Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS Contents

3Accommodation standards

39.Our previous inquiry found that even though accommodation is inspected, and providers’ performance is subject to key performance indicators, it may nonetheless be substandard, unsanitary and in some cases unsafe.51 This was, overall, the most significant issue identified in the evidence we received in that inquiry. Issues which were raised with us during that inquiry included: the presence of vermin (mice, rats and bedbugs); health and safety issues such as the presence of asbestos, or damp; lack of cleanliness; and inadequate facilities and furnishings, such as broken furniture, the absence of facilities such as a cooker or washing machine, and failing heating systems.52 Having received such clear evidence of unsuitable accommodation, we were forced to conclude that the current compliance regime is not fit for purpose.53

40.We recommended that the Home Office should transfer responsibilities for inspecting accommodation to local authorities, with the resources to carry out this function effectively. This would beneficially draw upon the local knowledge and expertise of authorities and help to restore their influence within the asylum system.54 We envisaged that this transfer of responsibilities should be supported by clearer guidance in the new contracts on compliance standards, including examples of common complaints and the deadlines by which providers were expected to resolve them.55 Giving local authorities the power to conduct inspections, and to report publicly on their findings, would improve transparency.56

41.The Home Office indicated that it was happy for inspections to be carried out jointly with local authorities, but it rejected our recommendation for the transfer to local authorities of responsibility for property inspection, saying that this would “reduce the accountability of the Home Office and the ability to hold Providers to account.”57

42.We also found problems with the handling of maintenance requests and complaints. It was too often difficult for asylum seekers to get through on contact lines, or to determine who was responsible for addressing the concerns they raised. Many asylum seekers do not have English as their first language, making it harder for them to understand how to raise issues, or what their rights and entitlements are; we were told that problems not being logged with housing officers was a regular frustration, and that service users who tried to complain reported being met with disbelief or hostility.58 Some asylum seekers feared that complaining would have a detrimental impact upon their asylum application.59

43.In recognition of the lack of confidence of asylum seekers in the system, we recommended, firstly, that all complaints and requests for maintenance should be consistently recorded. We also recommended that clearer information should be provided to asylum seekers confirming that complaints about accommodation would not affect the user’s asylum claim.60

44.The Government defended the existing inspection regime, describing it as “rigorous”; however, it said that it had made improvements to the way in which asylum seekers could raise concerns about their accommodation with UKVI, to support more targeted compliance activity, and had provided additional mechanisms and user groups to enable NGOs and users to provide feedback.61

45.Users of asylum accommodation are often very vulnerable people, including torture survivors, individuals suffering PTSD, pregnant women and mothers with small children. In a debate in Westminster Hall, in October 2018, Members testified to a range of concerns, from providers’ allocation to asylum seekers of pillows so inadequate that two can be placed in a single pillowcase, to a unit which Alex Sobel MP reported was in a shocking state of disrepair:

On visiting the house, the first thing that struck me was the stickiness underfoot and the smell of urine. That was the result of an earlier rat infestation, which was reported to G4S and ignored.

Although the local church stepped in and blocked the rats’ entrance to the bedroom, the carpet remained coated in rat urine. A toddler crawling over the carpet had a skin infection. Her mother told me, “There is nowhere else for her to go.” That was not strictly true. Her baby could have crawled in the hallway, where a missing baby gate left a steep set of stairs exposed—something of which G4S had been informed months before. Or perhaps the child could crawl around the kitchen, where rat poison was left on the floor and mould covered every wall.

There are other issues in the property, including a lack of cleaning and cooking equipment, which G4S should have provided. After writing to G4S in exasperation, I met the landlord of the property, who stepped in and provided what G4S did not.62

The ICIBI report

46.Between February and June 2018 the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) carried out an inspection of the Home Office’s management of asylum accommodation provision.63 This was carried out in response to a recommendation in our previous report that periodic inspections by the Independent Chief Inspector could assist by providing a country-wide overview of the system.64 We are pleased that the Independent Chief Inspector has accepted a role in the oversight of asylum accommodation provision and welcome his scrutiny.

