UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council - Scottish Affairs Committee Contents


1  UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council


Introduction

1. On 5 November 2010 the UK Border Agency (UKBA) officially confirmed the termination of its contract with Glasgow City Council (GCC) for the housing of asylum seekers in GCC accommodation. On the same day, a letter was sent out by UKBA Head Office (based in London) to those asylum seekers in GCC accommodation, saying that they would given 3-5 days notice of when they would have to move, and that they would be allowed to take with them two pieces of luggage.[1] Neither Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Refugee Council or the UKBA's own office in Glasgow, received advance notification that such a letter was being sent.

2. We decided to examine the circumstances in which the letter was sent, and the implications for those asylum seekers currently housed by Glasgow City Council. We held informal meetings with Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Refugee Council and the UK Border Agency in Glasgow, on 29 November. On 19 January we took oral evidence from Mr Damian Green MP, Minister of State for Immigration, Home Office, Mr Matthew Coats, Head of Immigration, UK Border Agency and Mr Phil Taylor, Regional Director for the Scotland and Northern Ireland Region (Immigration Group).We are grateful to all those who facilitated our inquiries, including the NAO, who prepared a memorandum for us.

The work of the UK Border Agency

3. The UK Border Agency is an executive agency of the Home Office. UKBA came into existence on 1 April 2009, and carries out the work previously co-ordinated by the Border and Immigration Agency, UK Visa Services and customs detection work at the border by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). UKBA provides accommodation to those who have applied for asylum and are having their claims processed. The agency reports jointly to the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.[2]

4. The UK Border Agency provides accommodation under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 for those asylum seekers who are destitute (or likely to become destitute). The Agency seeks to provide somewhere to sleep for each new applicant and their dependants on their first night and, if the asylum seeker can demonstrate they are destitute, will arrange accommodation and weekly cash payments to cover basic day to day expenses whilst their application for asylum is considered. An asylum seeker is not allowed to obtain employment whilst their application is considered. The costs of accommodation, including heating, lighting and council tax, are paid directly by the service to the accommodation provider.

5. If asylum seekers meet the requirements to receive support, they are given suitable housing and money for essentials if required. Asylum seekers cannot choose where they live and are sent to wherever suitable housing is available within the United Kingdom.[3] As at September 2010, 10% of all asylum seekers in the UK were living in Scotland.[4]

Housing provision for asylum seekers in Scotland

6. At present, all asylum seekers currently housed in Scotland are located in Glasgow. UKBA has contracts with three accommodation providers in Glasgow; Glasgow City Council (GCC), Angel Group and the Y People (formerly known as YMCA). The UK Border Agency has contracted with Glasgow City Council (GCC) to provide accommodation for asylum seekers since 2000.[5] The current contract with GCC had been in place since 2006. We note that Glasgow City Council has the highest charge of any accommodation service outside London. Glasgow City Council currently houses 54% of the total number of asylum seekers in the city. As at 5 November, Glasgow City Council was providing a service to 1282 asylum seekers.[6]

Glasgow City Council

7. The contract between the UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council contained a clause that should the number of asylum seekers housed fall below a pre-agreed level, negotiations would take place. The number of asylum seekers housed by GCC has fallen from 4300 in August 2006 to below the agreed 3198 minimum in February 2008 (triggering a contract review), and fell further, to below 2000, in 2010.[7] In May 2010, GCC asked to open negotiations with UKBA. However, the terms of a new contract could not be agreed, and on 5 November UKBA gave notice of their intention to terminate the contract after the required 90-day period (which would be 2 February 2011), after which Glasgow City Council will no longer house those asylum seekers currently in their accommodation.

