Jane Hutt MS, Deputy Minister and Chief Whip
On 16 March, the Home Office announced that it would not submit a planning application to extend the use of the Penally camp to house asylum seekers. The Welsh Government welcomes this decision, which is one of both moral imperative and common sense. We have frequently raised our concerns about the safety and suitability of utilising a military camp site for those who have fled war and persecution, as well as the inadequacy of placing the site in a rural location without vital specialised services of support. We also expressed our concern that the camp was not a Covid-19 compliant environment – despite Home Office claims to the contrary – which posed an inherent risk to the occupants and wider local community. It appears that the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has largely vindicated our claims following his inspection which took place in February.
Wales is a Nation of Sanctuary. We believe asylum seekers should be welcomed and supported to integrate in their new country. The Penally camp did not provide the best start for those camp residents, nor did it help to maintain a cohesive community. The manner in which the camp was opened is a case study in the opposite of how community cohesion and integration can be achieved. I am pleased to say that the men from the camp have been relocated to existing asylum areas in Wales and we continue to ensure the Home Office provides them with appropriate support.
On 18 November 2021, the Senedd debated and agreed a motion that the Home Office’s decision to accommodate asylum seekers at the Penally army camp should be reconsidered because it is an unsuitable place without access to appropriate support networks.
I want to put on record my thanks for the phenomenal professionalism and competence of our public services in the Penally area who have exceeded any expectations in dealing with such a challenging situation – especially during a pandemic.
Hywel Dda University Health Board stood up quality services in a remarkably short space of time, without prior notice or expertise in supporting asylum seekers. Pembrokeshire County Council has managed community tensions, planning processes, and many unexpected issues despite never consenting to be an asylum dispersal area.
Dyfed-Powys Police and the Police and Crime Commissioner have demonstrated restraint and balance in the way protests have been policed and how resource issues and tensions have been raised with the UK Government.
As always, the third sector and volunteers rose to the challenge of providing support to the residents – both for their practical and spiritual needs. Two new third sector organisations have set up in West Wales with an aim of doing more to support people seeking sanctuary. Donations from the local community were overwhelming at times. Charities from as far afield as Newport and Cardiff offered support to those in the camp and this compassion reflects well on us as a society.
Our collective mitigating actions would not have been effective without the partnership approach undertaken by the Penally Strategic Engagement Group and Multi Agency Group, all of whom came together quickly to step up to the challenge with little experience of the asylum system. The actions of these groups helped to ensure the measures put in place at the camp were achieved at pace. The Wales Strategic Migration Partnership has played a crucial role in building and maintaining this partnership over the last 6 months.
Although the site was unsuitable, we have learned a great deal about how Welsh public services can come together to respond to urgent situations like this. Despite this, we will do everything we can to prevent another Penally-type development opening in Wales.
Although the provision of asylum accommodation is the responsibility of the UK Government we are working closely with Welsh local authorities to widen the asylum dispersal system to new areas. Conversations with local government have taken place throughout February in the hope that new opportunities for asylum dispersal can be found. We must do this at a pace that ensures inclusion and cohesion within communities is managed effectively and local authorities are not placed under unnecessary pressure at a financial and operational level.
We will need the Home Office to be far more flexible in their approach to ensure local authority concerns around safeguarding, data sharing, partnership working and funding can be adequately addressed. Nevertheless, we are committed to providing support to this endeavour.