1.The UK has a proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict and persecution, and the principle has widespread public support. The UK played a key role in drafting the 1951 Refugee Convention, which has helped to protect millions of people, and it remains a world leader in providing humanitarian support today. Many local authorities and communities across the country have a long and continuing history of playing their part in welcoming and supporting asylum seekers and refugees in need. The provision of safe, habitable and fit-for-purpose accommodation is a central tenet of that support. When the system for providing asylum accommodation fails, it undermines that good work, and lets down vulnerable people and local communities too.
2.Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 provides that an individual who is seeking asylum in the UK, and who is, or is likely to become, destitute, is eligible with their dependents for support while their claim for asylum is considered. Support can be financial—asylum seekers are entitled to receive £37.75 a week for essential living expenses—and in the form of accommodation. Since 2012, accommodation and transport services have been provided to asylum seekers via six regional Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services contracts, known as COMPASS. The COMPASS contracts are held by three companies, Serco, G4S and Clearsprings, which operate a supply network of contractors, sub-contractors and private landlords.
3.The COMPASS contracts were due to be phased in between May to September 2012: transition should have been completed in all areas by October 2012. In some areas, however, the transition proved very problematic. Neither Serco nor G4S had previous experience of providing asylum accommodation: they struggled to establish reliable supply chains and to upgrade accommodation which they had agreed (without full inspection) to take on from earlier providers but which did not reach contractual standards. The Government extended contracts with departing providers, including some authorities, to give the new providers extra time to establish themselves. During the extended transition period the Department was unable to disperse newly arrived asylum seekers to some of the regions managed by G4S and Serco, as they did not have sufficient capacity. Some were required to remain longer in initial accommodation, while others were accommodated in emergency hotel accommodation or in a ‘campus-style’ facility, Heathrow Lodge, which had only limited facilities and services. Local authorities also had to step in to provide other forms of support to asylum seekers and their families, who were facing uncertainty as to whether they would be able to stay in their existing accommodation or whether they would be required to move. The transition was not fully completed until December 2012.
4.The COMPASS contracts were originally scheduled to run for five years to 2017, with the possibility of extension for a further two years. The Government announced in a written statement on 8 December 2016 that it had decided to take up the extension: officials were putting in place arrangements for replacing the contracts and would engage with a range of stakeholders about the future arrangements from 2019.
5.We published a detailed report on asylum accommodation in January 2017. In that report, we warned of the need for local authorities to be involved in overseeing asylum accommodation and for them to be actively involved in developing the replacement to the COMPASS contracts. We recommended that the commissioning of asylum accommodation should be devolved, suggesting that this should be done through the regional Strategic Migration Partnerships, making it easier to co-ordinate the activity of different local stakeholders and to address concerns about clustering and community cohesion. We highlighted the failures of the inspection and compliance regimes which led to some accommodation being left in a substandard, unsanitary and sometimes unsafe condition. We warned of the pressures of clustering and uneven dispersal, and of the inequity within the system which was placing intense pressure on those local authorities and communities which had volunteered to support asylum seekers.
6.We have returned to the subject now owing to concerns which have been raised about the Government’s handling of the process to replace COMPASS. In light of our previous work, this report focuses upon three main issues: the contracts and the strategic relationship between the Government and local authorities; the standards of accommodation provided for asylum seekers; and the question of fairness in the dispersal process. Two years on from the preparation of our previous report we were disappointed to discover that very little has changed. The key difference we have found, following the Government’s failure to implement our previous recommendations, is a deepening mistrust by local authorities of central government.
7.We took evidence on 20 November from: Councillor Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council; Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester; Councillor Roger Lawrence, leader of the City of Wolverhampton Council and the West Midlands Strategic Migration Partnership; and Councillor David Simmonds, Deputy Leader of Hillingdon Council and Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group. On 21 November, we took evidence from Rt. Hon. Caroline Nokes MP, the Minister of State for Immigration, Paul Morrison, Director of In-Country Migration and Temporary Migration, Permanent Migration and Premium Services and Sean Palmer, Director of Asylum Support, Immigration and Protection at the Home Office. We are very grateful to everyone who contributed to this inquiry.
2 National Audit Office, January 2014, p 17
3 National Audit Office, January 2014, pp 21–22
4 National Audit Office, January 2014, p 17
5 , 8 December 2016
6 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 637
Published: 17 December 2018