in funding that it initially granted to local councils to support Ukrainian resettlement. I think that the City of Edinburgh Council described that as a betrayal. What was dressed up as a warm Scots welcome and a warm Scots future has, in many cases, ended up being neither.

It is a shame that the debate has already descended into an attack on UK Government policy. These are important issues, especially around housing in Scotland, which is crucial. I am sorry that the debate has taken the course that it has. Instead, we should be concentrating on what the Scottish Government and local government can do here and now in Scotland to make life better for asylum seekers.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am fortunate to represent Glasgow Kelvin, which is one of our most diverse constituencies. People from all corners of the globe pay Scotland the ultimate compliment of choosing to call our country their home. Although we set out our vision of an internationally responsible, welcoming and compassionate country, we do so under the blatant, hostile narrative set by the UK Government, which seeks to constantly undermine that vision.

Those who come here do so at the mercy of an unimaginable, cruel Tory UK Government that is determined to vilify foreigners and to use them as a scapegoat for its own woeful mismanagement. It is a Government that, in the past year, has traded one Home Secretary who dreamed of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda for the current one, who reportedly thinks that the policy is complete bat stuff—but is pursuing it anyway. Who knew that Rwanda would be the hill on which the current Prime Minister would choose to stake his reputation? That is the flagship Tory policy that will do nothing to address the plight of the desperate who are being put in great danger at the hands of organised criminals in the English Channel.

Members are aware that, last year, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee published its report on the lived experience of asylum seekers in Scotland. That report made several recommendations, which I am encouraged to see the Scottish Government is taking seriously—notably, the commitment to provide concessionary bus travel, which I welcome.

My colleague Mr Cameron mentioned having budgets that fund asylum seekers. I do not know anyone who thinks that £9.58 a week, which is what asylum seekers receive if they are housed in accommodation, can provide any way of getting by. With no recourse to public funds, asylum seekers are expected to meet all the weekly costs that life brings with less than a tenner. That is simply not enough.

Asylum seekers are, of course, forbidden by UK law from taking up employment to support themselves and their families while their applications are being processed. That process can last for many months or even years—and that is after the Home Office has conducted what it calls a “substantive review”.

A ban on asylum seekers taking up employment is not the norm. The USA, Canada, Germany, Australia and many other nations allow those who are applying for asylum the chance to get a job and earn a living. People should be able to earn a living and integrate into their new communities. The new Scots refugee integration strategy recognises the strengths and skills of asylum seekers as well as committing to the provision of better access to essential services for them.

I turn to the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which, in my view, is one of the most callous pieces of legislation that has been introduced by a UK Government in living memory. In a country that has no legal system of applying for asylum, beyond a select few nation-specific schemes, the Illegal Migration Act 2023 means that someone who is seeking asylum faces being detained indefinitely, left in a permanent state of uncertainty, and under constant threat of deportation. For those who are victims of human trafficking, the new act simply wipes away the protections that are given in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015.

Andy Sirel of JustRight Scotland told the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee:

“This is a situation in which victim-centred support in a devolved area, which has been provided for the past eight years and is working fairly well, will be extinguished with the stroke of a pen in Westminster”.—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 25 April 2023; c 27.]

Those who will be most affected include women who are victims of sex trafficking and young men who are coerced into engaging in organised crime.

Bronagh Andrew of TARA—the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance—has stated that the Illegal Migration Act 2023 will disapply the powers of the Scottish Government to create a national referral mechanism. It will limit its ability to link women with Police Scotland to have access to justice.

In its 2017 report, “Hidden Lives—New Beginnings: Destitution, asylum and insecure immigration status in Scotland”, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which was convened at the time by minister Christina McKelvie, looked in detail at the many challenges faced by those who go through the asylum system in Scotland. It included access to healthcare and the links between destitution, exploitation and psychological trauma, as well as the protection and care of the children of asylum seekers. I would be grateful if the minister could update members on the work that the Scottish Government has done to address the recommendations in that report.

This year marks 14 years since the Tories came to power. However, the chipping away at asylum seekers’ rights did not start with them. The so-called “hostile environment” was started by Labour—the phrase was coined by the then Labour immigration minister, Liam Byrne, in 2007.

This may well be the year in which we see the Tories put out of government. So far, Labour is not offering anything different, but I was pleased to hear today that it would scrap the Rwanda scheme. My challenge to Labour is as follows. A Labour Government should devolve immigration to Scotland so that we can build a better and fairer system that meets our needs. It should work with the SNP to establish a fairer system for applying for asylum in the UK, with safeguards and legal routes. It should commit to supporting asylum seekers’ right to work while they are here, and it should scrap the awful Illegal Migration Act 2023.

I believe that an independent Scotland would offer the opportunity to ensure that asylum and migration policy would be made according to Scotland’s needs and that the proposals that are set out in the Scottish Government’s “Building a New Scotland” series would allow us to be good global citizens and to create a sensible, open, fair and welcoming migration system.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Asylum is normally granted in the UK if a person is unable to live safely in any part of their own country because of potential persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or anything else that puts them at risk due to the social, cultural, religious or political situation in their home country. At least, that was the policy that we had for many years. As the minister said in her opening speech, the UK signed up to treaties that reflected those principles.

