Asylum - Home Affairs Committee Contents

3  Asylum support

74.  Before 1999, asylum applicants were supported by mainstream benefits which were set at 90% of the rates that were available to those who got mainstream benefits. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 created an entirely separate support system under the auspices of the Home Office and reduced that rate to 70% of income support, which was considered to be sufficient to meet 'essential living needs' for the anticipated six-month duration of the asylum claim. This is known as Section 95 support. The Act also introduced a further, reduced support system for asylum seekers who had had their claim refused but were unable to return to their country of origin through reasons that were no fault of theirs. This is known as Section 4 support.

75.  The reasoning for this decision was that the then Government believed that access to generous, mainstream benefits was attracting asylum applicants who did not have a genuine claim.[110] This view is disputed by the Still Human, Still Here coalition:

Research commissioned by the Home Office has found that asylum seekers have limited control over where they apply for asylum and little knowledge of entitlements to benefits in the UK. This was confirmed by a review of the 19 main recipient countries for asylum applications in the OECD in 2011 which concluded that policies which relate to the welfare of asylum seekers (e.g. support levels, permission to work and access to healthcare) did not impact on the number of applications made in destination countries.[111]

They pointed out that asylum applications in the UK rose following the introduction of the new support system in 1999, as they had following an earlier restriction on benefit claims in 1996, and claimed that countries with more generous welfare arrangements than the UK, such as the Netherlands, did not receive more asylum applications.

Section 95 support and the right to work

76.  Until 2008, asylum support rates were linked to income support. However, since then, the levels have been set annually each year in accordance with what has been felt to be appropriate.[112] The current rates of section 95 support are:

  • Qualifying couple (married or in a civil partnership): £72.52
  • Lone parent aged 18 or over: £43.94
  • Single person aged 18 or over, excluding lone parent: £36.62
  • Person aged at least 16, but under 18 (except a member of a qualifying couple): £39.80
  • Person aged under 16: £52.96.[113]

An asylum seeker who is a single person over the age of 18 receives 65% of income support paid to those under 25 and 51% of the levels paid to those who are over 25. The Scottish Refugee Council stated that the

level of income most widely used as a signifier of living in poverty is below 60% of male median income. Asylum support stands at less than 31% of that level. The UKBA arguments about costs such as utility bills and housing being met and that these make up the shortfall is a disingenuous one. A 35%-49% shortfall is not made up by asylum seekers not having to meet these costs.[114]

77.  In April, the Government told us that it was reviewing aspects of support policy, including the weekly allowances provided to asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers[115] but by June, the Minister for Immigration had announced his decision to maintain support at current levels.[116] In surveys of those on section 95 support, it has been reported that 50% had experienced hunger as a result of the low levels of support; 70% were unable to buy essential toiletries; and 94% were unable to buy clothing[117]. This relative poverty is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of asylum applicants have not legally been allowed to work since 2002.

78.  Asylum applicants who have been waiting for a decision for over 12 months can apply for a Work Permit. However, the employment opportunities are restricted and include recognised areas where workers are in 'short supply' and posts are generally restricted to those requiring a degree level qualification.[118] By contrast, in Austria, Greece, Portugal, Finland and Sweden asylum seekers are permitted to work after four months while Italy, Spain, Netherlands, and Cyprus allow them a work permit after six months. Denmark has also recently announced that it will also allow asylum seekers to work after six months.[119] Many of our witnesses highlighted the benefits of allowing asylum applicants to access the job market. Maurice Wren of the Refugee Council told us that allowing asylum seekers to work would reduce the public expenditure of support and accommodation for them as well as all those with skills and talents to be of benefit to the economy. Both he and Tom Hamilton-Shaw of the Red Cross pointed out that due to the low levels of asylum support, some asylum applicants would work illegally which was to the detriment of the Treasury who would not be receiving tax as a result.[120] Jan Shaw of Amnesty International highlighted that the length of time it took to receive a final decision on an asylum application led to the de-skilling of asylum applicants who were highly trained.[121]

79.  A third of witnesses to the inquiry told us that they thought asylum seekers ought to be given the right to work,[122] a position which is supported by the Church of England General Synod which in 2009 passed a motion by 242 votes to 1 in favour of allowing asylum seekers be given the right to work.[123] Furthermore, the Immigration Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill, a private Peer's Bill which was introduced on 10 June, would allow asylum applicants the right to work after six months if their claim has not received an initial decision.[124] The Bill has yet to receive a date for second reading but we encourage the Government to ensure that adequate time is made available for the second reading debate. Given that current access to the job market for asylum seekers is both restrictive and confusing, we therefore understand why not even the Home Secretary was fully aware of the conditions when she gave evidence to us. She told us that she agrees with the current policy which is that access to the job market "is not available to somebody until they have been here for 12 months."[125]

