Asylum accommodation Contents

4Dispersal accommodation

31.Once the Home Office has determined that an asylum seeker is eligible for support under Section 95, the Provider must make arrangements to move them into more permanent ‘dispersal’ accommodation. The policy of dispersal was first introduced under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 when the then Labour Government sought to alleviate the pressure on local authorities in London and the south-east of England where most asylum seekers were making their claims for asylum. Beyond the aim of relocating asylum seekers away from the southeast of England, the two main factors driving the distribution of asylum accommodation are availability and cost.

32.A key aim of the COMPASS project is to save money on the cost of supporting asylum seekers in the UK. It is perhaps inevitable therefore that parts of the UK where property is cheapest have been targeted for the dispersal of asylum seekers. Councillor David Simmonds, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Asylum, Refugee and Migration Taskforce, told us that “it is inevitable, because of the contract price, that it will always be the absolutely rock bottom price accommodation that is available.”35

33.However, Providers challenged the view that cost was the overriding concern. Mr Soames accepted that it would be uneconomic for Serco to place asylum seekers in expensive areas, but he told us that the starting point for Serco was whether the prospective property met Home Office standards.36 John Whitwam, Managing Director of G4S Immigration and Borders, took the view that “the overriding determining factor is, and always has been, access to properties approved by local authorities.”37

Local authority consent

34.Under the terms of the COMPASS contracts dispersal accommodation can only be located in areas where the local authority has agreed to take asylum seekers, up to a defined “cluster limit” of no more than one asylum seeker per 200 residents (though there are examples of this limit being breached).38 In proposing properties Providers must consider a range of social, housing and community cohesion factors and consult with the local authority. Local authorities have 72 hours to consider a request from a Provider and can withhold consent for properties to be used if they have specific concerns. If the local authority withholds consent to a specific property but has agreed to accept asylum accommodation in principle, then Providers can seek permission from the Home Office to override the local authority’s objections. Local authorities told us that the 72–hour window was too short, particularly if several properties were proposed at the same time.39

35.Not all local authorities are currently willing to accept asylum accommodation and, despite Government attempts to persuade more local authorities to participate, at the end of September 2016 just 121 local authorities out of a total of 453 (27%) had Section 95 asylum accommodation within their boundaries.40 (Details of the numbers of asylum seekers in each local authority are set out in the Annexes to this Report.) Some local authorities that do not participate will not have accommodation that is economically viable for Providers to acquire, but many do. Mr Whitwam told us:

The figures show that of the 135 local authority areas where G4S is contracted to provide housing for asylum seekers, only 37 local authorities currently do so. In August 2015, Sarah Rapson, Director General for UKVI, wrote to 79 local authorities in G4S’s contract areas and asked for their support in widening the dispersal of asylum seekers. In the 14 months since, only 3 of these 79 local authorities have agreed to accommodate asylum seekers.41

36.Mr Whitwam explained that in September 2016 G4S found 248 properties in 22 areas but local authorities refused to allow G4S to house asylum seekers at 30 of the properties and failed to respond to requests to accommodate asylum seekers in a further 136. He described the unwillingness of local authorities to allow asylum seekers in G4S areas as “entrenched” and said that “compromise has become impossible”.42 Mr Soames told us that since the start of COMPASS Serco had been “housing 8,000 more people in the same area essentially”.43 He explained that part of the problem could be traced back to how the COMPASS contracts were originally let:

The fact is that the contract, when it was let, said that we should assume that the number of people for the life of the contract would be around 22,000 for the country, and it is now nigh on 36,000. [ … ] The biggest strain and stress in the contract is around the additional numbers and the dispersal areas not having grown to take account of that.44

James Vyvyan-Robinson, Chief Executive of Clearsprings Group, said that he would be “hugely grateful” if more local authorities would come forward. 45