Priti Patel is long gone, but the UK Government’s current immigration plans could not be more against such treaty principles. It is disastrous, callous and completely inefficient into the bargain, and it is becoming an international joke on the back of the recent court decision on the Rwanda policy. We are paying millions of pounds to the French to get their co-operation in preventing migrants from coming here, but even the French are saying that the UK is failing. I echo the Scottish Refugee Council’s principle that we are a strong and resilient nation and that we can, and should, do far better.

There is a correlation between geopolitical matters, including conflict, and the extent of migration. That is a highly sensitive political issue that requires all politicians to understand that world affairs, including climate change and war, have implications for migration.

We know that, after 40 years of conflict, and the recent return of a Taliban Government, Afghan refugees have become the third largest displaced population in the world. More than 1.6 million such refugees, for whom Britain had some responsibility, fled the country in 2021. We did not serve the Afghans well and many were not allowed to flee to the UK.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, 38,000 Ukrainians have taken advantage of the UK Government sponsorship programme, so there have been some very welcome programmes that show that we can support people fleeing persecution in other countries.

We are now witnessing the longest and deepest offensive that has ever been seen in the Gaza strip. There will be geopolitical consequences of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. Although we must robustly resist any forced evacuation of the occupied territory of Gaza, which faces obliteration, a percentage of that population will inevitably seek refuge in the rest of the world, so we must live up to our responsibilities.

There are 5,500 people in asylum-supported accommodation in Glasgow and 1,800 people living in 21 institutional hotels across 13 local authorities in Scotland. On average, people live in those environments for at least nine months and are often stuck in state-imposed severe poverty and forced unemployment because, as we have heard, very few people are permitted to access any work.

There is a backlog in Home Office decision making on asylum cases, which never seems to be under control. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of months that people spend waiting for their claims to be processed. The Home Office has also begun its hotel maximisation policy. One of the aspects of the policy that makes me most uncomfortable is compulsory room sharing for hotel and hostel residents in Scotland. That is totally unacceptable. It does not fit the principles of any treaty that the UK has signed up to and can be extremely traumatising for individuals. Those hotels are often in isolated areas, making it more difficult for the people living in them to access the community support services that they need.

We have seen tragedies unfold as a result of such conditions: back in 2020, the asylum seeker Badreddin Abdalla Adam made 72 calls for help to the Home Office and the charity Migrant Help before he killed six people in the Glasgow Park Inn—an absolute tragedy.

During the pandemic, leading up to the tragedy, Glasgow asylum seekers were removed from their residences to be placed in hotels, simultaneously being stripped of their £35 weekly support allowance. Three years later, that figure is down to £9 a week. I do not regard that as being a dignified existence. In that particular accommodation, residents were unable to socially distance or to buy things such as mobile phone top-ups in order to stay in touch with their families back home or, indeed, their lawyers.

Sixteen other people have died in asylum-seeker accommodation in Scotland since 2016, some of whom took their own lives. Such events should never happen, which is why it is important that local authorities are funded adequately to play the role that they want to play. I am proud of my city of Glasgow, which has historically played an important role in relation to asylum seekers.

On the Rwanda policy, which many members have talked about, it is important to understand the Supreme Court’s decision. One of the reasons that the Supreme Court came to the view that it did is because it did not believe that Rwandan authorities would make fair decisions in relation to claimants. It is important to note that, even in cases in which the person had a successful application, they would never see the United Kingdom. It is a bizarre, strange and completely callous policy.

Across Europe, many countries are facing similar challenges, and immigration is often talked about in a negative way. However, I think that many members of this Parliament—I think that there is some common ground here—see immigration as a positive thing. Scotland should play its role, and we can play a role as a devolved Parliament. I look forward to hearing the other speeches in the debate, because I think that Scotland can do more and play a more strategic and positive role in relation to immigration and asylum seekers.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

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.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank those organisations, communities and individuals who work day in and day out to support asylum seekers, and I pay tribute to Grampian Regional Equality Council and Dundee International Women’s Centre for their work across the north-east—and, of course, to the Scottish Refugee Council.

We have heard that we should not be having this debate and that we can, because immigration is a reserved matter, cheerfully and with a clear conscience leave it to the wise men and women of Westminster. However, this is one of those moments when history will judge us by what we say and do or by how we keep silent, because the scandal that is UK asylum policy and legislation is already having disastrous impacts at multiple levels—internationally, for the UK, for Scotland, for our communities and, most of all, for the people and families whom the asylum system is supposed to protect.

Globally, passing the Illegal Migration Act 2023 represents a serious blow to the UK’s standing. Although the British reputation for decency and fair play has often been undeserved, it is the case that people and organisations in the UK have played significant roles in developing international human rights and asylum systems. It is the greatest of insults to those hard-working and courageous pioneers that their country is now seen as a rogue state—a reputation that will, now that it has been gained, be very hard to lose.

Who would have thought that it would be possible that a UK Government would pass laws that admit on their very face that they are not compliant with our most basic human rights? That reputation is an international humiliation, but it is worrying that other Governments might be tempted to follow the UK’s lead. If the UK, with all its prosperity and advantages, can disregard shared humanity and international law, others will ask why they should not do the same.

In the UK, the policies and the rhetoric behind them are doing incalculable damage to our political and public discourse. The crude violence of the “Stop the boats” messaging would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The level of opposition from moderate Tories and the official Opposition has been woefully weak. It is my profound hope that their consciences will overcome their cynical calculations of electoral advantage—not least because those calculations are very likely to be wrong.