Section 4 support

80.  Section 4 support is significantly more restricted than section 95 support, both in terms of the amount of the support and in the way that it is distributed. It is only available to refused asylum seekers who are unable to return to their country of origin through, for instance, health issues or the refusal of those countries to recognise them as a citizen. Under section 4, a single adult receives £35.39 per week, loaded on to a pre-paid 'Azure' card which can only be used in designated shops. This 'cashless' system is justified by the Government on the basis that it meets essential living needs and will only need to be provided for a short time.[126] In fact, over half of section 4 support recipients have been receiving it for more than two years.[127] The balance of the Azure card has to be used within the week, with only £5 being carried over to the following week, meaning that it is impossible to save for items such as clothes and shoes. The card can also only be used to purchase essential items and, although according to Home Office guidance the only restricted items are fuel and gift cards, witnesses to the inquiry reported that supermarket staff had refused to allow cardholders to purchase socks, toiletries, orange juice, children's clothing and a lavatory brush.[128] This is further compounded by reports of technical faults with the cards which mean that the cardholder is unable to make any purchases.[129] By restricting their access to cash, section 4 recipients are unable to for instance, pay for shoe repair, travel via public transport, or purchase food in markets. Refugee Action found that 82% of section 4 recipients were unable to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and more than 90% regularly missed a meal.[130]

81.  Mike Kaye of the Still Human, Still Here Coalition highlighted the extra cost of running section 4 support.

Under section 4 you have to give up accommodation with friends and family and go into Government-paid accommodation, so you are actually getting the taxpayer to pay for accommodation that is not necessary. You are running a parallel support system that costs £350,000 just to run for less than 3,000 people. You have to administer that system, which is incredibly complex. It is dozens of pages of an application that have to be faxed to the Home Office and a case owner has to go through that. There is lots of additional cost with section 4 that totals, in my calculation, between £2 million and £4 million that will be saved by abolishing section 4 and retaining those people under section 95.[131]

As previously mentioned, the Asylum Support Appeals Project also noted the high number of number of allowed appeals against decisions not to grant section 4 support. Their research found that 82% of appeals were allowed which highlighted the unnecessary costs of the poor decision making regarding the allocation of section 4 support.[132] Given that resources are constrained across Government at this time, the allocation of funding and staff to running a parallel support system seems excessive.

82.  We are not convinced that a separate support system for failed asylum seekers, whom the Government recognise as being unable to return to their country of origin, is necessary. The increasing period of time which asylum seekers have to wait for an initial decision suggests that staff resources could be better used by being allocated to asylum applications. Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused but cannot be returned and we call on the Government to find a better way forward.

83.  We note that the Independent Chief Inspector is due to undertake an inspection of asylum support and would ask him to include the matter of allowed appeals as part of his inspection. Whilst this system is ongoing, we are also concerned by the levels of allowed appeals against decisions not to grant asylum support and will in future require the UK Visas and Immigration Section to provide us with details with the number of allowed appeals against decisions made regarding asylum support. We recommend that his recommendations are implemented fully as a matter of priority as this is obviously an area where improvement is required.


84.  People in all stages of the asylum system experience destitution:

  • those awaiting a decision if they are unable to access support;
  • those whose appeal rights are currently exhausted but fail to return to their country of origin, who lose all support and are evicted from accommodation 21 days after a final refusal; and
  • those who have been granted leave to remain and therefore have 28 days to leave accommodation, but are unable to access mainstream support because National Insurance numbers, benefits and housing applications are not processed within this time frame.[133]

It is estimated that many destitute refused asylum seekers come from countries where there is ongoing conflict or political instability. Many will come from Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Malawi, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which are countries where it is difficult to facilitate a return.[134] This can be because governments are unco-operative, it is not possible to obtain travel documents, there may be practical difficulties such as trying to return people to countries where airports are not in operation, or of course individuals who simply refuse to co-operate.