37.The Government has the power to insist that local authorities take asylum seekers but to date has chosen not to exercise it; instead it has relied on persuasion. In the last 18 months, an additional 23 local authorities have agreed to take asylum seekers; over the same period the number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation has increased by over 8,000. The Government is currently asking local authorities to provide evidence on why they should not accept asylum seekers.46

Sharing the burden fairly between local authorities

38.The refusal of many local authorities to accept asylum accommodation is clearly putting pressure on those that do and the system as a whole. Tony Parkinson, Interim Chief Executive of Middlesbrough Council, told us how the propensity to place families in low value housing in the north of England was placing enormous strain on schools in already deprived areas.47 Moreover, asylum accommodation is often not evenly dispersed within a local authority but clustered in a few wards. Mr Parkinson explained that the density of clustering of asylum seekers in Middlesbrough meant that schools were seeing an enormous turnover of pupils, “limiting the ability of schools to meet their performance targets and presenting challenges in terms of language and translation as well as socialisation and integration”.48 Mr Parkinson also told us that dense clustering put additional challenges on local healthcare services which had required specialist GPs to be commissioned “to cope with the vulnerabilities and challenges of the populations”. He regarded this as an example of “the passing of costs to local areas from central Government contracting”.49

39.Under the agreement to extend the COMPASS contracts to 2019 the Government has introduced “a new higher band for any increases in the number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation”. The Government claims that increasing the funding available to Providers will allow them to widen the areas in which they source asylum accommodation and thereby reduce the need to increase the number of asylum seekers accommodated in certain communities. 50

40.When asylum seekers are granted asylum and become refugees, they are required to leave their dispersed accommodation and the local authority then has a responsibility to provide shelter. Local authorities which have accepted asylum seekers are therefore also likely to bear the additional cost of accommodating refugees, for which they receive no additional funding (unlike that which is available to local authorities who accommodate refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme—see below). Furthermore, many asylum seekers whose asylum application is refused will no longer be entitled to any central government support, and local authorities will often be required to step in.

Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme

41.While many local authorities have failed to accept asylum accommodation under Section 95, many have taken in refugees under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme (VPRP). At the end of Q3 2016, of the 175 local authorities that had accepted Syrian refugees under the VPRP, 121 did not have any asylum accommodation within their boundaries.51 The Government set local authorities the target of accommodating 20,000 refugees under the Syrian programme by 2020. When a Syrian refugee arrives in the UK the Government works with regional Strategic Migration Partnerships (SMPs—see para 56) or directly with local authorities to identify a suitable resettlement offer. SMPs then work with local authorities to help manage the allocation of accommodation, particularly with regard to pressure on local housing and school places. Councillor Simmonds explained that, one year into the scheme, local authorities had volunteered enough offers of accommodation to meet the Government’s ambition.52

42.In the Syrian scheme additional funding is provided to facilitate extra help within schools and to reflect the challenges that delivering to a vulnerable client group brings. Glasgow Council told us that this meant that:

We are seeing a two tier system operating now, whereby, what we would describe as the Syrians coming through the VPR scheme are getting a gold standard of service from all the detailed pre-planning to the arrival and the ongoing support to assist with integration. This level of support is not available in the asylum system or indeed when people get leave to remain, and ask for our assistance with accommodation. 53

43.The policy of dispersal was introduced to deliver an equitable distribution of asylum seekers across the UK. It has failed to achieve this. Pressure on the south-east of England may have been alleviated, but it has been replaced by the clustering of asylum seekers in some of the most deprived parts of the country. This is clearly unfair and is putting considerable pressure on local authorities whose public services are already under immense strain. It is unacceptable that so many parts of the UK have no asylum accommodation at all, including areas where Providers have been able to source accommodation only for there to be a blanket refusal by the local authority to accept it.