47.Reports by the inspectorate are initially submitted to the Home Secretary who “aims to publish [them] within 8 weeks of receipt”.65 This report on asylum accommodation was submitted to the Home Office on 9 July and might reasonably have been expected to be published, therefore, by 3 September.

48.On 13 November we asked senior Home Office officials why the report had not at that point been published, and whether it could be published before we were due to take evidence on asylum accommodation the following week.66 It was published a week later, fifteen minutes before the Committee began to take evidence from council leaders on the issue. The Independent Chief Inspector’s report states:

For several reasons, not least the difficulty of extracting evidence from the Home Office, this inspection proved more challenging than most. My report is likely to please no-one. It is clear from the Home Office’s response to the draft report that this topic touches a nerve. It considers my criticisms unfair and believes its efforts have not been recognised. Meanwhile, I suspect that the many non-government organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders engaged with asylum accommodation, and those living in it, will feel that the report has not gone far enough in challenging the standards of accommodation and support provided.

Discussions with the Home Office, Providers, NGOs and asylum seekers about particular properties showed just how difficult it was to agree on what constituted “an acceptable standard” of accommodation, and equally difficult for the parties to remain objective and to trust the intentions and actions of the other. The overriding impression from this inspection was of many individuals–from the Home Office, the Providers, NGOs and voluntary groups, statutory services and local authorities - up and down the UK, working hard to do their best for those in asylum accommodation, but often with quite different perspectives and priorities.67

Our brief revisiting of this subject accords with this assessment.

49.On 21 November the Immigration Minister apologised that the report had been published the previous day: she stressed that she had been keen to respond to our request, the previous week, to see the report (which by then had been more than 10 weeks beyond the expected date of issue). She confirmed that the Home Office had accepted all nine recommendations in that report and had put together the required Action Plan by the Independent Chief Inspector’s deadline of 1 October.68 This Action Plan is available online.69

50.The Independent Chief Inspector reported that the Home Office’s own Contract Compliance Officers had found that only 24% of properties inspected between March 2016 and January 2018 were compliant with the COMPASS contract requirements. The majority of the remainder (43% overall) were not fit for purpose.70 The Minister suggested to us that it was important to understand the context for the extent of properties which were not fully compliant: these were high usage properties with “in some cases, very high turnover” of asylum seekers passing through;71 Paul Morrison, Director of In-Country Migration and Temporary Migration, Permanent Migration and Premium Services, also drew to our attention that the Statement of Requirements for the COMPASS contracts set detailed accommodation standards which, if they are not satisfied, would result in the accommodation being classified either as not fit for purpose, uninhabitable—in which case emergency action is required—or unsafe and requiring immediate evacuation.72 Paul Morrison said that “Not fit for purpose” covered:

things like taps needing new washers. There will be broken glazing, cracked panes needing a replacement. They will be about windows being a bit sticky. All of those are not things that would necessarily mean that the property is not fit for purpose in the sense of being uninhabitable. They are things that will get a seven-day turnaround.”

Defects which would lead to a property being classed as uninhabitable would include “a hole or a weakened floor or exposed electrical wiring”, for which repair should take place within twenty-four hours, while an issue which presented “a genuine threat to [the inhabitant’s] health” would require people to be moved out “within two hours”.73

51.Mr Morrison assured us that “This is a contract that has a very strict regime of key performance indicators around that. These are the contractual requirements that we place on service providers. They will need to have gone out and corrected those errors.”74 He told us that the existing contracts required as a minimum that properties should be inspected each month, and again when a new person moved in. He said the Government had responded to earlier criticism from us and from the Independent Chief Inspector, by increasing its audit checks upon providers to ensure action claimed by the providers had in fact taken place. He also accepted that record-keeping by Home Office inspectors had been poor and said this had been addressed.75