Despite the extraordinary media messaging over many years—messages of spite, bile and blatant untruth—most people are not xenophobic border obsessives, but are compassionate citizens who recognise themselves in those who are seeking refuge, and welcome them as neighbours, colleagues and friends.

In Scotland, we have long recognised the value of people coming from elsewhere for our community, culture, identity and economy. That tradition of welcome and mutual enrichment is deeply rooted and remains strong and vibrant, though its practical manifestations are made much more difficult by the actions of the UK Government. As politicians, we know—commentators in England seem to have forgotten this—that, demographically and culturally, we need new Scots. The motion recognises that the pernicious impact of Westminster policies is especially painful for our local authorities—those that already host and support people who are seeking asylum and those that want to do more. Our councils are—impossibly—being prevented from carrying out their fundamental duties in providing essential services to those who are most in need.

Finally and most importantly, those inhuman and illegal policies are having tragic effects for our new and potential Scots neighbours and on people seeking asylum here, including people who are in situations of deep danger and who are longing for refuge; those who have embarked on long and perilous journeys; those who are already here and are awaiting decisions from a cruel and dilatory Home Office; those who have received their refugee status; and many others who are affected by the hostile environment and discourses of demonisation.

Those blows fall most heavily upon vulnerable people, especially on victims of trafficking, whose rights and means of redress have, in essence, been shredded by the Illegal Migration Act 2023. They fall upon children, including young teenagers whose age is disbelieved by the Home Office, and the youngest babies and toddlers who are placed in institutional accommodation where they have few or no opportunities to play, crawl, walk and reach the other essential milestones of child development.

UK policies represent a failure of compliance with international law, a failure of humanity and a failure of imagination. I implore all those who think that the policies are acceptable to take a moment to imagine themselves being faced with the horrific choices that must be made by those who are in danger of persecution, imprisonment or death. I ask them to think about the dangerous journeys that are made, and about the homes, families, friends and lives that are left behind. I ask them then to imagine that, when they finally reach what should be a place of safety, the fear continues—fear of attack by hostile far-right actors; trauma being reawakened by windowless rooms that feel like cells; and anxiety and sleeplessness being triggered by having to share rooms with strangers.

Think about the simple actions that we take for granted because we have sufficient money to catch a bus to an essential appointment, to phone a family member or to buy a child a small toy or treat. Think about having studied and worked for years, perhaps in a much-needed medical or caring role, but not being allowed to use those skills for the community around you. Think about not being allowed to work at all, but instead being left, maybe for years, in a limbo of indignity and lack of information. Then imagine that, at the end of all that waiting, when the decision finally comes that what you said was true—that you are, indeed, a refugee—the decision comes along with the news that you have but a few days before you will be evicted from your accommodation, with little hope of finding a home or escaping further destitution.

Those are the realities behind the brash slogan of “Stop the boats”: not boats stopped, but lives, families and communities broken and bereft. Asylum seekers—and all human beings—deserve better.


Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Presiding Officer,

“I cannot see a rationale or justification for an approach to asylum determination that takes years, costs the taxpayer extraordinary amounts and that prevents the individual from contributing to the economy and society”.

Those are not my words but those of Helena Kennedy KC, as chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Asylum Provision in Scotland.

We should at this point remind ourselves that the UK is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, which serve to protect refugees. The convention defines a refugee as someone who has a

“well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”


“is outside the country of”

their nationality.

The latest figures that have been published for the 12 months to September 2023 state that 75,340 asylum applications, relating to 93,296 people, were made to the Home Office. In number of asylum applications per head of population, the UK ranks 20th highest in Europe. That is very far behind other countries including Cyprus, which topped the table for asylum applications per head of population.

The Refugee Council identified that the top five countries of origin of people seeking asylum in the UK are Afghanistan, Iran, Albania, India and Iraq. Two of those countries are where British troops engaged in armed conflict for many years and one is where human rights abuses, in particular against women and girls, have been well documented. The others are on the list as a result of crackdowns on independence movements or sectarian violence. That is why 75 per cent of people who apply for asylum in the UK are granted protection on their initial application.

As of September 2023, 124,000 people were waiting for the conclusion of their asylum applications. Meanwhile, the same people who are seeking asylum are banned from working and, in many cases, are provided with only £9 a week from the UK Government to cover the cost of their basic necessities. That is at a time when, across the UK, 949,000 vacancies need to be filled to help the Scottish and UK economies to grow. Why are we not allowing individuals who have been granted protection in this country to work to support themselves?

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, in its discussion paper “The Economic and Social Impacts of Lifting Work Restrictions on People Seeking Asylum”, highlights that

“The UK is one of six European nations who grant asylum applicants the right to work after they have been waiting for an outcome of their application for longer than a year”,

unlike most other countries, which have a restriction of six months. However, the UK

“is the only country to impose further restrictions on what jobs a person seeking asylum can apply for once the right to work has been granted, by allowing people to take up jobs only on a ‘shortage occupations’ list.”

The report found that the annual impacts of allowing people who are seeking asylum the right to work in the UK would be to increase tax revenue by £1.3 billion, to reduce Government expenditure by £6.7 billion and to increase the UK’s gross domestic product by £1.6 billion. As Helena Kennedy stated in the final report of the commission,

“What an utter waste of human potential and of resources. Particularly in a country that has an urgent growth agenda and massive skills shortages.”

