92.The Scottish Refugee Council and other agencies suggest that because the current system for providing asylum accommodation is driven foremost by the need to provide accommodation of a minimum standard within a set deadline the needs of individuals and families have become a secondary consideration. It is argued that this housing-led approach has meant that Providers can place individuals in accommodation that is inappropriate for them while still meeting their performance targets. Indeed, the wellbeing of the individual is not captured by the existing KPI regime to any great extent. We set out some of the common problems below. Many of them could likely have been avoided if there was more capacity in the system and greater communication and better organisation on the part of those who work within it, but some result from a demonstrable lack of respect and empathy on the part of staff.
93.Accommodation is provided on a ‘no-choice’ basis with single adults generally having to share rooms. The majority of people in the asylum system will be required to share accommodation with people they do not know, often from different countries, ethnicities and religions. Insensitive allocation of shared accommodation can cause additional anxiety, depression, frustration and irritation to people who are already under severe stress and sometimes in fragile health and can lead to tensions within accommodation. Some of the problems raised with us include individuals from ethnic and caste groups who are in conflict being housed together, a transgender woman being made to share a bedroom, and families with young children being placed in shared accommodation leading to concerns around safeguarding and child protection. Asylum Seeker Housing Project suggest that people are being put in overcrowded conditions, with small bedrooms being classified as doubles and that families are being placed in cramped accommodation. As one might expect tensions between people are most apparent in large Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs). At the end of March 2016 there were 2,804 HMOs being used partly or wholly to house asylum seekers; by the end of June this had increased by 10% to 3,073.
94.Some councils have taken steps to prevent room sharing. In Leeds, Hull, and Bradford council areas G4S is not allowed to require asylum seekers to share bedrooms. We were told that Sheffield City Council had also banned forced bedroom-sharing in its protocol with G4S but according to the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, the company ignored the Council’s rules, with the support of the Home Office. Serco explained that, in deciding the mix of people that will occupy any property, they try to take into account their religion, race and language and endeavour to match people sensitively wherever practical. However, the sheer number of people and the constant churn, together with limitations on dispersal areas, made it “completely impractical to house people only in accommodation shared by others of the same background and language”.
95.In addition to concerns over the mix of people sharing accommodation, Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) told us that an individual’s particular circumstances or vulnerabilities were seldom considered by staff in charge of providing accommodation. This is a charge repeated by organisations working across the asylum system. We received evidence of women in the late stages of pregnancy being placed in rooms up several flights of stairs or being made to share a bedroom, advice from health visitors being ignored and examples of people with mobility difficulties being placed in accommodation that was not accessible to them.
96.Home Office policy states that torture survivors undergoing treatment by Freedom from Torture or the Helen Bamber Foundation should not be required to share a bedroom. This is a welcome development but a lack of available accommodation can mean delays in individuals being housed appropriately which can put them under considerable strain. The Helen Bamber Foundation explained that, despite their requests, individuals diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and significant mental health problems were, by default, accommodated in shared bedrooms. They set out the problems this can cause:
Symptoms such as hypervigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear and the inability to trust others are common in people who have suffered torture and/or human trafficking. This has led to some of our clients putting themselves at risk by sleeping outside their accommodation on the streets or in parks rather than sharing a room. Those with whom they are sharing the room do not understand what the person has been through and may be puzzled, angered or frightened by their behaviour.
The Foundation pointed out that difficulties in housing people with mental health problems were not resolved by putting two vulnerable people with mental health problems in the same room, which they believe has been one practice used.
97.When allocating accommodation Providers should do much more to address the needs of particularly vulnerable asylum seekers, such as expectant mothers, those living with mental health needs and victims of trafficking, rape and torture. At the very least people in these circumstances should not have to share a room or be placed in large-scale Houses of Multiple Occupancy. Indeed, we recommend that forced bedroom sharing be phased out across the asylum estate as a whole and that the use of large scale HMOs be reduced.
98.We note that until this point there has been no evidence of an equality statement in relation to the COMPASS contracts, nor has an equality impact assessment or any equality monitoring been undertaken. The Immigration Minister stated last October that the Home Office was “considering any equality impacts as part of the wider consideration as to whether to extend the asylum support and accommodation contracts”.
