HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc420-8WH

11 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

Good morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity for this debate on the situation facing the Somali community in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] Is something wrong?

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair)

The correct nomenclature is Mr. O'Hara.

Jeremy Corbyn

Good morning, Mr. O'Hara. Thank you, Mr. O'Hara, I shall start again.

I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the Somali community in the UK. Hon. Members will be aware that there was a debate last week, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) concerning the situation in Somaliland and aid to it. This is not a debate about the complicated political situation in Somalia or Somaliland, or about the questions of aid to those areas. It is a debate about the situation facing the Somali community in the UK, many of whose members have travelled to this country recently because of the desperate situation in their country—particularly in the southern part of Somalia—which has led them to be victims of the nascent civil war and of warlords. One hopes that there will be an effective peace process in that country, which will help reduce the tensions and enable people to live a much better and fuller life.

Many Somalis who have come to Britain have suffered the most horrific experiences. I want to talk about that issue and the plight of the Somali community in this country. My constituency has a considerable number of residents from Somalia, many of whom have come quite recently. I hold a special monthly advice bureau, with interpreters, for members of my local Somali community, so that we can discuss their problems and so that I can do my best to represent them. My constituency probably does not have the largest Somali community in the UK; many other constituencies in London probably have more Somalis, and Cardiff and other major British cities have substantial communities.

In meeting the local community, several things have impressed me. First is the sense of hurt that many Somalis feel. They have managed to escape from a dangerous situation and come to this country. However, our arcane immigration and housing procedures mean that if they cannot get full status to live here, they are unable to get access to permanent council housing. Therefore, they cannot get access to living permanently in a community and that in turn affects access to health, education, well-being and everything else. I will return to that a little later.

I thought that the best way to support that community was to recognise the great contribution that many Somalis make to our society, and to try to bring many groups in that community together. Therefore, I invited all of the Somali groups and communities that I could find to meetings here in the House of Commons, and I was amazed when nearly 300 people arrived for the first one.

We had a brief discussion about the history of the country from which everyone had come, but we had a much longer discussion about the situation in Britain. We then drew all those people together and decided that the important thing to do was to recognise the needs of the community in this country. From that idea, the Somali community as a whole put together a comprehensive report—I would happy to provide a copy of it to the Minister—outlining the kind of problems that its members face. Later on, the Government office for London also produced a report on developing good practice in service delivery to Somali communities in a number of London boroughs. That is a welcome initiative. Concerns on similar issues have been expressed by the Greater London authority, and indeed, that body has held meetings on the situation facing the Somali community.

Before I go through the problems that face the community, let me make it clear that it is important that we do not present Somalis as being victims or supplicants, or as people who are demanding something. It is a strong and vibrant community, which brings a rich cultural tradition to this country. The older Somalis, particularly those in Cardiff and in some parts of London, most of whom come from Somaliland and were traditionally involved in the merchant marine industry, have been here for many years. More recent arrivals make an incredibly strong contribution. It is a community that wants to work, succeed, survive and contribute. Therefore, when we outline the problems—I am sure that the Minister would agree with this—we are trying to enable that community to contribute much more to our society.

I have various concerns, and I shall go through them in slightly more detail in a moment. The first is the problem of family reunion. To say the least, it is traumatic when child asylum seekers arrive in this country and, because of the problems of the immigration service or of simple access to entry clearance officers in Nairobi—or any other place where the rest of the family happens to be—then have to wait years for the great day when the family reunion takes place. The trauma experienced by those child asylum seekers is tremendous. I have met several of those children in children's homes and other places, and it is something that will live with me for a long time.

The next concern is housing and the poverty that goes with the lack of adequate accommodation. There are a large number of single-parent households within the community, many of whom live in great poverty. Usually the mother is in charge of the children; they need better access to education and English language teaching opportunities. Above all, the community as a whole needs better access to the labour market and all that goes with it.

I want to go briefly through the main points of the report. Several working parties were set up, one of which dealt with the British media and their presentation of the community, which, on occasions, has been unbelievably appalling. There was a ludicrous story in several local papers about the Somali community stealing and eating donkeys. It was complete and utter nonsense. It was racist in its intentions and did enormous damage to the community. The police inquiry proved the whole story to be complete nonsense, but it was damaging and I had hoped that the press would have been slightly more responsible in their reporting.

