In a week when there was a lot to be ashamed about, and especially the supine performance of the Prime Minister during and following her visit to Trump, today’s report of the Home Office Select Committee on the accommodation provided to asylum seekers should make us reflect on our own moral worth as a country. As we rightly rail against the inhumanity of Trump’s refugee ban, here at home we are guilty of treating victims of torture and others who have been ripped from their homelands by war and oppression with our own version of merciless cruelty.
People seeking asylum in the UK are eligible for Home Office support if they can prove they are destitute. They may be entitled to receive £36.95 a week – which means they could afford tea for one at the Ritz, but only once a fortnight – and accommodation. Accommodation is provided through six regional COMPASS contracts (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services). The contracts were won by Serco, G4S and Clearsprings Group. They procure their accommodation through sub-contractors and private landlords. The contractors reported to the Select Committee that they were losing money heavily on the contracts, and the Government is seeking further major cuts in the overall budget.
The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 sets out three circumstances under which asylum seekers are entitled to accommodation:
- while the Home Office is considering whether an individual is eligible for support (Section 98 of the Act)
- while the Home Office is assessing the application (Section 95), and
- when the application for asylum has been refused but the applicant has yet to leave the country (Section 4).
(quotes and chart from from Select Committee report)
The vast majority of people are housed under Section 95 and the number of people accommodated on this basis has almost doubled over the lifetime of the COMPASS contracts (see Figure 1 from Select Committee report).
No’ people provided with dispersed accommodation under S 95, by quarter
The combination of the policy to disperse asylum seekers around the regions, the reducing Government budget, the rising numbers, and the losses faced by the companies, make it inevitable that the poorest accommodation in the cheapest areas will be procured. Genuine dispersal is also limited by local authority interest: in G4S’s areas, only 27 out of 135 authorities have agreed to accept asylum accommodation. G4S described the unwillingness of councils as ‘entrenched’. The outcome is that serious pressures are being faced by councils in poorer areas who have agreed to participate – as ‘clustering’ is leading to high demand for local services. It is yet another example of Government passing costs down without funding to local areas. Although many more councils have been willing to take Syrian refugees (so far the numbers are small, and its a better funded system), the Select Committee calls the wider system ‘unfair’ with many councils taking no asylum seeker at all.
The Select Committee details many of the problems in the process but focusses on the frequently poor standards. A significant number remain in temporary accommodation for months before becoming ‘settled’: these are often hotels where residents have inadequate amenities and space and find it extremely difficult to access suitable food and health and education services.
The evidence we have received suggests that some of the premises used by Providers as temporary accommodation are substandard and unfit to house anyone, let alone people who are vulnerable.
‘Dispersal accommodation’ into which asylum seekers are settled is meant to meet strict inspection standards and should meet the decent homes standard and be fit for purpose. However the Select Committee received evidence that people were being placed in accommodation that was unfit for human habitation with bad maintenance, well beyond a few isolated cases. Common problems identified included infestations of mice rats and bedbugs, dirty premises, and inadequate furnishings. One case of a known asbestos risk was also reported, but many of the dwellings were thought to have an adverse health impact.
It is clear that in too many cases Providers are placing people in accommodation that is substandard, poorly maintained and, at times, unsafe. Some of this accommodation is a disgrace and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions. Urgent action must be taken by the Home Office and Providers to deal with this issue.
Single adults, often vulnerable, frequently have to share bedrooms, often with people they do not know from different countries or religions.
The system of allocating properties strikes us as chaotic.
If asylum seekers end up in a small proportion of authority areas, it cannot properly be called a dispersal system. Birmingham, Bolton. Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Rochdale all have over 1,000, whilst wealthier places like Windsor and Maidenhead (containing Theresa May’s seat), Surrey South West (Jeremy Hunt), Epson and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and many others, have zero.
The number of asylum seekers in each area resembles an inverse list of the wealthiest areas in the UK. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too smug in our moral superiority in relation to Trump: just as the richest nation on earth is keeping out refugees, so are the richest towns in Britain.