This week’s annual Budget, the first to be delivered by new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, came with low expectations about any large surprises on tax and spending, or divergence from the parameters of the General Election manifesto. In the last week its focus has naturally and rightly turned to mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Yet today’s statement showed that Government is now very comfortable with much higher levels of borrowing and public spending. Within this new context, what would a truly transformative Budget Statement for refugees look like?
This year Refugee Council has been pressing the Treasury to consider some relatively modest spending commitments that would make a profound difference to the lives of new refugees in the UK.
Some of these simply require a continuation of current Government policy, while others are supported by a range of organisations from in and outside of the refugee sector.
But in short, if the Government is to fulfil its responsibilities to new refugees, while also making good on a range of other commitments around homelessness, social integration, and child poverty, it requires important but affordable investment from the Treasury.
Long-term funding for refugee resettlement
Since 2015, the Government has significantly increased funding for refugee resettlement across the UK, meaning that it will reach its target of resettling 20,000 refugees this year.
This commitment has made the UK a global leader in resettlement, but currently it has only committed to one more year of funding and support. To continue the legacy of the current programme, Government needs to make clear how many refugees it will resettle in the future.
Ministers may be waiting for the results of the Comprehensive Spending Reviewthe Government’s long-term review of spending, setting limits over a number of years for spending in each Government department.
This is likely to take place in the final months of the year, but leaving the decision as late as that means local authorities and delivery partners (including the Refugee Council) will struggle to plan services, staffing levels may fall, and resources and knowledge that have been built up since 2015 will be lost or wasted.
Government currently resettles around 5,000 refugees per year, but we believe it should be ambitious and commit to resettling 10,000 people a year, with funding maintained at current levels.
This is perfectly possible within the resources of the UK, and can build on the success of resettlement schemes to date, and the goodwill they have generated in communities across the UK.
Support for immediate and long-term refugee integration
Ensuring that new refugees who are granted asylum are properly supported requires an interaction between different policy areas that can be complex. However, the relatively low number of people affected means the investment as a proportion of Government spending would be low.
The first step must be to invest in a longer period of transition from asylum accommodation and support to mainstream services, namely by increasing the move-on period from 28 days to at least 56 days.
While this would require additional investment in asylum support, recent British Red Cross research has shown that this would actually lead to Government savings resulting from the positive social outcomes of extending the move-on period.
Government should also make an investment of approximately £11.5 million per year to provide all new refugees with a non-repayable integration grant, as is already policy for resettled refugees, alongside a tenancy scheme to provide deposits for new refugees entering the private rented sector.
English language skills are vital for integration and Government already funds ESOL for refugees, but not at levels that allow them to benefit fully, nor for it to properly support integration.
Refugee Action has found that an investment of £42 million per year would allow every new resettled and asylum refugee to access 8 hours of ESOL for two years.
Invest in social security
Two flagship policies that limit access to social security – the benefit cap and the two-child limit – affect a large number of refugees, undermining their integration prospects and particularly pushing families into poverty.
Both should be abolished by the Chancellor if Government is serious about supporting the most vulnerable refugees, but these policies of course affect a wider part of the UK population.
Refugee Council is part of the All Kids Count campaign, a coalition of many organisations seeking to end the two-child limit.
The policies set out above are not an exhaustive list of what action is needed to ensure the UK properly facilitates international protection – for example, the Home Office needs to extend refugee family reunion, and engage in asylum reform too.
But if the Treasury wanted to start rationalising some of its spending through the lens of refugee support and integration, then these policies would be an affordable and positive start.
It’s disappointing that this process didn’t start today. But we hope this approach can be taken forward as longer-term spending is considered in the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2020, and at the Government’s next Budget in the autumn.