20.Under Section 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, if an individual can show they are destitute when they first apply for asylum, they will be provided with ‘Initial Accommodation’ (IA) while the Home Office assesses their eligibility for longer-term (Section 95) support. During this period asylum seekers are allocated to one of the six COMPASS regions and the Provider is responsible for making IA available. There are seven IA centres in the UK. They are typically large full-board hostels with shared bedrooms, living and social areas. Providers are contractually obliged to offer three meals a day, supply toiletries and bedding and provide transport to medical and related appointments. Many asylum seekers will arrive in IAs with little more than the clothes they are wearing. IA costs around three times more to provide than the dispersal accommodation that follows and it is not regarded as suitable for long stays.23
21.As part of the negotiations to extend the COMPASS contracts the Home Office has agreed to work with Providers to develop different contractual terms to ensure that there is sufficient IA available.24 Currently, if no IA is available then asylum seekers will be housed in temporary ‘emergency’ accommodation, usually a hotel, hostel or bed and breakfast, until they can be dispersed. Figure 4 below shows the number of people in Initial Accommodation since 2012.
Figure 4: Number of people provided with Initial Accommodation under Section 98, by quarter
Source: Home Office, Immigration Statistics, November 2016, Table AS 18q
22.The Home Office aims to determine whether a person is destitute and eligible for Section 95 support within 19 days.25 People can remain in IA much longer than this if there is a lack of available dispersal accommodation to move them to or if there are delays in the Home Office making an initial assessment of the application.26 In November 2015 the European Council for Refugees and Exiles reported that stays over three weeks were common, while a 2014 inspection by the ICIBI found that, in 25 out of the 104 cases it examined, applicants had waited over a month for an initial assessment.27 Although people in IA are entitled to receive meals, they receive no money and are therefore reliant on third sector support for anything else they may need. (Generally, asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are not eligible for mainstream benefits.)
23.Other concerns raised with us include that: some IA premises lack appropriate facilities and activities for children; local authorities may not be informed if children are present which gives rise to safeguarding issues; they often do not meet the specific needs of vulnerable groups such as some women and torture survivors; and there is a lack of clarity on who is responsible for meeting health needs.28 The European Council for Refugees and Exiles found that:
Showers and toilets are shared between six or seven people. They are designated for men or women by signs on the door but there is no security. The bathrooms were said to be dirty by women interviewed for the Refugee Council and Maternity Action research. There is a lack of women-only space, and no facilities for babies such as baby baths or access to boiling water for sterilising bottles. Women reported feeling unsafe.29
24.Initial Accommodation is unsuitable for long term use, and indeed it is not provided for this purpose. However, the reality is that people have been housed in such accommodation for far longer than the target of 19 days. As longer stays are a common occurrence which does not seem likely to be addressed in the near future, the Government should take steps to ensure that people in Initial Accommodation are properly supported for the duration of their stay. As a minimum, this should include the provision of accommodation appropriate to an individual’s needs; and ensuring that healthcare requirements are met and that there is clarity about who is responsible and accountable for them. The Government should also set out what different contractual arrangements it is seeking with the Providers for the provision of Initial Accommodation as part of the COMPASS contracts extension.
25.A number of third sector organisations have suggested that the current system of Initial Accommodation does not adequately support women, particularly those with a history of violence against them, and those who have been trafficked. We heard how vulnerable women were being placed in mixed-sex accommodation with no women-only or safe spaces and in accommodation that is well-known to traffickers, with little or no measures taken to mitigate risks posed by them.30
26.We also heard about a number of issues affecting pre- and post-natal women.31 The Home Office has a policy of not dispersing women in the late stages of pregnancy or during early motherhood unless requested by the woman. There should be as little disturbance as possible to the routine of pregnant women and new mothers, particularly in terms of their relationship with health professionals but if this means a stay in IA is prolonged then that accommodation must provide the appropriate support. St Chad’s Sanctuary described a mother who had just given birth and was struggling with the stairs to her room but who had her request to be moved to a downstairs room refused. The same individual was provided with a dirty cot, half the amount of bedlinen stipulated in the COMPASS contract and there was inadequate provision for the disposal of dirty nappies.32
27.Providers are required to ensure that the food they supply includes adequate provision for pregnant women. However, the Refugee Council reported that midwives treating asylum-seeking women in IA had expressed concern over whether their nutritional needs were being met. According to the Refugee Council, pregnant women and new mothers also find it difficult getting transport to attend same-day medical appointments and that requests for taxis to attend antenatal education and baby banks are routinely refused.33 In some cases midwives have also found their patients have been moved at short notice and have then been unable to contact them.
28.When people arrive in Initial Accommodation they may have health issues which require medical attention. We were told that the system of recording a person’s health needs is chaotic and that health assessments are not always carried out. A lack of assessment may mean health issues such as TB and mental health problems not being picked up, leading to preventable deterioration in an individual’s condition.34 Staff in an IA we visited told us that they were given no advance warning from the Home Office of any special needs asylum seekers might have.
29.During our visit to Birmingham we were told that the failure effectively to record and communicate a person’s health needs can lead to people being allocated inappropriate dispersal accommodation. Examples of inappropriate treatment described to us included an elderly lady being collected from an IA, driven from one dispersal property to another, each of them unsuitable, until eventually she was returned to the IA, having not eaten for the whole day. We also heard about a wheelchair-bound individual being taken from the IA and placed in an upstairs room in a property with no lift; the person was relocated after several hours once complaints were raised.
30.It is vital that pregnant women and young mothers in Initial Accommodation receive the support they need. Women in the late stages of pregnancy should generally be provided with their own room; pregnant women and young mothers need access to transport for all medical appointments and related matters such as baby banks and ante-natal education; and safe areas should be provided for young children to play. The Home Office should review Initial Accommodation centres to ensure that provision is appropriate, including by taking advice from health professionals on whether the food available is sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of pregnant women. The review should also assess the treatment of women more broadly, to ensure that safety and privacy measures are in place (including for bathroom facilities), and assess the treatment of children, particularly that appropriate policies on safeguarding are being followed. Requiring health screenings to be carried out when people move to Initial Accommodation would also help to ensure that health conditions and special needs are identified and dealt with properly, including when asylum seekers move on to dispersal accommodation.
23 For example, the Home Office payment rates to SERCO are £11.71 per person for Dispersed Accommodation (DA) and £30.28 for Initial Accommodation (IA).
25 National Audit Office, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, HC 880, Session 2013–14, January 2014
26 AIDA Asylum Information Database, Country Report: United Kingdom, November 2015
27 AIDA Asylum Information Database, Country Report: United Kingdom, November 2015; Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An inspection of asylum casework, March-July 2015, February 2016
28 See for example, written evidence submitted by Scottish Refugee Council (ACC0035); Welsh Refugee Coalition (ACC0012), Freedom from Torture (ACC0032), Refugee Council (ACC0033), Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) (ACC0014), Helen Bamber Foundation (ACC0021), South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (ACC0005 and ACC0024)
29 AIDA Asylum Information Database, Country Report: United Kingdom, November 2015
24 January 2017