Lewis Herbert on housing asylum seekers in Cambridge

international08:17 Friday 4th March 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: One of the other big issues this morning, MPs warning Britain faces an impending shortage of housing for asylum seekers, with an allocation system that’s unfair. The Home Affairs Committee claims most are moved into urban areas, while whole swathes of the country don’t receive any. Let’s bring in Keith Vaz MP, who’s Chair of that Committee. Keith morning to you.
KEITH VAZ: Good morning Chris.
CHRIS MANN: So what’s your view? How do you distribute so many people?
KEITH VAZ: Well better than we’re doing at present, because as we know, there are certain parts of the country where there are many asylum seekers in dispersed accommodation, and some parts of the country, sadly Chris Cambridge being one of them, where there are no asylum seekers in accommodation in the whole of Cambridge. If you take Bolton for example, they have 1,023. And a city like my own in Leicester, which has over 875. Now this is not something that’s just happened under this Government. This has been the case for the last ten years.
KEITH VAZ: But the situation has become more acute.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Peterborough, also in Cambridgeshire as you know, Stewart Jackson the MP says we’re not taking any more because we’re full. We’ve done our share. Do you agree with him?
KEITH VAZ: Well I don’t know what his share is, but we’re not .. you know .. since I’m talking to Radio Cambridge I mention Cambridge. At the end of the day, this is something that needs to be negotiated between the local authorities and the Government. Peterborough actually have taken 146 in dispersed accommodation.
CHRIS MANN: Recently. Yes.
KEITH VAZ: Yes. Which In think is a reasonable number.
KEITH VAZ: And they support 153 in terms of Section 95 help.
KEITH VAZ: So Stewart is making the point that he’s taken 146, but next door .. you know .. other local authorities have taken none. So he’s right to that extent. I’m not prescribing a number here. I’m just saying that it should be much more fairer than it is.
CHRIS MANN: What is your number for Cambridge? How many should the city take?
KEITH VAZ: Well I don’t think that I should negotiate necessarily with you Chris, though we’re both people I’m sure capable of doing this. This is something that should be done between the Government and Cambridgeshire City Council .. Cambridge City Council. They should be having this discussion, because we have international obligations which the Prime Minister has committed us to, the 20,000.
KEITH VAZ: Plus all those waiting in the queue.
CHRIS MANN: It’s your own Party ..
KEITH VAZ: They really need to be accommodated.
CHRIS MANN: It’s a Labour City Council, you might know. Are you disappointed at that.
KEITH VAZ: (LAUGHS) I’m not making a party political point on this. And the previous Government was a Labour government before the Coalition. So this is about the system Chris. This is about a system that leaves some cities and some urban areas with a lot of asylum seekers, and other parts of the country with none.
CHRIS MANN: But of course ..
KEITH VAZ: And we need to put this right.
CHRIS MANN: As you know, Cambridge is quite unique as a city in that it’s under huge pressure in terms of housing for the people that are already here and working here and living here. There’s a massive problem with not enough accommodation . So where do we find these places?
KEITH VAZ: Sure. You’re absolutely right. I studied in Cambridge for three years. I was there on Wednesday night. I know all the good work that is being done by the City Council. But the fact is, if we share this challenge and this burden equally throughout the country, then it’s much easier for all local authorities. Cambridge is no different from Peterborough or Leicester or any of these other areas. There is enormous pressure. But if you sign a treaty saying that you’re going to let asylum seekers come into this country, and you say you’re going to get 20,000 Syrian refugees coming to the United Kingdom in five years, we need to put them somewhere. Now what we’ve suggested is there’s been offers from people including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who’ve said why not come and house asylum seekers in our house, in our establishment …
KEITH VAZ: .. you should look at that again.
CHRIS MANN: I know you’ve got to go in a second or two, but I’m going to get a response from Lewis Herbert, the Leader of Cambridge City Council, just after you’ve gone. But your message to him now Keith is ..?
KEITH VAZ: Keep talking to the Government. A city like Cambridge can’t just take on responsibility without the funding, and they need to get the funding to support what they’re doing. And they should continue to keep negotiating to see what can be done to help. Cambridge is a great city, and it’s important that all cities and towns and counties in the country share this burden. That’s what we’re saying.
CHRIS MANN: Keith Vaz MP, thank you so much. Chair of the Home Affairs Committee there. The warning that Britain faces an impending shortage of housing for asylum seekers. The allocation system is unfair, and he says Cambridge has got to take more. Got to take some he says. Well Lewis Herbert is the Leader of Cambridge City Council, and he joins us now. Lewis, good morning to you.
LEWIS HERBERT: Good morning Chris.
CHRIS MANN: What’s your response?

LEWIS HERBERT: Well we’re helping on the Syrian refugee resettlement programmes. So Cambridge is playing its part. The broader issue of asylum seekers largely starts in the East of England through the resettlement .. what they rather rudely call Dispersal Centres in Ipswich, Norwich and Peterborough, and we’re not part of that programme. But we’re playing our part in helping Syrian refugees.
CHRIS MANN: Mr Vaz doesn’t seem to think so. He’s a Labour MP of course. He was in the city, he was telling us on Wednesday night. Did he have a word with you then?
LEWIS HERBERT: Well he didn’t talk to me then. And what he just said was he actually knows that Cambridge is helping, and that we need to get the funding out of Government to do that. I think that certainly from a perspective of looking at how the Government has handled asylum seekers, it hasn’t helped the country that their policy has been to send them to Middlesborough and Glasgow and a couple of other large cities. So we would be very happy Chris to talk to the Government, if they come up with a more sensible policy. But the main areas that are not helping are actually the Tory areas, and they actually also include the Home Secretary’s own town of Maidenhead. So Cambridge will talk ..
CHRIS MANN: Well he’s very specifically pointed the finger at you today. Are you feeling shamed?
LEWIS HERBERT: Not at all. We’re helping refugees. We have got severe housing problems ourselves. It’s inevitable and understandable that the Government looks to those areas that have got more housing. We do not have the spare housing. We are already helping Syrian refugees Chris.
CHRIS MANN: Do you think there is a public will to take more people in Cambridge?
LEWIS HERBERT: I think there is, and that’s one of the other issues. We had a big conference yesterday with the Home Office. The Home Office has got a hugely restricted approach to helping refugees. They only want to help people through housing like council housing, or housing associations. And we know that in Cambridge there are offers from people to help single refugees, to help the large number that there are of unaccompanied teenagers that there are in the country from Syria. So there are offers in Cambridge to help. The problem with the Government scheme is it is very restrictive, and it doesn’t allow people to effectively provide a room for a refugee. And we know in the city that can be done. So we have many spare rooms. What we don’t have Chris are big houses that are spare in Cambridge. We have our own housing crisis.
CHRIS MANN: Lewis Herbert. Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Councillor Lewis Herbert there, Leader of Cambridge City Council, replying to t hat apparent criticism that we heard on the show from Keith Vaz, the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee in the House of Commons.