She continued:

“The UK needs care workers, HGV drivers, butchers and other technically and professionally skilled workers. We need to honour our commitments to protect people and we need people who want to play a role in our economy and society. Canada’s recently announced 2023-25 Immigration Levels Plan embraces a strategy of immigration to manage future social and economic challenges. They are seeing immigration as an opportunity not a threat; in contrast the UK seems short-sighted on multiple fronts.”

Many refugees are highly skilled and want to contribute to their new country and to give thanks for the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Instead, the UK Government has left more than 56,000 of them languishing in hotel rooms, which is resulting in increased mental health issues, on-going trauma and a loss of wellbeing, which has resulted in their requiring more support from our already stretched NHS.

Under the Scottish Government’s recently published immigration proposals in the “Building a New Scotland” series, we would welcome asylum seekers and provide support so that they could more easily integrate into communities. People who are seeking asylum would be given the right to work and would therefore pay taxes, which in turn would allow access to public services, including employability support. The result would be increased tax revenue for the Scottish Government, lower expenditure on asylum support and increased productivity.

The UK Government’s repugnant policies on asylum and immigration in no way reflect Scotland’s values of compassion, humanity and upholding international law, nor do they take into account the fact that migration benefits Scotland’s economy and our public services. An independent Scotland would be able to establish a humane approach to supporting refugees and people who are fleeing conflict and persecution, who deserve our compassion and aid, and it would be aware of the need for equity for the global south in our approach to migration. We would be able to do that with the values of dignity, fairness and respect at the heart of all aspects of immigration policy.


Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

As the Conservative UK Government descends into electoral oblivion, it has resorted to ever more desperate acts, most notably its cynical project to make the asylum system as inhumane as possible by shipping off to Rwanda people who are seeking safety from horrendous situations such as war and persecution. That has been not only an appalling waste of public money but a waste of life. Three quarters of asylum claims are granted at the initial decision, and more than half of appeals are successful, which means that almost nine out of every 10 people seeking asylum in Britain end up being granted refugee status.

The UK Government has already paid £140 million to Rwanda, yet not a single asylum seeker has been sent there because, in November, the Supreme Court—thankfully—ruled the policy unlawful. However, the public funds that have been wasted on that atrocious scheme work out at £1,500 for each of the 93,296 people who sought asylum in the UK in the past 12 months. Just think what we could have done with that money instead.

The eccentric and unlawful Rwanda gimmick is just one element of the cruel Tory asylum policy, which strips people of all hope and humanity when they need it most. We just have to look at the conditions on the Bibby Stockholm barge to see the aim of the UK Government’s asylum policy. It demonstrates nothing but hostility to people who we should be opening our arms to. Those asylum seekers, who are banned from working to pay for their own lodgings and are instead housed in barges and hotels, do not feel safe. Where is the empathy in forcing people who have fled war and persecution into rooms without windows for long periods of time? It is no wonder that asylum seekers are at heightened risk of experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The UK Government’s efforts to clear the asylum backlog while cutting the so-called move-on period, in which refugee status is granted and asylum accommodation provisions end, heighten the risk of mass homelessness and destitution for people seeking asylum in Scotland. We must do everything possible to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers do not end up homeless.

We must do all that is possible to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers do not end up homeless. That is why it is bitterly disappointing that the Ukrainian resettlement team in Glasgow is winding down its operations in order to merge with the general asylum and refugee team. The work of the specialist Ukrainian resettlement team is vital in ensuring refugees’ smooth transition from asylum accommodation. The merger will only increase the chance of Ukrainian refugees slipping through the cracks and ending up without a roof over their heads.

The Scottish Government promised a warm welcome for all Ukrainian refugees but, with homelessness rates higher among Ukrainians than among the wider population, it is clear that it has fallen short of its promise. The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s report on asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland suggested that the Scottish Government could do much more to ease the situation for them. The decision to introduce concessionary bus travel for asylum seekers is welcome, but other practical improvements must be explored.

Bob Doris

I hope that Mr Sweeney will take the opportunity to put on the record that he agrees that, when there is a positive decision by the UK Home Office to allow a family that is seeking asylum to transition to the mainstream system in Glasgow or in another local authority, the UK Government should provide a financial payment to support that, and that it would be reasonable for any future UK Government to support such a policy.

Paul Sweeney

What Mr Doris has proposed is not unreasonable in the slightest; in fact, I would be inclined to support his suggestion. However, the situation will not be helped at all by the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that it will cut the capital budget for housing and seriously constrain council budgets, which means that councils’ ability to manage the transitions will be seriously harmed. We need to seriously address that issue, and the Scottish Government should take responsibility for such decisions.

The Home Office keeps family members who have been separated in the desperation of conflict apart and wondering whether they will ever be reunited. I will raise a particular case that has been brought to my attention recently, which involves the on-going plight of Kaltouma Haroun Ibrahim. Mrs Ibrahim is a much-loved member of the Gorbals parish church in Glasgow. She studies English at Anniesland college and works part time with disabled children for Glasgow City Council.