99.The Public Sector Equality Duty should act as an essential means of ensuring that the Home Office and Providers understand how the COMPASS contracts affect different groups and that there is no discrimination in delivery of the contracts. Many of the issues identified in this report could have been avoided had the needs of different groups of asylum seekers been more clearly identified. We recommend that the Government publish the outcome of its consideration of the equality impacts of the COMPASS contracts which the Minister for Immigration has indicated the Home Office was undertaking.
100.Providers are permitted to move asylum seekers without their consent a maximum of twice a year. We received evidence of people being moved three or more times within a year, with some examples of individuals being moved from a property within a week of arriving there. Movements often take place at very short notice and can often affect support networks that may have been built up. The Helen Bamber Foundation told us they had clients who had lost vital access to Community Mental Health Team care as a result of the lack of effective onward referral. We also heard that support organisations were often not told where the clients were being moved to. Children’s school or nursery education can also be disrupted by moves, a particular concern given that children of asylum seekers may be in receipt of additional pastoral care.
101.Women in the late stages of pregnancy and new mothers are particularly vulnerable. This is reflected in UKVI’s Healthcare Needs and Pregnancy Dispersal policy which states that “any dispersal property must be suitable not just for a pregnant woman (including mobility issues), but for a mother and baby, post birth”. Despite, clear guidance from the Government we have received many examples of pregnant women and new mothers being moved at short notice, on some occasions directly upon leaving hospital. Such movements may leave women feeling isolated and cause emotional stress as they lose hospital antenatal care where they had formed relationships with specific midwives, including safeguarding midwives, and are cut off from other support that may have been put in place such as a relationship with the local Children’s Centre, or Home Start. Bradford City of Sanctuary told us that “Relocation requests asking that women be moved before the birth of their baby have been routinely ignored.”
102.Moving people around the asylum system without their consent can disrupt vital support networks and can cause emotional distress to the individual. The system of allocating properties strikes us as chaotic. Too often people are moved because they have been housed in unsuitable or unfit accommodation in the first instance or because it suits the Provider to do so. Movement without consent should be limited, and for those individuals engaged with local services, such as schools or specific welfare support, it should be used only in exceptional circumstances. Where movement is unavoidable the Provider should first ensure that the destination location fully meets the needs of the individual, including by liaising with the local Strategic Migration Partnership, local authority and, where relevant, third sector organisations.
103.Under the current system the condition of asylum accommodation is covered by inspections but not the wellbeing of those inside it. This needs to change so that the voices of those in the accommodation are heard. The monitoring and inspection process should be reformed to capture the experience of vulnerable people, such as victims of torture and trafficking, and issues relating to gender, including women who are pregnant and new mothers. An obligation should be placed on Providers to have regard for the wellbeing of those they house and, under certain circumstances, Providers should face sanction if they fail in this duty. For example, Providers should ensure that pregnant women are relocated to accommodation suitable and appropriate for their needs by 28 weeks of pregnancy and should face penalties where this target is not met. There should also be stricter limits on how often people are moved against their will. The wellbeing of the individual, particularly those who are most vulnerable, has to be at the heart of a reformed asylum system.
104.The Government has accepted that improvements need to be made to the welfare support that asylum seekers receive and has pledged to pay for more welfare officers as part of the agreement to extend the COMPASS contracts to 2019.
105.In response to this report we request that the Government set out how much extra financial support it will make available to pay for more welfare supports officers, as part of the agreement to extend the COMPASS contracts, and how many more welfare officers it expects will be employed as a result.
106.As we have already noted in relation to dealing with complaints, a significant concern raised with us was the way in which asylum seekers are treated by Providers’ staff. Asylum seekers are vulnerable individuals yet, in some of the examples we received, the standard of behaviour of Providers’ staff fell far short of the duty to treat people with dignity and respect. Asylum seekers reported being treated with hostility and being made to feel ‘sub-human’ or ‘like animals’. Others reported they felt bullied and that staff could be intimidating and aggressive:
107.Unannounced visits and ‘invasive behaviour’ came in for particular criticism. Asylum seekers have reported instances of housing officers going through belongings without permission; one person said, “I walked in to him with my phone, going through my phone, I was worried he was going to take it”. Another complaint was about entering property without advance warning. Examples included: “They come in at any moment and [your] dignity and privacy are compromised”; and “As a person who has been trafficked, [this causes] me to panic and relive traumatizing experiences of the past.” SYMAAG told us about one case where G4S knew an asylum seeker was severely traumatized but still continued to come unannounced to the house and “enter with their keys without waiting to be let in.” Serco told us that, if they receive claims of poor behaviour that appear to have substance, “we investigate them immediately and thoroughly” and we have heard of instances where Providers’ staff have been dismissed for inappropriate behaviour of this kind.
