Asylum accommodation Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Demands of the asylum system

1.We have warned in previous reports that the asylum system is under strain and that a backlog in cases has been developing. Those warnings were not heeded and the consequences are now evident, with Providers struggling to source sufficient adequate accommodation to meet demand. Pressure on the asylum system, and on accommodation in particular, will not reduce unless the Government takes action to increase its capacity to process applications. The Home Office was successful in doing this, albeit for only a few quarters, by devoting more resources to the task, and it needs to do so again as a matter of urgency. There are clear benefits in applications being processed quickly and these far outweigh the cost of increasing capacity in the responsible section of the Home Office, UK Visas & Immigration. We need to see a marked fall in the number of applications awaiting a decision in the statistics covering the first half of 2017. (Paragraph 15)

2.In addition to increasing its capacity to process applications for asylum, the Government should do more to ensure that its initial decisions are correct. Around 30% of decisions to refuse asylum are overturned in the courts, and this figure is much higher for certain nationalities such as Eritreans and Iranians. This is an unacceptable rate of error on the part of the Home Office. Incorrect decisions, if appealed, mean that those affected will require asylum accommodation for longer, adding further pressure to an already stretched system. The Government needs to improve its decision-making and commit to regular reviews of its approach to those nationalities which the courts are consistently identifying as receiving incorrect decisions. We have highlighted specific nationalities, such as Eritreans and Afghans in this and previous Reports. We need to see progress in this area and for this to show in future quarterly immigration statistics. (Paragraph 19)

Initial Accommodation

3.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. (Paragraph 24)

4.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. (Paragraph 30)

Dispersal accommodation

5.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. (Paragraph 43)

6.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. (Paragraph 44)

7.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. (Paragraph 45)

8.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. (Paragraph 46)

9.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. (Paragraph 47)

10.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. (Paragraph 48)

Temporary dispersal accommodation

11.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. (Paragraph 54)

12.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. (Paragraph 55)

Strategic Migration Partnerships

13.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. (Paragraph 58)

Standards in dispersal accommodation

14.The poor standard of asylum accommodation was the most significant issue identified in the evidence we received, which focused largely on contracts administered by G4S and Serco. It is clear that in too many cases Providers are placing people in accommodation that is substandard, poorly maintained and, at times, unsafe. Some of this accommodation is a disgrace and it is shameful that some very vulnerable people have been placed in such conditions. Urgent action must be taken by the Home Office and Providers to deal with this issue. Even when significant concerns have been raised, a lack of alternative accommodation has led to vulnerable people remaining in housing that is unfit or unsuitable for many months until they are moved. Providers are also failing to ensure that items they are obliged to provide are present and in working order when a person is placed in a property. We acknowledge the financial constraints of the COMPASS contracts and the systemic problems in the dispersal system but, nonetheless, Providers have a clear obligation to provide safe, habitable accommodation and it is beyond doubt that this obligation is not being met in a significant minority of cases. We request that the Government now set out the details of the additional resources it has pledged to make available for staff property management purposes as part of the agreement to extend the COMPASS contracts. (Paragraph 68)

15.Providers will no doubt point to a low number of fines under the Key Performance Indicator (KPI) system to suggest they are fulfilling their obligations. We also accept that asylum seekers and third sector organisations may not be fully aware of Providers’ contractual obligations and deadlines for rectifying faults. However, the weight of evidence that we have received suggests that the compliance and inspection system is failing. We address the inspection regime later in this Report. (Paragraph 69)

16.The COMPASS contracts lack sufficient detail regarding response times for reactive maintenance. The ‘Performance Regime’ schedule, which sets out how performance should be measured against the Key Performance Indicators, has been redacted from the published contracts, which may partly explain the disconnect between people’s expectations and what Providers are obliged to deliver. We recommend the schedule be placed in the public domain. (Paragraph 70)

17.We also recommend that any future frameworks and contracts governing the provision of asylum accommodation provide more extensive guidance on compliance standards and include examples of the most common complaints and deadlines for expected resolution. Such guidance should be made available to asylum seekers in a form they can understand, and to those who advocate on their behalf, so that they are clear about the standards they are entitled to expect; and it should also be made available to local authorities. (Paragraph 71)

18.The majority of people moving into asylum accommodation will not have English as their first language yet crucial documents are only made available in English, a language which the people who need to use them do not understand. It is unacceptable that such a situation should have been allowed to occur in the first place and we fail to understand why, after four years of the COMPASS contract, it has still not been addressed despite it being raised as a problem on multiple occasions. Welcome packs and tenancy agreements should be made available in the most common languages spoken by asylum seekers as a matter of urgency. We welcome a commitment by Serco to make their occupancy agreements available in five languages, and other Providers should do the same. (Paragraph 73)

Complaints mechanism

19.People seeking asylum generally have a low awareness of their rights and entitlements and need support with this. The roles and responsibilities of landlords, and Providers’ housing officers and contact centre staff, should be clearly explained to asylum seekers when they first arrive in their property. This should also be set out in the welcome pack, together with the housing specification and other entitlements defined in the COMPASS contract, the complaints procedure and what asylum seekers can legitimately expect of the Provider, including turnaround times for addressing common problems. This may help reduce frustrations on both sides. (Paragraph 76)