In 2014, alongside her husband and five children, Mrs Ibrahim boarded a boat in Libya that was bound for Italy after fleeing war-torn Sudan. Tragically, the boat sank and two of her children, Mohammed and Faisal, drowned. She was separated from her three surviving children and her husband in the aftermath of the tragedy and, after being forced to give up her search to find her family, she returned to her birthplace of Chad. However, Chad is terrorised by the violent Islamist militant group Boko Haram, and she was again forced to flee, to France and then on to London, claiming asylum there in 2016. Mrs Ibrahim moved to Glasgow in 2017 and secured refugee status in 2019.

Thanks to a humanitarian charity, Mrs Ibrahim managed to track down her husband and teenage children, who are living in war-torn Sudan. About 15 months ago, her lawyer submitted the required paperwork to the Home Office so that her family could join her in Glasgow. Within that time, horrifically, her 13-year-old daughter, Safa, perished in a rocket attack near her home in Khartoum.

The situation that Mrs Ibrahim and her family are in is deeply distressing, as I am sure all members will agree. It is astonishing that it should take so long to process such a case. I therefore ask whether the minister would be willing, on behalf of Mrs Ibrahim in Glasgow, to take direct action and make representations on behalf of the Scottish Government to the UK Government, so that we can end a decade of torment and tragedy and reunite what remains of that shattered family.

Rona Mackay is the final speaker in the open debate.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The UK Government’s asylum policy and legislation are a muddled mess and create anxiety for, and downright hostility towards, those who come here looking for safety and security. The complex and inhumane system denies people who come to Scotland the right to work, raise their families and settle into our society.

Make no mistake—we need immigration; Scotland is not full. We welcome the diversity and enrichment from everyone who comes to these shores. The Scottish Government’s vision for Scotland is one of an internationally responsible, welcoming and compassionate country. That is in complete contrast to the UK Government’s disgusting policies, which in no way reflect Scotland’s values of compassion, humanity and upholding international law and do not take into account the fact that migration benefits Scotland’s economy and our public services.

The Scottish Government is developing mitigations as far as possible within our devolved powers and budget, including through our new Scots refugee integration strategy. As the minister outlined, work is under way in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council and COSLA to inform the refresh of the strategy.

In her opening speech, the minister spoke about the plight of women and babies who have no idea what their future will be. What a desperate situation.

With independence, we can focus on Scotland’s priorities, create a system that eradicates human trafficking and create a migration system that has fairness and dignity at its heart. In one of our recently published “Building a New Scotland” papers, we proposed that an independent Scotland would have humane, fair and compassionate refugee and asylum policies. A flexible visa system would help Scottish businesses to attract and retain the international talent that they need to thrive.

I recently met a young asylum seeker who had gained a degree in computer science and was looking to complete her masters in that subject. Her asylum appeal had not been confirmed, but she was desperate to stay here and contribute to our society. Why on earth would any country not want her to do that? However, we need not only the brightest brains but people who want to work in all sectors of our society, as Gordon MacDonald outlined, and to educate and bring up their children here in a safe environment.

Scotland has a long history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers and recognises that it is a human right to seek asylum in another country. What does it say about a society when it cannot welcome those who are fleeing conflict and persecution? I cannot fathom the mindset that thinks that it is acceptable to create a hostile environment and look for ways to turn people back or export them to an entirely unsuitable country, such as Rwanda. Despite the Supreme Court ruling in relation to the safety of Rwanda, the UK Government persists in trying to prove it wrong—knowing better—in order to complete that incomprehensible plan. That says it all.

Those fleeing conflict and persecution should be protected and welcomed. We cannot turn our backs on people who are impacted by conflicts across the world, people who are being killed trying to escape or who face illness due to a lack of clean water and medical assistance. Whether people come from Sudan, Gaza, Ukraine or Afghanistan, the UK should be providing sanctuary for the most vulnerable, not holding them in hotels or trying to ship them off to Rwanda to be put in even more danger. We are talking about children and families here.

The financial support that is provided to people seeking asylum should reflect the real costs of daily life, including digital access and travel costs. The Scottish Government has also raised concerns about the impact of the UK Government’s streamlined asylum process. As we heard, the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees wrote to the UK Government to request urgent funding for local authorities and that it work constructively with them to ensure that people who receive a positive asylum decision are supported to move on from asylum accommodation. Instead of creating a culture war that attacks the most vulnerable, the Tories should be investing in clearing the backlog and creating safe and legal routes for those fleeing war and persecution.

I would like to mention our many amazing third sector organisations that are working flat out to support migrants every day. We need them, because Westminster has made it clear that it could not care less about some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The Human Rights Act 1998 is a key protection for every citizen in the UK and the rights of asylum seekers.

I also want to highlight the scandal of the fact that migrant women in the UK who are fleeing domestic abuse have no recourse to public funds. Do they not matter? Should they not receive care and protection in the country where they are living?

The Scottish Government cannot amend restrictions that are placed on people who are seeking asylum while they await a decision. That includes long-standing UK Government policies to restrict the right to work and access to public funds. It is therefore high time to devolve immigration to Scotland so that we can ditch the appalling Illegal Migration Act 2023 and show some compassion and respect to refugees, because refugees are desperate people fleeing war and persecution and Scotland has repeatedly voted for a more compassionate and welcoming approach. As Karen Adam said, it could be any of us—it could be us. Therefore, we need the chance to implement the policies that reflect the values of Scotland.

We move to winding-up speeches.


Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Recent hostile UK Government policies have contributed to Scotland being painted as a country that does not welcome refugees. Those policies have encouraged hostility and bad feeling towards the most vulnerable in our society. The “fear of the other” rhetoric stokes racism, puts immigrants in danger and deprives the UK of the benefits that migrants bring.