44.To date the Government has had only limited success in persuading local authorities to accept asylum seekers. For the remainder of the COMPASS contract period the Government should revise its approach and give local authorities greater flexibility over where accommodation is provided within their area. For example, local authorities should be given more control over where asylum accommodation is located and a longer timeframe in which to consider Providers’ requests. The option for local authorities to refuse requests should be maintained where there are genuine concerns over the quality or concentration of accommodation, the capacity of local health, education and other support services, and risks to social cohesion; and refusals should only be overturned on appeal in exceptional circumstances. The Government should also provide additional resources to local authorities which continue to bear the brunt of supporting the asylum system while broadening dispersal remains a challenge.

45.We believe these changes would encourage more local authorities to become involved in providing asylum accommodation on a voluntary basis. If, however, after these changes are implemented, local authorities continue unreasonably to refuse to become involved, the Government should, within 12 months, use its available powers to require those local authorities to take their fair share. It is clearly unfair that the brunt of the burden of accommodation and related asylum provision should be borne by many local authorities where there is recognised deprivation and hardship, while local authorities in undoubtedly far more prosperous areas continue to refuse to be party to the dispersal scheme. In using such powers, the Government should ensure that access to the necessary specialist services is available in the local authorities affected, including health care, legal representation and interpreters. Work should also be undertaken to ensure that host communities are informed and involved in plans for new areas to take on asylum seekers.

46.The holistic support which the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme has been designed to provide is a model that should be replicated for all those whose asylum applications are accepted. As well as providing a more holistic form of support, this would also help address local authorities’ concerns that, in accepting asylum accommodation, they will face additional costs further down the line when the person seeking asylum has received a decision on their application and is accepted as a refugee, and may be transferred to the local authority’s care.

47.The Syrian programme has been successful not just because of the additional resources, although they are an integral part, but also because local authorities have been consulted and engaged in the design of the scheme from very beginning. In comparison, the COMPASS system has corroded confidence in the asylum system for many local authorities because they have seen their influence marginalised while still having to carry many of the consequential costs. The result has been less participation, less holistic provision of support in the community, less integration planning, and more reliance on emergency and voluntary services. The Government should reflect on the success of the Syrian programme in attracting local authority support and engagement and the failure of the COMPASS scheme to do the same, and design a new approach which attracts (and, if necessary, requires) local authorities to participate, but gives them more flexibility and control.

48.Local authorities must be actively involved in developing the replacement to COMPASS and the Government should engage them on the provision of accommodation, support and integration and how a fair distribution of accommodation might be achieved. Commissioning of asylum accommodation should be devolved rather than being done centrally by the Home Office to give local authorities greater responsibility and flexibility about how and where accommodation and support are provided. The Home Office should consult on devolving the commissioning of asylum accommodation to regional Strategic Migration Partnerships. This would not preclude private sector provision of asylum accommodation but would allow local decision-making and responsibility, and make it easier to address community cohesion. In relation to asylum accommodation in the devolved nations, the devolved governments should be given a significant role in deciding the appropriate arrangements for decentralising commissioning and ensuring a fair distribution of accommodation.

Temporary dispersal accommodation

49.Difficulty in securing sufficient accommodation is leading Providers to place asylum seekers in hotels and hostels. Dispersal or ‘settled’ accommodation is typically a furnished flat or shared house subject to strict criteria and inspection, but Providers are allowed to use hotels and hostels as ‘temporary dispersal accommodation’ (TDA) until settled accommodation can be found. As with Initial Accommodation, premises used as TDAs are considered unsuitable for long-term use.

50.The number of people housed in temporary accommodation varies depending on the pressure on the asylum system. For example, in spring 2016 there were 1,500 people in hotel accommodation across the UK, including 670 in the West Midlands and 400 in Glasgow.54 These figures have since decreased significantly. Although the use of hotels is intended to be for very short periods, St Chad’s Sanctuary, a Birmingham-based voluntary sector organisation, and the Scottish Refugee Council, report instances of asylum seekers being in hotel accommodation for several months.55