108.It has been drawn to our attention that G4S are in the process of rolling out body-worn cameras to their welfare officers, having recently concluded a six-week pilot in the Midlands and parts of Yorkshire. The move is in response to an increase in aggression against Providers’ staff (see para 67) but there appears to have been no consultation and it is not clear what precautions are going to be taken with regard to the filming of women and children. We have already discussed the problem of Providers’ staff entering properties unannounced, particularly men entering women-only properties. Concern has been raised with us that the use of cameras will affect the relationship between asylum seekers and Providers’ employees, and that people who are traumatized, as many asylum seekers are, may be even less likely to raise problems if they are being filmed. It is also not clear whether asylum seekers will be explicitly asked for their consent to be filmed or whether they will be able to request the recording if they have a complaint about an employee’s behaviour towards them.
109.We acknowledge that many staff working in the asylum system act professionally and respectfully but we are concerned by reports of staff who do not come up to this standard. Bullying behaviour is completely unacceptable, particularly against vulnerable people. We recommend that Providers work with local third sector organisations to improve staff training and increase staff understanding of the experiences and anxieties of people seeking asylum. Staff seeking entry into asylum accommodation should provide appropriate notice; they should not enter a property which is unoccupied without permission from the resident; and they should wear identification. All employees who make harassing or discriminatory remarks should be held accountable by Providers. Staff likely to have regular direct contact with asylum seekers should be subject to the highest standards of disclosure checks.
110.We are concerned by reports that one of the Providers will be equipping its staff with body-worn cameras, apparently without any proper consultation having taken place or any policy being published. Such an action raises issues of consent, safeguarding and privacy that need to be considered, as well as questions about whether it is appropriate for a system which supports vulnerable individuals. The Home Office should publish its policy on the use of body-worn cameras by Providers’ employees as a matter of urgency.
123 Q179 [Gary Christie]; Welsh Refugee Coalition (); Scottish Refugee Council ()
124 Birmingham Asylum and Refugee Association; NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Psychological Trauma Service ()
125 Dr Jonathan Darling (); South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (); NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Psychological Trauma Service ()
126 Asylum Seeker Housing project ()
127 Scottish Refugee Council ()
128 South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group ()
129 Letter from Rupert Soames OBE, Chief Executive, Serco Group Plc, to the Chair of the Committee, 6 April 2016 ()
130 Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) (); South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (); Anne McLaughlin MP ()
131 Freedom from Torture ()
132 Helen Bamber Foundation ()
133 Helen Bamber Foundation ()
134 Answer to on COMPASS contracts (tabled by Ian Murray MP), 13 October 2016
135 Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) (); South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group ()
136 Helen Bamber Foundation ()
137 Sandwell Women’s Aid ()
138 Scottish Refugee Council (); Helen Bamber Foundation (); NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Psychological Trauma Service ()
140 Letter from Suzanne Fletcher MBE, to the Chair of the Committee, 25 January 2016 (); Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) ()
141 Bradford City of Sanctuary ()
142 Written Statement, 8 December 2016,
143 Migrant Voice (); Birmingham Asylum and Refugee Association (); Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) ()
144 Migrant Voice ()
145 Migrant Voice ()
146 United for Change ()
147 Migrant Voice (); Sandwell Women’s Aid; Bethan Jenkins AM, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Housing, Poverty and Steel ()
148 United for Change ()
149 Migrant Voice ()
150 South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group ()
151 Letter from Rupert Soames OBE, Chief Executive, Serco Group Plc, to the Chair of the Committee, 6 April 2016 ()
24 January 2017