Just this week, there were reports that a far-right activist had posed as a Home Office inspector to get information about a Dumfries hotel that was housing refugees. Even more shockingly, the Scottish Refugee Council has reported that suicide among asylum seekers in Home Office accommodation has doubled in the past four years. That is due to a series of UK Government asylum policies that seek to address migrants as a horde of illegal people coming to the UK, instead of safeguarding the wellbeing of migrants who are already in the country.

As Miles Briggs mentioned, the CPG on Bangladesh recently visited the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp—I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. It was great to see the positive impact of foreign funding for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. It is disappointing that that has not been reflected in the Home Office’s recent asylum policies.

Labour wants to see an end to the costly and unacceptable asylum policies set out by the Home Office. Despite being a reserved matter, UK Government asylum policy directly affects Scotland and many devolved areas of competence within it. Under the recent UK hostile crackdown on migration, many asylum seekers in Scotland will be required to seek legal aid and to seek housing and help from Scottish local authorities. That is not to mention the potential for Scotland’s only immigration detention centre, Dungavel house, to be overwhelmed.

The minister, Emma Roddick, outlined that 80 per cent of Scots want a well-managed approach to asylum. Labour wants the immigration system to work for all parts of our country. We want a fair, controlled asylum system that supports refugees fleeing persecution while keeping our borders secure and ensuring that all accepted claims are legitimate. Currently, the Tories are outsourcing border security to criminal smuggler gangs. That is why a UK Labour Government will reform and strengthen the Migration Advisory Committee with appropriate input from across the UK so that the visa system works for all its nations and regions, including Scotland.

Kaukab Stewart outlined how, as it stands, the Illegal Migration Act 2023 can disapply the power of the Scottish Parliament. When the UK Government announced the act in March last year, the Scottish Government promised action to mitigate the damage that it would do in Scotland. We are close to a year from then, and JustRight Scotland, among others, continues to warn of the danger to unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking in Scotland under the act.

The UK Supreme Court recently ruled the so-called Rwanda plans to be unlawful. However, strict rules around asylum and leave to remain have left many asylum seekers in Scotland in limbo—not being removed but unable to access concrete help. The UK Government continues to career down a path of policies that strip refugees of their rights and ship them to third countries—a move that, as Alex Cole-Hamilton rightly observed, bluntly laid aside key aspects of our human rights legislation. Karen Adam spoke of how the UK Government does that instead of investing in tackling the asylum backlog.

As Paul O’Kane mentioned, the report by the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee recommended that the Scottish Government use powers within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to improve the lives of asylum seekers in Scotland. The harm caused by UK Government asylum policies can be mitigated in Scotland.

However, the decade of underfunding of local authorities has put the vital service that is provided to refugees at risk. The Scottish Government’s future refugee strategy must seek to protect refugees in all devolved areas and ensure that help is provided with housing, transport, employability, access to healthcare—including mental health care—and protection from organised crime.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

It frustrates me no end that we seem to spend an incredible amount of time in the Scottish Parliament debating issues that are not within our competence. We are gathered here, this afternoon, to talk through an issue that is reserved to Westminster. We could be talking about Social Security Scotland’s woeful processing times and the impact that those have been having on the most vulnerable in Scotland. We could be talking about the tumbling education standards in Scotland, which have come about as a result of the Scottish Government’s failures over the past 16 years. We could even be talking about the massive squeeze that local authorities are staring down the barrel of as a result of the refusal by the SNP and the Greens to allocate appropriate funds to them. Instead, we are talking about an issue that is not in our portfolio, which is being used as nothing more than an excuse for the SNP and the Greens to take cheap shots at the UK Government in order to distract from their own disastrous record.

The truth is that the Scottish Government has failed to protect the most vulnerable in our society at every opportunity. Miles Briggs and others have highlighted the importance of local authorities, yet, as Mr Briggs pointed out, the Scottish Government has again cut their funding, particularly in relation to housing.

In his usual skilful manner, Donald Cameron spoke about his personal experience in such difficult situations and showed us that, in fact, things were worse under Labour.

Many members have congratulated the third sector. I agree and pay tribute to third sector organisations for all the work that they do across Scotland in this area, but they need more, not less, funding from the Government if they are really to reach out.

Other members, including Alex Cole-Hamilton, seemed to argue for a completely open-door policy that would not restrict anyone from coming into the UK for whatever reason.

As always, the Scottish Government likes to talk a big game when it comes to its commitment to refugees, but, as with everything else, we are left wanting on delivery. As other members have mentioned, we should look at the Scottish Government’s commitment to those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The SNP Government went to great lengths to assure everyone that there would be no limit on the number of refugees it would welcome. It wanted to contrast itself with the big, bad UK Government. Once again, it ran into the hard-nosed reality of life and a hard dose of reality. Why do I say that? Because in July 2022 it paused the scheme. Funnily enough, it has still not been recommenced.

In addition, as of April last year, more than 7,500 Ukrainians were stuck in temporary accommodation in Scotland. The Scottish Government made a promise to them that they would find safe and permanent accommodation here. However, thousands have been stuck in limbo, not knowing when or if they will get a stable home.