Concerns about temporary accommodation

51.People in hotel accommodation are essentially in limbo until more permanent accommodation can be found. They have little choice over what food is available, receive no financial support and can have difficulties accessing third sector and advocacy networks.56 We were told that Providers did not always fulfil obligations to provide transport to medical appointments, that many people in hotel accommodation have no idea how they can get to see a GP and that they lack the HC2 certificates necessary to get free prescriptions, glasses or dental treatment.57 People in hotels include survivors of torture and trafficking and mothers with infants.58 The Welsh Refugee Coalition questioned whether some of the accommodation used in their area might contravene health and safety legislation:

Examples were given of a hotel in Cardiff where up to 3 women, including one with a 4 month-old child, shared a room. Another example was given where an invalid father, mother and 22-year-old son all had to share a basement room.59

The Scottish Refugee Council told us that shared rooms of 3–4 people were the norm in Glasgow.60 During our visit to Birmingham we heard that local authorities were not always made aware of children being housed in temporary accommodation and were therefore unable to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities. Children in temporary accommodation do not attend school, as enrolment occurs once a family is placed in settled accommodation.

52.We received many complaints about the quality of food in temporary accommodation. St Chad’s Sanctuary told us that, in response to complaints about the food at a local hotel used for temporary accommodation, a manager replied “if you are not happy it’s no problem—I can tell the Home Office to take you away”.61 COMPASS contracts specifically stipulate that asylum seekers be treated with sensitivity. 70% of the people in hotel accommodation surveyed by St Chad’s Sanctuary stated they did not receive enough food and this issue was raised with us on our visit. We also heard that strict rules around mealtimes meant that people who might be absent due to an external appointment or for religious purposes missed out on meals. St Chad’s Sanctuary told us:

As soon as hotels in the Birmingham area started being used for TDA the local VSOs started noticing a trickle of people who claimed they were: hungry, had no access to medical care, hygiene items, were cold and generally desperately unhappy. This trickle has become a torrent putting an untenable strain on local VSOs.62

We put these complaints to G4S who told us that they used hotels reluctantly and that, since the peak in April, they have reduced use of hotels in Birmingham to just one. On our visit to that hotel G4S reassured us that asylum seekers had access to some food and refreshments throughout the day and packed lunches were provided if meals were going to be missed.

53.As with dispersal accommodation, cost is key in determining which hotels are used as temporary accommodation. Customer reviews suggest some of the hotels are in very poor condition with one described as a ‘cesspit’, ‘disgusting’, ‘filthy’ and ‘needs to be condemned’. Sandwell Women’s Aid told us that they specifically request that their clients, victims of modern slavery, are not to be dispersed from their safe house into temporary accommodation as they believe this will cause further trauma. SWA report that the Home Office routinely ignores their requests and, if temporary accommodation is refused, proceeds to close the individual’s application for asylum support.63

54.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 is subject to strict criteria and regular inspection yet it appears that the same rigorous standards are not being applied to temporary accommodation. We recommend that temporary accommodation is inspected before its use is sanctioned, and on a monthly basis thereafter. Such inspections should include: whether an individual’s health or special needs are being met; the quality and quantity of food available; the fabric of the building itself; and whether there are facilities which are appropriate for vulnerable people, including mothers and children and victims of torture and trafficking. We further recommend that asylum seekers in temporary accommodation receive some financial support, given that the Home Office will have already decided that they are entitled to this. The level of financial support should reflect the fact that meals are provided.

55.In order for us properly to assess the pressure on the asylum system the Government should include the number of asylum seekers in temporary accommodation in future quarterly statistical releases. In response to this Report the Government should also address the concerns raised with us by Sandwell Women’s Aid, specifically that the Home Office either ignores requests for vulnerable women to remain in SWA safe houses until dispersal accommodation is available, or considers such requests as detrimental to applications for asylum support.

Strategic Migration Partnerships

56.We are aware that there is a tension between Providers’ use of hotels and the expectations of the local authority as more people may be placed in the accommodation than originally envisaged and for longer. In his study of asylum accommodation, Dr Jonathan Darling, of the University of Manchester, found that, in the case of hotel use in the North West region, significant complaints had been made over the level of communication between COMPASS contractors and both the local authority and the local community.64 A lack of communication will impact on the level of third sector support that is available and, as we have already noted, can also mean local authorities do not carry out important safeguarding responsibilities.