20.There needs to be more transparency around the complaints regime. We do not believe that the low level of complaints reported by Clearsprings and Serco are a true reflection of the number made by their service users; this is more likely to reflect a lack of consistency around how complaints are defined and recorded. The Home Office should ensure that there is a consistent definition of a complaint that has to be recorded. Housing officers should log all complaints and requests for maintenance. Calls to contact centres are already logged but should also be recorded. (Paragraph 81)

21.For a complaints system to work people must feel able to complain without threat of negative repercussions. Providers should make it explicit in the welcome pack, and in oral introductions when someone is first placed in accommodation, that raising concerns about accommodation will not affect their application for asylum. This should also be set out in the guidance on compliance standards to which we have referred. If the complaint is about a member of staff then the asylum seeker should be advised to raise it directly with the local authority, if responsibility is transferred to local authorities as we recommend later in this report. Concern was also expressed to us that Provider contact numbers were often engaged or calls went unanswered. We recommend that the Home Office investigate this issue. (Paragraph 82)


22.Although standards have improved since 2012, the poor condition of a significant minority of properties leads us to conclude that the current compliance regime is not fit for purpose. Those it is meant to help safeguard have little confidence in it and we do not find that it acts as an adequate deterrent to poor compliance. Home Office inspections are infrequent and the low number of penalties appear at odds with the persistent criticisms of the standard of asylum accommodation. (Paragraph 87)

23.We recommend that the inspection duties currently carried out by the Home Office are transferred to local authorities, along with the necessary resources to carry out this function effectively. Local authorities have a crucial role in the asylum system but their ability to influence standards seems to have been eroded since COMPASS contracts were introduced. Giving local authorities responsibility for inspection, monitoring compliance and imposing sanctions will increase their influence in the system to the benefit of those supported by it. They already have experience in property inspection and are likely to have a better knowledge of asylum properties in their areas than the Home Office, having already been consulted on their use. (Paragraph 88)

24.Where an asylum seeker has a complaint against a member of Providers’ staff, this should be raised directly with the local authority inspectorate and guidance to this effect should be included in welcome packs. Local authorities should be given the necessary powers to investigate such complaints, given that they are independent of the asylum application process and the system for allocating an individual’s accommodation, and vulnerable people are therefore likely to be more comfortable raising concerns with them. (Paragraph 89)

25.We recommend that property standards be aligned with local authority housing standards and that Providers’ Key Performance Indicators are appropriately adjusted. Local authorities should have the power to conduct routine, proactive and unannounced visits and to report publicly on their findings to address the current lack of transparency. Placing the Performance Management regime for the contracts in the public domain would also boost transparency and accountability, and this should include specific information about the failures which generate a penalty and the scale of penalties. In relation to asylum accommodation in the devolved nations, the devolved governments should have a significant role in deciding the appropriate arrangements, including, for example, a possible role for the national housing regulator. Periodic inspections by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration across the UK could also complement and build upon this inspection regime by providing a country-wide overview of the system (Paragraph 90)

26.The COMPASS penalty system contains inconsistencies. Disproportionate sums are imposed for routine failures while Providers avoid meaningful sanctions for more severe breaches. Any future system reliant on the private sector must better balance penalties for breach of contract with the severity of the complaint. (Paragraph 91)

Wellbeing of asylum seekers

27.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. (Paragraph 97)

28.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. (Paragraph 99)

29.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. (Paragraph 102)

30.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. (Paragraph 103)

31.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. (Paragraph 105)

32.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. (Paragraph 109)

33.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. (Paragraph 110)

After the asylum claim

34.The Government is currently reviewing the 28–day grace period for people granted refugee status and the Department of Work and Pensions’ ability to manage applications for support from people transferring out of the asylum system. The evidence we have received demonstrates to us that a 28–day period is not sufficient to enable a smooth transition from asylum seeker to refugee status, and we recommend that the period be extended. (Paragraph 113)

35.The introduction of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme means that the UK now has a system which differentiates between refugees in terms of the services they receive based on the country of origin and the process through which they arrived in the country. We believe that this is inappropriate and that the same support should be available for refugees who transfer from the asylum system as those who arrive under a resettlement programme. Schemes like the Syrian programme and bespoke council-run services are extremely successful, including in contributing to integration, which is critical for social cohesion, successful re-settlement and entering the employment market. The challenge for the Government is now to bring the level of support available to all refugees up to the standard set by the Syrian scheme, with the prospective benefits of a reduction in overall costs through reduced reliance on welfare and other support services. The Government should introduce a service along the lines of the discontinued Refugee Integration and Employment Service, or other models currently in operation in some parts of the UK, as part of this improvement. (Paragraph 116)

The future of COMPASS contracts

36.We recommend that the National Audit Office undertake a further review of COMPASS, following up their previous report, to determine whether it will achieve the savings the Government expects and whether there has been a wider displacement of responsibilities and costs. (Paragraph 118)

37.Given the significant problems we have identified, we believe that the COMPASS contracts should have been reviewed sooner, so that they could have been replaced with a better approach when the term of the contracts ended this year. It is disappointing that the Home Office did not do this and as a result has had to extend the existing COMPASS contracts while wider changes to the system are now considered. We recognise, however, that the fundamental changes required to these complex contracts need time to be properly developed and negotiated. In this Report we have made recommendations that look to the long-term future of the asylum system and should be considered as part of the process of putting together a successor to COMPASS. However, many of our recommendations, which would bring real improvements to the service asylum seekers receive, do not require further renegotiation, and should be implemented within six months. (Paragraph 119)

24 January 2017