LETTER TO RESIDENTS

8. At the heart of our concerns was a letter sent out by UKBA Head Office (based in London) on 5 November to those asylum seekers in GCC accommodation. The letter stated:

Your current accommodation provider Glasgow City Council will no longer be providing you with support on behalf of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) [...] We must inform you that as a result of the change of your accommodation provider you may be required to move to alternative accommodation in the Scotland region [...] Whenever possible you will be given 3-5 days notice of the move to give you time to get ready [...] You will be allowed to take two pieces of luggage per person to your new accommodation.[8]

9. On Monday 15 November, the BBC reported that up to 200 campaigners took part in protests in Glasgow against the plans to move hundreds of asylum seekers from Glasgow City Council housing.[9]

10. The Chair of the Committee wrote to Damian Green MP, the Minister responsible, about the tone of the letter sent by the UKBA. In his response, dated 24 November, the Minister noted that:

The letter issued to the asylum seekers currently accommodated by Glasgow City Council was intended to allay any fears they may have and to keep them informed of the decision taken to terminate the contract. We have successfully used similar letters in the past when a contract had come to an end to keep asylum seekers informed. In hindsight the letter could have made clear that individuals/families may not be required to move accommodation if novation were possible.[10]

11. The UKBA in Glasgow also conceded that the letter could have been more sensitively written. Damian Green agreed that "it was not a good letter to send out" and explained that "it happened because somebody used a standard template in a way which in the circumstances was inappropriate [...] it may well have caused some distress, for which obviously the UKBA apologises [...] I have taken steps to ensure that letters like that will not go out again".[11]

NOTIFICATION

12. In a reply to a question for written answer on 15 November from Ann McKechin MP, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:

My officials have been kept informed of the negotiations between UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Glasgow City Council which led to the recent termination of the contract to provide accommodation services. The UK Border Agency informed officials in the Scottish Government and the Scottish Refugee Council of the likelihood of termination and of the final decision to terminate the contract prior to the formal termination letter being issued to Glasgow City Council on 5 November 2010. I understand that the UKBA is working with support organisations in Glasgow to ensure individuals and families will be transferred to their new accommodation with minimum disruption.[12]

13. However, while there were ongoing negotiations in relation to the termination of the contract between the UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council, the City Council noted that it had not received any "information from UKBA on their intention to write to our clients and did not receive any notice that they had communicated with our clients".[13] On 19 January, Mr Green confirmed that the City Council had not seen the letter.[14] Phil Taylor, Regional Director for the Scotland and Northern Ireland Region (Immigration Group), further confirmed that "the Scottish Refugee Council did not see the letter and weren't aware of it coming", even though its recipients were directed to the Scottish Refugee Council for further information and advice.[15] Most strikingly, Mr Taylor also confirmed that the UKBA staff in Glasgow had not seen the letter. He said that the letter had been "sent out by the central contract team who manage the contracts across the whole of the UK".[16] While Mr Taylor confirmed that both Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government were "aware of the termination [of the contract] before it happened," he added "no one was aware of the letter".[17]

14. Damian Green acknowledged that "the system had bypassed our own office there [...] it is a legitimate criticism that it shouldn't have happened".[18] The Minister offered us reassurances that measures have already been put in place to ensure that such a situation could not arise in the future. He said:

I made clear to the Border Agency that people who send letters out to families or individuals who may be vulnerable should consider to whom they are sending them and think about the reception it will have, and anything that goes out needs to pass through senior management or me, if necessary, to make sure this kind of thing does not happen again.[19]

He added:

It is partly a systems change to make sure the right people are involved at the right time, but it is also, if you like, a message that everyone wants from public sector organisations that they should be conscious of the individuals with whom they are dealing. It is not just a systemic change; it is a cultural shift as well.

Contingency Plans

15. Glasgow City Council will no longer house the asylum seekers currently in its accommodation, after the 2 February 2011. The Minister for Immigration wrote to our Chair in the following terms:

Contingency plans are in place and the current near 1300 asylum seekers being accommodated by Glasgow City Council will be moved to at least one of the remaining two providers operating in Glasgow. This does not necessarily mean that the asylum seekers will need to move and indeed initial contact with Glasgow City Council suggests they will consider the option of novating the current sub-contracts they have with the Glasgow Housing Association to Glasgow YMCA and therefore allowing the vast majority of service users to remain in their current accommodation.[20]