57.Dr Darling’s concerns over a lack of coordination between the various tiers involved in the asylum system might be addressed by strengthening the role of and support for Strategic Migration Partnerships (SMPs). We have already discussed SMPs in the context of their role in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme. There are 12 regional Strategic Migration Partnerships in the UK. These are Home Office-funded, local authority-led partnerships set up to support the dispersal and integration of asylum seekers and provide a means for engagement between local and national government, and the private and voluntary sectors. Dr Darling argues that SMPs have enabled concerns to be raised around dispersal numbers, accommodation quality, and impacts on community cohesion from local authorities, but that their work is hampered by funding pressures due to insecure and short-term contracts.65

58.Effective coordination and cooperation between key stakeholders is essential if the current system is to work effectively but we found it to be absent in too many parts of the country. As part of managing the remaining two years of the COMPASS contract the Government should insist on formal, regular meetings between Providers, local authorities and the third sector (and devolved governments). These meetings should be coordinated by the local Strategic Migration Partnership, which is well-placed to provide this necessary function. However, SMPs are currently poorly funded and overstretched. The Government should increase funding of SMPs to a more sustainable and consistent level so that they have the capacity to encourage communication and improve planning within the dispersal system, and are better able to negotiate tensions between its different levels. Over the longer term, we have already suggested that the Government consult on giving SMPs a central role in the regional allocation of asylum seekers and they will require more resources if they are to perform this function.

35 Q173

36 Q223

37 Q263; Correspondence from John Whitwam, Managing Director, G4S Immigration and Borders, October 2016 (ACC0034)

38 1 to 200 ratio based on the 2001 census figures for population. For example, the limit was breached in Middlesbrough in 2015.

39 Discussions with stakeholders during Committee visit to Birmingham.

40 Some local authorities which do not participate in the scheme have taken asylum seekers under the funded Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Programme.

41 Correspondence from John Whitwam, Managing Director, G4S Immigration and Borders, October 2016 (ACC0034)

42 Correspondence from John Whitwam, Managing Director, G4S Immigration and Borders, October 2016 (ACC0034)

43 Q264

44 Q273

45 Home Affairs Committee, The work of the Immigration Directorates Q3 2015, Sixth Report of Session 2015–16, HC 772, Q246

46 At the end of Q1 2015, 99 local authorities accepted asylum seekers; by the end of Q3 2016 this figure was 121. Over the same period the number of people requiring Section 95 accommodation increased from 27,137 to 35,254.

47 Middlesbrough Council (ACC0025)

48 Middlesbrough Council (ACC0025). Some schools have more than 100 children joining a cohort during the primary years and a similar number leaving before the end of year 6.

49 Middlesbrough Council (ACC0025)

50 Written Statement, 8 December 2016, HCWS335

51 Home Office Migration statistics Q3 2016, Tables As_16q and As_20q

52 Q202

53 Glasgow City Council (ACC0030)

54 Scottish Refugee Council (ACC0035)

55 St Chad’s Sanctuary (ACC0040), Scottish Refugee Council (ACC0035)

56 People will be moved into temporary accommodation once the Government has decided they are eligible for Section 95 support but they will remain on Section 98 support while they remain in catered accommodation.

57 St Chad’s Sanctuary (ACC0040)

58 Scottish Refugee Council (ACC0035)

59 Welsh Refugee Coalition (ACC0012)

60 Scottish Refugee Council (ACC0035)

61 St Chad’s Sanctuary (ACC0040)

62 St Chad’s Sanctuary (ACC0040)

63 Sandwell Women’s Aid (ACC0041)

64 Dr Jonathan Darling (ACC0018)

65 Dr Jonathan Darling (ACC0018)

24 January 2017