The victimisation of young people, especially those who are subject to violent crime, is another concern. I cannot forget the day that a young Somali man in my constituency, Abdul Hamza, died as a result of a brutal attack just outside the home where he was living. The degree of racist violence in our society is unacceptable. It is appalling and the way in which the press report such matters is very important and must be handled sensitively.

There is the problem of young people who do not have sufficient qualifications and who are not achieving as much as they should do in school. The part of the report carried out by two youth groups was very instructive in that respect. It outlined the contribution that is made by Somali youth projects, but they are underfunded. We need to understand that there is a problem of cultural diversity as well as cultural tension within the community when parents and grandparents arrive in this country and pursue a fairly traditional sense of family relationships. To some extent, young people rebel against that and want to grow up as young western, liberal-minded people. That is fine. We welcome that, but that cultural tension must be dealt with, so that young people are proud to be Somalis living in our society.

Housing is a serious issue. There is a massive housing problem in London as a whole, as there is in most of the south-east. There is less of a housing problem in the north-east or north-west. In my community, those Somalis who have achieved permanent residence in this country often take others into their houses. Such people may well be asylum seekers who were distributed by the National Asylum Support Service to other parts of the country but, because of the racist threats that they faced there, have returned to London and live almost as homeless people on the floors and settees of other people's homes, often with little income. Poverty within the community is huge, but the sense of community support for individual families is great.

We must consider the problems associated with barriers to work because of institutional racism, the difficulties of finding appropriate interpreters to deal with individual problems and the provision of adequate access to further education opportunities, especially for Somali women. The report deals at some length with health problems. They range from the problems of those who have fled from the terrible, internal strife in Somali and who suffer stress and trauma and need support, to problems resulting from the use of the drug khat, although that is not the only problem. I do not wish to stereotype the community as being totally dependent on drugs. There is a drug issue, but there is a drug issue in the whole country and among young people throughout our society.

An issue that was interestingly discussed in part of the report was that of relations in Europe, and the way in which the EU and the European social fund and its derivatives can assist that community. I am grateful for the work that has been done by a number of MEPs, particularly Claude Moraes, in trying to represent the needs of that community in Europe.

The report, which I will provide to the Minister, shows the strength of feeling in the community, the high degree of education among many Somalis living in Britain, and their difficulty in finding access to work and employment. We are short-changing ourselves and the community when there are asylum seekers who are highly qualified nurses, doctors and others with great experience who, because of problems with the immigration procedure and cross-recognition of professional qualifications, are living on benefits. They ought to be able to contribute to, and work properly in, our society. The Home Office is well aware of that waste of resources.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I do not have a large Somali constituency in my constituency, but I wonder whether it will surprise him to hear of the following case. It was brought to my attention not by the Somali community, but by magistrates and lawyers who attended a legal case in which a Somali gentleman, who was refused asylum but was also unable to be repatriated by our Government, proceeded to work for cash. He endeavoured to put that cash in a bank, and produced false identification. He ended up being committed to the Crown court, and will probably get a jail sentence. He will ultimately be released, and will then have no alternative but to repeat the sequence of events. Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that situation intolerable? We are talking about a man who wishes to work. He may or may not have permission to stay in the country, but he has been rendered stateless by procedures as they operate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that that is of concern not just to—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair)

Order. That is a rather lengthy intervention.

Dr. Pugh

It is—I apologise, Mr. O'Hara.

Jeremy Corbyn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I fully understand the circumstances surrounding the case that he described. Clearly, if we do not give people an opportunity to work or receive some other reasonable income, they will be forced into all kinds of circumstances. I fully understand that, and it seems an awful waste of public resources to put such a person in prison when we denied them the opportunity to work in the first place. That is what we should consider.

The Government office for London's first report is welcome. It looks at issues of housing, empowerment and representation at local level. It suggests a need for support for community projects and advice, business advice, and support in training and advocacy work. It gives a good summary of some of the local community projects in London and gives great support for them. I went to the presentation conference organised by that body, at which there were representatives of many local groups, the police and local authorities. There was an understanding that we need better co-operative working on all that, but also that there is a serious underestimation of the size of the Somali population in London.