16. However, despite the Minister's statement that "contingency plans are in place", concerns were raised with us that the UK Border Agency had not met formally with the Y People (put forward as the provider most able to take on the asylum seekers housed by GCC) to discuss the relevant contract issues—such as staffing, subcontracts and TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings [Protection of Employment] Regulations), which would have to be in place for the Y People to provide accommodation to the asylum seekers formerly housed by GCC. When pressed, the Minister said that 'in place' meant that "we are working; we know what's happening",[21] and that, in this sense, contingency plans were "in place" at the "key point"— defined by the Minister as the date on 5 November 2010, when the letter of termination of contract was issued to GCC and its residents.[22]

17. However, as of 29 November, it appeared that there had been no formal discussion between the UK Border Agency and the Y People. Phil Taylor told us that he could not "be certain when discussions started with Y People".[23] He explained that it was "difficult to know" whether Y People were contacted before the individuals to be re-housed had received the letters, because "some of them [ the letters] arrived on the Saturday, and some did not arrive until Monday and Tuesday [...][24] He concluded:"I can't be certain when the discussion started with Y People".[25] At the time of writing, the Minister had not confirmed when the negotiations began with Y People.

Conclusion

18. We regard the letter which was sent out by the UK Border Agency in London to asylum seekers dispersed to Glasgow City Council accommodation to have been inappropriate at best and callous and inhumane at worst. It undoubtedly caused panic and distress to a large number of vulnerable people. We note that even the UK Border Agency office in Scotland was unaware of the dispatch of this letter and thus no one in Glasgow was able to prepare asylum seekers for its receipt.

19. We believe the Minister responded well to the situation he had been put in. He met relevant MPs speedily and changed policy on matters contained within the letter. In particular, he extended the notice of removal period from 3-5 days to 14, and scrapped the two bag rule.

20. We regret that no firm contingency plans appear to have been in place at the time the contract with Glasgow City Council was terminated. We note that the existing contract has been extended and the negotiations are still ongoing (though hopes have been expressed that matters will be resolved by early April with minimal physical transfers).We are unclear as to whether substantial savings will be achieved or whether costs will simply be transferred to another part of the public sector.

21. We were unable to clarify the complete financial situation around the asylum seekers accommodation contract. We are unclear why Glasgow's charges are so high and are concerned that Glasgow City Council is presently making a loss, resulting in costs falling upon council tax payers. We are unclear as to whether the appropriate amounts of financial support are being provided to Glasgow by the Scottish Government.

22. We intend to further consider various matters relating to the work of the UK Border Agency in Scotland. In particular, we note that the Family Return project has cost over £300,000 to date and has resulted in no families returning voluntarily. We look forward to discussing the official evaluation report. We have also requested a variety of figures and information from the UK Border Agency about its work in Scotland and intend to have further hearings on these subjects.


1   Letter from UK Border Agency, 5 November 2010 Back

2   UKBA Annual Report & Accounts 2009-10, www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk Back

3   Ev 19 Back

4   Home Office/UKBA Quarterly Supported Asylum seekers by constituency (unpublished) Back

5   The current contract commenced in July 2006 and was due to expire in June 2011. Back

6   Glasgow City Council Executive Committee, report by David Crawford, 11 November 2010 Back

7   This decline in the numbers of asylum seekers is in accordance with a decline of the number of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The Home Office Control of Immigration: Quarterly Statistical Summary July-September 2010 states that the number of applications for asylum, excluding dependents, was 13 % lower in Q3 2010 (a total of 4,440) compared with Q3 2009 (a total of 5,110).

 Back

8   Letter from UK Border Agency, 5 November 2010 Back

9   'Protest over plan to re-home hundreds of asylum seekers', BBC News, 15 November 2010 Back

10   Ev 18 Back

11   Q 2 Back

12   HC Deb, 15 November 2010, col 529W Back

13   Glasgow City Council Executive Committee, report by David Crawford, 11 November 2010 Back

14   Q 4 Back

15   Q 5 Back

16   Q 3 Back

17   Qq 13 and 14 Back

18   Q 6 Back

19   Q 67 Back

20   Ev 18 Back

21   Q 21 Back

22   Q 34 Back

23   Q 36 Back

24   Ibid Back

25   Ibid Back


 
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