85.  Destitute asylum seekers survive through the support of social networks, voluntary sector organisations, and churches and other faith-based organisations. Many will stay with friends though there is evidence of destitute asylum seekers providing services in the form of childcare, cooking, housework, gardening and in some cases even sex in exchange for meals, small amounts of cash, shelter, or other daily necessities.[135] Some will visit voluntary sector organisations such as the British Red Cross, who told the Committee that they assisted around 6,000 destitute clients a year. They noted that over half of these clients were destitute due to administrative failings or delays within the asylum system.[136] A 2011 report by Oxfam noted that of all institutions cited by refused asylum seekers, churches appeared to have done most to respond to their needs. The support provided by churches included not only cash and food, but also English language classes, clothes and social events.[137]

86.  From anecdotal evidence presented by the London Refugee Women's Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London it is clear that some women engage in commercial or transactional sex work in order to avoid homelessness. There were also examples of both men and women entering into relationships merely to ensure that they had somewhere to stay.[138] Most worrying were the accounts of women remaining in abusive relationships as it was seen as preferable to sleeping on the streets. Research by the London Refugee Women's Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London found that 13% of destitute female asylum seekers had experienced sexual violence.[139]

87.  The destitution of those with leave to remain is especially concerning. Being recognised as a refugee and therefore in need of protection ought to be a time of relief yet many witnesses highlighted that in actual fact it took six to eight weeks (rather than the 28 days allowed by the Home Office) for mainstream benefits to be processed. In some cases, the period where the refugee was unable to access these benefits was as long as four months.[140] The Home Office accepted that this was an issue, telling us that

Since December 2012, we have been working closely with DWP on reviewing a small sample of cases to identify process improvements to be implemented individually and between both Departments to resolve issues, taking account of relevant evidence provided by key external partners. We continue to work on this, in order to improve the transition from asylum benefits for recognised refugees, with the support of targeted external partners.[141]

One witness noted that for many refugees there was a difficulty in navigating the telephone and internet-based systems which are associated with these benefits because of their lack of fluency in English.[142] The reduction in availability of English language classes for asylum seekers was a cause for concern for a number of witnesses who felt it limited their ability to engage with both members of the local community and professionals.[143] Given that a lack of fluency in English will hamper their chances of being able to find work and come off benefits, we are concerned that English language classes are being provided by a small number of volunteers who cannot possibly fulfil the need of the of all of those within the asylum system.[144]

88.  It is unacceptable that someone who is recognised as refugee should be reduced to a state of destitution due to the inefficiency of governmental bureaucracy. We recommend that asylum support should not be discontinued until the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that the recipient is receiving mainstream benefits.

89.  We recommend that the Government reinstate the previous level of availability of English language classes for those who have been granted asylum by the state to encourage them to be able to contribute more to Britain and the UK economy.

Accommodation and support provided as part of the COMPASS contract

90.  The COMPASS contract (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) provides accommodation, associated services and transportation to eligible destitute asylum applicants and their families in the UK. The six contracts under COMPASS replaced over 30 UKBA contracts for accommodation and transport previously called 'Target' and 'Transport Plus.' Contracts were awarded exclusively to large companies, with SERCO, G4S and Clearel each gaining two contracts (four in England plus one each in Wales and Scotland/Northern Ireland).

91.  At the transfer of the contract last year, G4S were unable to house some asylum applicants. In November 2012 The Independent newspaper reported that hundreds of asylum-seekers in Yorkshire were left in council housing when G4S failed to meet a deadline to re-house them in private sector accommodation.[145] Many asylum applicants complained that the houses they were moved in to were inadequate, which we discuss further below. Despite this delay in moving tenants at the start of the contract, it is understood that the UKBA did not institute any financial penalties against G4S and G4S, although recognising that their subcontracting housing companies were in breach of contractual guidelines (particularly in the pre-inspection of contracted properties prior to allocation),[146] the company has not instituted financial or other penalties on their subcontractors.

92.  The reports that we have received on the quality of the accommodation are extremely worrying. Concerns were raised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Housing and Migration Network and the Local Government Association about the standards of property provided to asylum applicants.[147] Problems cited in evidence include pest infestations, lack of heating or hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked,[148] lack of basic amenities including a cooker, a shower, a washing machine and a sink and a general lack of cleanliness.[149] Furthermore, many of those who submitted evidence cited difficulties in contacting housing providers and the slow resolution of problems.[150] G4S told the Committee that they recognised there had been problems.

We transferred nearly 3,000 properties across the Midlands, East of England, North-East Yorkshire and Humberside from the previous contract and most of the issues—so of the property complaints we have had, the vast majority, over 65% of those—relate to the properties that were transferred over. We have a programme of working through those, investing in them, so I do recognise there are issues with property but we have a programme to work through those.[151]

It was also acknowledged that the COMPASS contract specified a response time where there were issues with a property.[152] In order to ensure that standards were maintained both G4S and the Home Office carry out random inspections of properties.[153]

93.  We were very concerned by the description of the sub-standard level of housing provided to asylum applicants. Furthermore, the length of time that witnesses report it taking to get problems resolved is unacceptable. We recommend that the Home Office publish the results of its random inspections of properties so that the public may monitor the effectiveness of the housing providers—SERCO, G4S and Clearel—receiving hundreds of millions of pounds in public money. The companies awarded the COMPASS contract must prove that they are able to deliver a satisfactory level of service.