I have asked many parliamentary questions to various Ministers concerning the numbers seeking asylum, the numbers accepted, and the number of people that have not been accepted but whose cases are pending, and whose families can therefore not join them in this country—that is a serious issue that the Minister will no doubt want to address. I have also asked questions about the degree of public funding and support for relevant and various Somali community projects around the country. I hope that the Minister will either give us some good news on that, or be prepared to consider the following question: are we fairly supporting this community around the country to enable it to contribute and promote itself in society?

During my many meetings with the Somali community, I have been impressed by several things. First, there is the sense of injustice about the victims of a war—victims of the civil strife—and all the trauma and horror that go with that. I have talked to young Somali children who have been through that, and they have witnessed things that none of us ever wants to witness; things that we certainly would never want our children to witness.

I recognise that Somali women are often the mainstay of the community. Often, they are living in poor circumstances and find life very difficult. They need support, opportunities for education, and better access to nursery support for their children so that they can educate themselves. The Somali community needs that lift and support so that it can make a greater contribution to our community, and allow its young people to lead richer lives as a result.

I am proud to represent my local Somali community, as, I am sure, are many other hon. Members. It is important that the Government recognise in their reply—I am sure that they will—that there is an opportunity to give much more help and support, which will be repaid many times over in the economic contribution that this important community makes to our national life.

11.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing today's debate. Adjournment debates are a good vehicle for focusing on issues affecting particular constituents, which sometimes are not given time in our other debates in the Chamber across the way. I also welcome my hon. Friend's constituents who have come to give him support.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the concerns of all his constituents, but that he also recognises that, although people face common issues, each constituency has particular situations that can be exacerbated by several issues. Some of those issues can be caused by people coming to the UK fleeing, as he has eloquently said, the wars and horrors that many of us would find hard to conceive. People find themselves here and, having gone through the processes of being granted refugee status, wonder how they will be able to cope with language and cultural barriers, as well as with all the other problems related to a major city, such as housing, and access to employment, training and education.

The Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration have recognised that, as well as focusing on the asylum system and law, the Home Office and the Government must consider what their responsibilities are. The issue is cross-departmental, and if we have given someone indefinite leave to remain, we must consider how we ensure that they are able to take up the opportunities that should be available. If we are honest, we have to say that for decades that side of the problem has not been attended to. That is why, regardless of where people of different cultural and ethnic communities come from, we still have problems with people being able to speak and read English, and with things that follow on from that, such as being able to take up education opportunities, work and volunteering—the very things that could help communities have their voices heard in the regeneration projects that this Government are funding across the country. Every community within a community should have its voice heard.

A key aim of the Home Office is to consider how we can support strong and active communities, while recognising diversity and realising that for some people we may have to think much more creatively about how we ensure that their voices are heard. Part of promoting good and active citizenship is about inclusiveness.

My hon. Friend did not touch on this, but it is important to acknowledge the rise in recent years of right-wing organisations in our elections. They use opportunities to create tensions, exacerbate problems and, in some ways, see difference as a bad thing, rather than recognising that diversity is a good thing. Perhaps we should think more about how we celebrate diversity and make sure that links between different communities within the larger community can be made. It is not a tale of two cities; we do not want that situation. We are trying to address the matter now; if we do not, that will allow the far right to take advantage.

The citizen unit is now in place in the Home Office. It will develop the active citizenship centre. We will ensure that every citizen can take part and be a strong voice in their local communities.

My hon. Friend mentioned legislation. He is constantly considering how we can improve entry clearance and ensure that people are dealt with considerately and effectively in the system. Some of that depends on the large number of applications that different entry clearance posts abroad receive. They are responsible for dealing with such applications abroad and they have targets for that. Obviously such targets depend on the number of applications, but they are trying to meet targets of three to six months.

Jeremy Corbyn

Will the Minister ensure that the posts abroad process things quickly and efficiently and that posts in the middle east, particularly Saudi Arabia, do not have a security system that makes it impossible for Somali people working there even to get into the building to make an application? I know that that sounds ludicrous, but one of my constituents had such an experience.

Caroline Flint

I will take that example away as something to consider and pass it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who will write to my hon. Friend. If there are specific examples, we want to hear about them to establish whether we can do anything to alleviate the situation.

