The speech made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 21 July 2022.
I want to raise a number of issues in the Sir David Amess Summer Adjournment debate. One is the issue of passport delays, which is affecting many of our constituents.
Yesterday, at the Home Affairs Committee, the head of HM Passport Office acknowledged that there was a backlog of over 500,000, despite constant reassurances from the Government Front Bench that passport applications were being dealt with within 10 weeks. The backlog is having a real effect on people’s ability to travel not just on holiday but to family funerals and so on. That is unacceptable. I was the last passports Minister in the last Labour Government, so I know there is a predictable upsurge in demand—we saw it after the banking crisis—and it could have been predicted. It reflects some of the challenges raised by a drop in staffing numbers and without enough of a plan to increase them in time. The Passport Office has always been very good at going with the ebb and flow, so the situation is shocking. I hope that in the few weeks of the summer recess, the Government will get a grip of the issue to ensure that, even if many people are, sadly, still unable to go away on holiday or to visit family, it will be sorted by the autumn.
Another key issue in the Home Office—there are so many—is immigration. I am one of the top six customers, if you like, as a Member of Parliament on immigration issues in the Home Office. There is delay, inaction, inaccuracy and lives being wrecked all over the place. The Syria resettlement scheme was, as the Public Accounts Committee highlighted, run quite well, and we have now had the Afghanistan and Ukraine resettlement schemes, but all of them have knocked out the normal day-to-day work done to support family visas and other immigration cases. I have people living in limbo, unable to get on with their lives, their children unable to go on school trips or to universities. A women wrote to me just today, hoping that her partner would be able to come here as she is due to give birth in Homerton Hospital. She has been told that the 12-week wait for a family visa has now been extended to 24, blowing out their careful planning to make sure they could be settled and together as a family for the important occasion of the birth of their first child. That is just one example out of many of where lives have been wrecked.
On the Afghanistan resettlement scheme, the Syrian resettlement model was well-worn and worked pretty well. The Public Accounts Committee gave it a fairly good thumbs up—although there are always issues on which we want to see improvements—so there was a blueprint in place, yet in a hotel in Old Street in my constituency, Afghan families and individuals have been stuck since last August, unable to move on. We are getting to the one-year anniversary—not a birthday we want to celebrate. While of course we all recognise the challenge and vital importance of supporting our Ukrainian neighbours in their need, the excuses coming out of the Home Office—“We are dealing with these issues, but we have delays because of Ukraine”—are just not acceptable. This is the British Home Office. It should be able to deal with more than one issue at a time. However, we are repeatedly seeing a version of whack-a-mole, in which an issue arises and everyone is shipped over to deal with that issue while other people wait in the queue. These people are stuck, they are living in limbo, and, as I have said, they are suffering devastating consequences. It is a litany of poor communication and delay, and it is having a huge impact on people’s lives.
I have been an immigration Minister, and if someone does not qualify to be in the UK that is fine, but many people who do qualify are sitting in limbo as they wait to renew a leave to remain application which is very unlikely to be refused. What a poor welcome to our country—a country that is built on the shoulders of many migrants. Indeed, we have a candidate for its leadership whose parents entered the UK from another country, and have created a life and a potential new Prime Minister. We should be doing much more to welcome these people.
I do not lay all this on the staff. There have been staff cuts in the Home Office, and indeed across the civil service. Civil service staffing fell to its lowest ever level before 2016 and, although there has been an increase since then, largely connected with Brexit and trade issues, the Government’s proposal to remove 20%, 30% or 40% of officials from Departments poses a real challenge. The Government need to be clear about the consequences of those potential cuts.
Climate change is obviously a huge issue for us all, and I am very concerned about the Government’s repeated failure on home insulation, which is an issue in my constituency and across the country. We have seen a number of failed projects, but the Government now have an opportunity to kick-start the economy. I make this plea now in particular because by the time we return in September we will have a new Prime Minister to hear how we can create jobs, growth and opportunity for people by ensuring that we can get that insulation into people’s homes. Emissions from properties constitute 19% of total emissions, and that needs to be tackled, but it will not be tackled unless we get this right.
As the Public Accounts Committee pointed out in a report published a while ago, the Government have plans for electric vehicles but no real plans for a charging structure. How are people going to make the leap into buying electric vehicles unless they can be sure that they can charge them?
These are small but clear examples of the need for us to turn the challenge of achieving net zero into something that is manageable, meaningful and affordable for the people who need to make those moves in order for us to achieve it. This cannot be done to people; they have to be empowered to do it, and the Government are not helping in that regard. They are missing a real opportunity to drive green jobs, growth and investment.
Finally, I want to reiterate my concern about people living in flats in my constituency. I declare an interest, in that I live with a communal heating system and with cladding—although that is fast being removed from my building by the developer, which, happily, is not charging my neighbours and me.
Communal and district heating is not covered by the energy price cap. Let me give some of the worst examples of what is happening in my constituency. One constituent faces a 600% increase in his gas bill. Another has a well-paid job but is still struggling, with energy prices rising by 400%. In a third case, the increase is over 100%. It is very difficult to absorb such prices during the current cost of living crisis. The Government have said that they will change this eventually, but they need to provide support now for people with communal heating systems, who are really struggling.