94.  Sarah Teather MP, chair of an informal Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, drew our attention to the issue of privacy. She has also raised it on the floor of the House, telling MPs that

As chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People I heard numerous examples of individuals working on behalf of housing providers entering properties unannounced having provided no notice, frightening parents and their young children.[154]

When we raised this with both G4S and Serco, they denied that it was a common occurrence although they admitted that they allowed their representatives to enter properties if no one was home as they had duties to perform under the COMPASS contract. Both stressed that entry without admittance by the resident was a last resort.[155] Both Serco and G4S emphasised that there were complaint procedures in place. G4S told us that instructions on making a complaint were included within induction packs produced in a wide range of languages.[156] Unfortunately, at least two organisations who submitted evidence to the inquiry complained that these packs were either inadequate or not provided by sub-contractors to residents.[157]

95.  We are unimpressed by the assurances given to us by G4S and Serco that their representatives do not routinely enter properties without first knocking. Entering a room or a house where someone is resident without knocking is rude and intimidating and such behaviour is not appropriate. All the COMPASS contractors must provide their staff with unambiguous guidance on the very limited circumstances in which it will be appropriate for them to let themselves into somebody else's home unbidden. We also recommend that when the COMPASS contract is renewed that provisions be introduced to require that, except in emergencies, the housing provider leave a calling card the first time that they need entry with the date of another appointment on it. Then, and only then, should it be appropriate for a housing provider to gain entry without admittance by the residents.

96.  Evidence submitted to this inquiry highlighted a lack of support following an asylum decision on the part of housing providers. The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group provided a case study showing the stress that can result from a grant of leave to remain, something that ought to be a relief for asylum seekers.

On 8 August a heavily pregnant asylum seeker resident in Target Housing Association accommodation in Rotherham was granted leave to remain in the UK. As a refugee the woman had to leave the property, her landlords, subcontractors of G4S, would not be paid by the UK Border Agency if she lingered there. Her eviction notice was for the same day as the local hospital had insisted that she should go and have the birth induced. Target management made her pack, and suggested that she find her own way with her bags, first to emergency homeless accommodation, and then on to the hospital, pointing out that her destinations were on bus routes. It was only the intervention of a sympathetic member of the Target staff who insisted on using her own car to get the woman to housing and the hospital which made the journeys possible.[158]

The Manchester Refugee Support Network noted that before Serco took over the accommodation contract people living in privately run accommodation had experiences of landlords being flexible and letting people stay on after they had been made destitute or given positive status. The note that this practice has not continued under Serco because housing is so heavily booked that there is no flexibility. The network cites the case of one refugee who told them that when he had received a positive decision, he had had a five week gap without access to funds. However, because he had a positive relationship with his landlord, he was not evicted and when he was able to access mainstream benefits, he paid his landlord back in full.[159] This lack of pastoral care for new refugees is despite the fact the UKBA had stated that part of the role of the COMPASS contract providers would "have to liaise with local authorities and housing providers about move-on accommodation for those receiving positive decisions."[160]

97.  We note that the National Audit Office is currently carrying out an investigation in to the COMPASS contracts. As part of their written evidence the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Housing and Migration Network have recommended that the Government "undertake an urgent, published review of the performance of the current contractors in relation to the contract specifications, especially in accommodation standards and support for transition after asylum applications have been decided."[161] The NAO's investigation has the following terms of reference:

  • The transition to the six new COMPASS contracts and the first six months of operation;
  • The performance of all three suppliers and their subcontractors, including their compliance with the terms of the contract;
  • Quality of provision and arrangements for assuring accommodation meets the standards contractors are required to provide: and
  • The experience of end users (asylum seekers) during the transition period and the first six months of operation.

We expect that such an investigation will address all of the points of concern regarding the COMPASS contracts raised within this report. The results of the investigation are scheduled to be published in late 2013.

98.   We recommend that the National Audit Office's inspection in to the COMPASS contracts address the issues raised with us regarding accommodation standards and support for transition following asylum decisions. Following the publication of the results of this investigation we will revisit this matter with both the Home Office and the contract providers. We also take this opportunity to recommend that the Government ensure that any irregularities unearthed during that investigation be resolved swiftly.