We have also tried to consider the needs of Somali people who come to this country, in order to be better able to deal with their applications. There are some new initiatives: one involves a Somali expert working in the asylum-screening unit. He sits in on the initial screening interviews and informs the decision-making process. That may be helpful: the issue is not just about refusals, but about granting people access and enabling them to move on in the asylum process. Language testing is also important so that at the screening we can quickly ascertain that a person is who they say they are. That is not a negative resource but a positive one, to ensure that people are identified quickly.

My hon. Friend mentioned children who come to the country alone. We are concerned about that, and my right hon. Friend is considering the issue. A UNICEF report last year discussed the issue of unaccompanied children who come to this country. With social services and other Departments, we are considering what we can do. Linked to that is how we liaise with such children's family members, who may be in their country of origin or in another country awaiting the chance to come to the UK.

Recognised refugees have access to housing and support, although my hon. Friend quite rightly mentioned some problems. I understand that there are particular problems in London. He also mentioned dispersal. The issue for London local authorities is not only space but the sharing of our responsibilities to provide accommodation to asylum seekers. The spreading of the responsibility further around the country was addressed. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the problems that occur when communities give accommodation in part of the country without the backup and support that are available in London. London and the other major cities have generations of development in this respect; my own area of Doncaster has not. However, we have put considerable effort into trying to make those communities also address such issues in ways they have not thought of before.

In my constituency, less than 1 per cent. of people define themselves as being from an ethnic minority. It is important to address these issues regardless of the number of people from different groups who are in our communities; otherwise we end up with a situation in which some parts of the country properly engage in them—in relation to not only refugees but the diversity of children coming into our schools—whereas other parts of the country, where people might not be so visible, do not properly address them. Although there are difficulties, it is important to do that. Even if there is only one Somali family in Doncaster and their children are entering our schools, it is important that they receive some support—just as it is for those groups around the country that have the added resource of community support. We try to do what we can in that respect.

My hon. Friend raised a number of housing issues. I have mentioned employment, training, education, health and welfare rights. Many of those issues are about people being able to access services and make demands about what they want. The situation can be undermined if people in different communities feel that services are not relevant to them and do not address their needs. Some people also cannot engage because they do not have a voice, as they cannot speak English as well as they speak their first language. That is part and parcel of what we have to address.

We have to deal with the situation of people who have been here for many years, as well as that of younger groups and children when they are born. We must have different strategies to deal with those different generations. As my hon. Friend said, the Government office for London has been working hard to tackle some of those issues.

I want to mention a project in Toxteth run by the Merseyside Cultural Organisation. It provides support and advice to local residents, many of whom are asylum seekers and refugees from the Somali and Yemeni communities. It runs a community interpretative course, language courses, weekly cultural classes for children, weekly benefits advice and Jobcentre Plus surgeries. From what we have seen so far, that project shows that there is enormous potential for the development of self-help services in such communities.

My hon. Friend made a very important point. We must not just provide services that we think are right for different communities or tell people how they should do things; we must recognise what the problems are and respond to them according to local needs. Self-help is also important, which is why we need to make sure that the Somali community and many others are able to get involved in these projects.

Another example of such projects is the new deal for communities project in Bristol. It has shown how local residents can actively engage in improving their localities. There are also a number of other projects. It is important to recognise that although new deal projects and neighbourhood renewal projects are not necessarily directed at one community, we should encourage different communities to engage in them so that economic and social renewal means as much to them as it does to anyone else.

I have been making the point that neighbourhood renewal projects and new deal for communities projects should address the issue of drugs as well as improving the built environment and looking at jobs. Social issues are very important. Under the refugee integration challenge fund, we fund the East London Somali Association. That project aims to help Somali refugees to access services and to understand and take advantage their rights, and to offer emotional and physical support to people who have suffered terrible horrors, which is why they are here in the first place. It also aims to help Somali refugees to help themselves and to solve problems associated with their refugee status. We are also developing a programme of learning for new arrivals, which will include Somalis. That will build on the active learning for active citizens project.

We are considering ways to address the problem of khat misuse. We are commissioning research that will give us an update on the Griffins report of—I think—1998. It will look at the relationship between khat use and other drug use, khat and crack use among Somali women and a number of other issues. In our drug strategy, we are also looking at diversity. We know that we cannot make assumptions about drug use. We have to understand it. We also have to understand—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair)


11.30 am

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.