There can be no doubt that this Government is on very shaky ground when it comes to giving lectures on how to care for the vulnerable. One need only look at the chaos that has engulfed the Government as it has rolled out devolved social security benefits.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I want to clarify whether Jeremy Balfour can see his screen. I have tried to intervene on him several times and I do not think that he has been aware of that. He has certainly not acknowledged it.

That may not be a point of order, although your comment is on the record. I ask Mr Balfour to continue.

I apologise to my colleague and am, of course, very happy to take an intervention from him.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am very grateful to Jeremy Balfour for giving way, and I am loth to interrupt his speech. It must have sounded great when he was looking in the shaving mirror this morning, but it is not landing as well as I think he suspected it would in the chamber this afternoon, not least because some of the rhetoric that he is using is playing to the dog-whistle politics of the hard right of the Conservative Party in London.

The Liberal Democrats’ policy is not an open-door “come all ye” to our country. It is about safe and legal routes for people who are legitimately seeking safe harbour in these islands because they are fleeing war and persecution. Jeremy Balfour diminishes himself and the chamber with the rhetoric that he is using.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank the member for his second speech. I was referring to what he said in his first speech. That might not be the policy, but that is what came across when I was listening carefully to his contribution earlier this afternoon.

There can be no doubt that this Government is on shaky ground when it comes to giving lectures on how to care for the vulnerable.

We are all in agreement that those who are fleeing persecution in their home country should be able to find refuge here, but we must have a system that meets two criteria. First, the system should be functional and deliver for those in need, ensuring a fine balance between generosity and affordability. Secondly, it should make sure that those seeking refuge come through safe and legal routes. Neither of those is optional, and there is no workable solution that does not meet those criteria.

We cannot follow the same pattern that the Scottish Government has set over its 16-year tenure—of promising the world and delivering an atlas. We need to have grown-up discussion. The fact that the SNP has used this opportunity as a mud-slinging exercise to try to promote independence does not bode well.

I am happy to say that I will support the Conservative amendment at decision time.

I call Christina McKelvie to wind up the debate.


The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development (Christina McKelvie)

The debate has been an opportunity to recognise the impact that UK Government asylum policy and legislation has here in Scotland on people seeking asylum, local authorities, public services, third sector support organisations and communities. Like Rona Mackay and others, I thank the Scottish Refugee Council, COSLA and the many other organisations that keep us briefed and work every day to support those who are seeking sanctuary in Scotland.

It is important for this Parliament to discuss these matters because of the impact on devolved services and the support that is in place in Scotland. That was recognised by Foysol Choudhury in his summing up but, sadly, not recognised by the UK Government’s representatives in this Parliament—the Scottish Conservatives. As the Scottish Refugee Council briefing says,

“We recognise that asylum is a reserved matter, but people are not.”

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I think that the minister needs to revisit her language. We are not representatives of the UK Government; we are Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party members.

I thank Mr Briggs for his point of order. Minister, if you would like to continue.

Christina McKelvie

Scotland has sought to take a different approach in order to support integration for refugees and people seeking asylum from day 1 of arrival. I agree with Maggie Chapman and Karen Adam that we need many more new Scots. The new Scots refugee integration strategy is a partnership that is led by the Scottish Government, COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council. It recognises that we can do more together to support people who have been forced to find a place of safety. I hope that members across the chamber welcome and support the right to work pilot that was proposed by my colleague Emma Roddick in her opening remarks. As Kaukab Stewart and Gordon MacDonald said, the right to work works effectively in other EU countries and adds to their economic growth. Why would we not want to have the same?

I know the Maryhill Integration Network, which has been championed by Bob Doris, and I know that it will welcome the pilot, because it has called for it for many years. Bob Doris also asked about the challenges in Glasgow. The housing minister is working closely with Glasgow City Council, and I will ask him to ensure that he responds to Bob Doris in more detail on that issue and to others who raised it in the chamber.

We need to be clear that we are talking about people who have applied to the UK Government to have their refugee status recognised or to access humanitarian protection because it is unsafe for them to return to their country of origin.

Paul O’Kane asked about the 2023 act’s implementation and the mitigations that we are considering. I wish to update him on the fact that the Government continues to work to consider all the available mitigations that are within our devolved powers and within the law. We are doing that as we speak, and we will continue to engage with all stakeholders. If Paul O’Kane wishes to add any positive ideas to that, we would be willing to hear them, and we thank him for that.

Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

I recognise that the Scottish Government has put in place a number of things to mitigate the excesses of the UK Government’s asylum and refugee policy. However, one thing that has made that much more difficult is the no recourse to public funds legislation that the UK Government has put in place. How much of an impediment does the minister think that that is to helping these most vulnerable people?

Christina McKelvie

I thank Kevin Stewart for that timely intervention. He will know from our past work together on the issue, whether as back benchers or as members of the Government, that we have challenged the UK Government on the use of no recourse to public funds, and we will continue to do so. A prime example of that is a woman fleeing domestic violence who is not allowed to access refuge when she needs it. That is disgraceful and is a prime example of why no recourse to public funds is not acceptable in any compassionate society.

It is right that there is a process for considering and determining asylum applications, but the UK needs an effective and efficient asylum system that delivers for people who may be highly vulnerable. That asylum system should ensure that the UK upholds the 1951 UN refugee convention. The experience of Mrs Ibrahim, which Paul Sweeney told us about today, is testament to why we need a system that works. Paul Sweeney asked in his speech for an update on how we can contribute to the work that he is doing, and the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees is willing to speak to him about that. If the member drops her a line, she will pick up that issue with him in more detail.