110   The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK, Freedom From Torture, July 2013, p25 Back

111   Ev 74, para 6.1 Back

112   HL Deb, 23 May 2012, Column 785 Back

113   Ev w186, para 6.6 [Manchester Refugee Support Network] Back

114   Ev w318, para 5.2 Back

115   Ev 48, para 33 Back

116   The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK, Freedom From Torture, July 2013, p26 Back

117   Ev 71, para 1.6 [Still Human Still Here coalition] Back

118   Ev w326, para 5.7 [Liverpool Asylum and Refugee Association] Back

119   Ev 72, para 3.4 [Still Human Still Here coalition] Back

120   Q304 Back

121   Q179 Back

122   Supported by Ev w1 [Oldham Unity Destitution Food Project]; Ev w6 [Mrs Janet King]; Ev w37 [Wakefield District City of Sanctuary]; Ev 64 [Women for Refugee Women, the London Refugee Women's Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London]; Ev 70 [Still Human Still Here coalition]; Ev w45 [Quaker Peace & Social Witness and Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network]; Ev w50 [National AIDS Trust]; Ev w51 [St Augustine's Centre]; Ev w55 [Bristol City Council]; Ev w61 [Refugee Action]; Ev w77 [Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum]; Ev w82 [Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern]; Ev w101 [Bristol Refugee Rights]; Ev w118 [Destitute Asylum Seekers Huddersfield]; Ev w123 [Leeds Asylum Seekers' Support Network]; Ev w129 [Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England]; Ev w141 [Refugee Survival Trust]; Ev w144 [ASSIST Sheffield]; Ev 114 [Survivors Speak Out]; Ev w193 [No Recourse to Public Funds Network]; Ev 125 [British Red Cross]; Ev w242 [Barnado's]; Ev w246 [Positive Action In Housing]; Ev w249 [Oxfam Cymru]; Ev w274 [Glasgow North West Framework for Dialogue Group]; Ev w301 [Dover Detainee Visitor Group's Ex-Detainee Project]; Ev w322 [West Yorkshire Destitute Asylum Network]; Ev w323 [Liverpool Asylum and Refugee Association] Back

123   Ev w129, para 2 [Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England] Back

124   HL Bill 31, 2013-14 Back

125   Q46 Back

126   The Poverty Barrier, p25 Back

127   Ev w341, para 25 [The Children's Society] Back

128   Ev w16, para 7.9 [Leicester City of Sanctuary] & Ev w62, para 10 [Refugee Action] Back

129   Ev w54, para 3.4.8 [St Augustine's Centre] Back

130   Ev w62, para 8 Back

131   Q185 Back

132   Ev w202, para 5 Back

133   Ev w104, para 4.1 [Bristol Refugee Rights] Back

134   Ev w43 [Dorothy Ismail, Arthur Carr and Jane Nikolorakis]; Coping with destitution, Oxfam GB, February 2011, p17 Back

135   Coping with destitution, Oxfam GB, February 2011, p42 Back

136   Ev 127, para 2.4 Back

137   Coping with destitution, Oxfam GB, February 2011, p32 Back

138   Coping with destitution, Oxfam GB, February 2011, pp39-41 Back

139   Ev 68, para 20 Back

140   Ev 98, para 4.7 [Freedom from Torture] Back

141   Ev 48, para 35 Back

142   Ev w45 para 12 [Dorothy Ismail, Arthur Carr and Jane Nikolorakis] Back

143   Ev w43 [Dorothy Ismail, Arthur Carr and Jane Nikolorakis]; Ev w51 [St Augustine's Centre]; Ev w101 [Bristol Refugee Rights] Back

144   Q294 Back

145   The Independent Asylum-seekers left in housing limbo after G4S fails to deliver - again; Councils forced to cover lucrative contract as families complain about 'dirty' conditions, November 20, 2012, Pg. 4 Back

146 Back

147   Ev w209, para 6.7 [Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Housing and Migration Network]; Ev w308 [Local Government Association et al] Back

148   Ev 103, para 7.14 [Freedom from Torture]; Ev w245, para 4.2 [Barnado's] Back

149   Ev w209, para 6.7 [Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Housing and Migration Network]; Ev w303, para 3.6 [Dover Detainee Visitor Group's Ex-Detainee Project] Back

150   Ev w86 [Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group]; Ev 92 [Freedom from Torture]; Ev w301 [Dover Detainee Visitor Group's Ex-Detainee Project] Back

151   Q238 Back

152   Q237 Back

153   G4S briefing to the Committee. Back

154   Ev w234, para 3.5 Back

155   Qq234; 239 Back

156   Q237 Back

157   Ev w52, para 3.1.1 [St Augustine's Centre]; Ev w166, para 7 [Thrive and DASUK] Back

158 Back

159   Ev w187, para 7.4 Back

160   Ev w208, para 6.5 [Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Housing and Migration Network] Back

161   Ev w206, para Back

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