The 1951 convention does not prescribe a specific mechanism through which states should determine refugee status. According to international law, everyone who satisfies the definition that is set out in the convention is a refugee, and signatory states have responsibilities to recognise and protect refugees. It also does not require someone to seek asylum in the first country they come to—that is a dreadful misrepresentation of asylum law.

As Gordon MacDonald reminded us, the UK does not take anywhere near the numbers of people seeking sanctuary that our close European neighbours do. The UK Government’s asylum policy and legislation increasingly seek to undermine the established international refugee protection system. That damages the UK’s international reputation and puts people in need of protection at risk.

The Rwanda policy makes decisions on the basis of someone’s mode of transport, not their protected characteristics or their vulnerability, and certainly not on the reasons why they seek sanctuary. There are no safe routes to the UK, apart from some specific programmes—I challenge members to tell me that there are, because no one can find them. Instead of pushing back the boats and using all the rhetoric about trying to keep people safe, the UK Government should create some safe routes, then people will be safe and they will not need to go to people traffickers.

The focus of the debate is the impact of UK Government asylum policy and legislation in Scotland. The hostile environment and the Government’s dangerous rhetoric have a direct impact on people who live in our communities. I share Kaukab Stewart’s and TARA’s concerns about the impact on trafficking victims of the legislation that the UK Government has brought in.

People seeking asylum are members of our communities who live with constant uncertainty about when they will receive a decision and what it will say. They live in contingency hotels and dispersal accommodation. They are restricted from working and rely on low levels of financial support—£1.25 per day. Health and wellbeing are particularly challenging for people in such situations, and there are key concerns about people who are in institutional situations.

Some members have mentioned the Bibby Stockholm barge. We heard today that Leonard Farruku lay dead for 12 hours on the Bibby Stockholm barge before anybody realised. That is a disgraceful situation to be in, and it should be nowhere near anything that we want to be recognised for in the UK.

There are further challenges for people who are granted asylum and who become newly recognised refugees, as the UK Government removes support and accommodation after only 28 days. However, according to the Scottish Refugee Council, sometimes that is shortened to 14 days and, in some cases, seven days. I was glad to hear Miles Briggs recognise that issue; I hope that he will ask his pals at Westminster to fix it.

We also know that many people are receiving late notice of that removal of support. As was raised by Bob Doris, the minimum notice period and increasingly late notification are creating significant pressure for local authorities as newly recognised refugees present for mainstream housing support. The UK Government’s streamlined asylum process is exacerbating that, and it has not provided any additional funding to support local authorities.

That is before we take into account the needs of unaccompanied children. The UK legislation rides roughshod over our established child protection responsibilities and it treats cases with disbelief. I remember well when the UK Government proposed X-raying children’s wrists to determine their age. Please do not let us hear anything like that ever again.

People should not be at risk of homelessness and destitution at the point that the UK Government recognises their need for protection as refugees. That is not a new issue either. We heard that from Kaukab Stewart, in the committee that I chaired, in 2017. We have all wanted to tackle it. The 2017 report created the strategy that we have now, and I am happy to update Kaukab Stewart that the refresh of that strategy will be available in March this year. The UK Government’s asylum policy and legislation will continue to impact on all devolved areas. I encourage members to agree to the debate motion to recognise that impact and to oppose the UK Government’s pursuit of its plan.

The impact assessment cost for Rwanda was initially £169 million for 1,000 people, which is a sum of £169,000 per person. That cost has now topped £290 million. Imagine what COSLA and other organisations in Scotland could do with £169,000 per person. That would transform services and the work that they do to support people. The UK Government must recognise the engagement of Scottish local authorities in asylum dispersal and agree that the UK Government needs to engage positively with devolved Governments, local authorities and public services across asylum matters to reduce the negative impact on people who come to our communities.

Maggie Chapman, Kaukab Stewart and Karen Adam gave us a timely reminder of the dehumanising effect of language such as “Stop the boats” and words such as “swarm” and “invasion”. Such words have a dreadful impact on those who are most vulnerable. That is why we welcome the Together With Refugees campaign. The campaign has a set of principles that align with long-standing Scottish Government positions and with Scotland’s new Scots refugee integration strategy, which was developed by and delivered in partnership with COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council. I ask everyone in the chamber to get behind the Scottish Refugee Council and the refugee integration strategy.

That concludes the debate on the impact of UK Government asylum policy and legislation in Scotland.

Bob Doris

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Earlier, Miles Briggs took exception to being called a representative of the UK Government. I can well understand why—I, too, would take offence—but, in doing so, he might inadvertently have misled Parliament. Mr Briggs stated that he is a representative of the Scottish Conservative party. This afternoon, I checked the Electoral Commission’s website and can confirm that no such party exists. The only such party that exists is the Conservative and Unionist Party. How can Mr Briggs correct that inadvertent misleading of Parliament, under the standing orders?

The Presiding Officer

Thank you for your contribution, Mr Doris. I am sure that, at this point in the session, members are very well aware of the mechanism that exists to correct potential inaccuracies. We will move on to the next item of business.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I think that Mr Doris needs to get a life and understand that we are in Parliament to represent people.

Members, we will continue to treat each other with courtesy and respect. We now move on to the next item of business.