52.The ICIBI recorded that in its own 69 inspection visits to asylum accommodation—during 53 of which it was accompanied by Home Office contract compliance officers76—it found fewer examples of “pleasant, well-maintained” accommodation than “examples of accommodation that had various visible defects (leaks, damp, broken equipment), poor quality furnishings and fittings, and were dirty.”77 The Chief Inspector also pointed out that the Home Office has a team of just nine Contract Compliance Officers to cover the whole of the UK who, while often experienced, are inconsistent in the thoroughness of their inspections, their approach to re-inspection and their categorisation of defects and repairs.78

53.The Independent Chief Inspector noted that the Government established the Contract Compliance Team having rejected our previous recommendation that responsibility for inspection, monitoring compliance and imposing sanctions should be transferred to local authorities, with the appropriate funding.79 In its response to our previous recommendation, the Government had stated:

The Home Office does not agree that property inspection should be handed over to local authorities as it would reduce the accountability of the Home Office and the ability to hold Providers to account. Discussions with local authorities have not indicated that this is a responsibility that they would like to assume.80

54.We asked council leaders again if this was a responsibility they were willing to assume. They told us that, provided the responsibility was properly funded, this would not be “a big ask” as local authorities already have staff carrying out inspections on their own housing stock who could extend their remit.81 Andy Burnham added, “You will get better provision if you allow that local oversight of what has been done and you allow local authorities to make the connection between landlords who may be providing accommodation for that purpose but also for other purposes as well. Leverage can be used then to get a raising of standards.”82

55.While the Minister ultimately accepted that there are “service providers who are not meeting our standards” she nonetheless defended the current inspection regime, which she said provided “reasonable confidence that the standards are being met and the issues are being addressed”.83 She said:

I absolutely accept that it is completely unacceptable for anybody to be living with vermin and damp. What matters to my mind is that they are rectified, people have the reporting lines so they can let the service providers or the compliance teams or, last case scenario, the Home Office act upon them. It is important to us that we have good channels of communications both with service providers, and indeed service users, to make sure that we can act on problems when they occur.”84

She stressed that the Government’s standards are communicated “very clearly to our service providers”, and that the new AIRE contract would provide a single freephone number for individuals to escalate concerns which proved difficult to resolve via the service provider.85

56.As we previously concluded, a complaints system can only be effective if people feel able to complain without threat of negative repercussions.86 Refugee Rights Europe’s report on 3 December 2018 about the experience of women in asylum accommodation in Birmingham recorded that 32% of respondents did not feel safe raising complaints about their accommodation to their landlord or housing officer, the majority of them because they were afraid of losing their accommodation.87 While we recognise the steps the Government has taken to ensure asylum seekers are better informed and able to escalate problems where there are difficulties with the provider, we are concerned that individuals who are awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications may be reluctant to complain directly to the Home Office, which will determine their future.

57.The Department stated that property inspection should be a departmental responsibility since this helps it to hold providers to account. Yet, in practice, it is relying heavily upon assurances from the providers that accommodation meets the contractual requirements and where problems are identified, by its inspectors or others, these are not being addressed. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence from NGOs, local authorities and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that the condition of some accommodation is unacceptably poor. As the contract holder the Department has the power to insist upon better performance by accommodation providers, without waiting passively for asylum seekers or NGOs to draw their attention to concerns.

58.We are hugely disappointed that the Government has not taken up the Committee’s recommendations on improving the standards of accommodation. The Department has a duty of care and must show a greater urgency about the degrading conditions in which very vulnerable people are being housed under its contracts, including torture survivors, individuals suffering PTSD, pregnant women and mothers with small children. As we previously recommended in 2017, property standards should be aligned with local authority housing standards and providers’ key performance indicators should be appropriately adjusted. The Government should transfer the inspection duties currently carried out by the Home Office to local authorities, including the ability to impose sanctions, along with the necessary resources to carry out this function effectively. This funded transfer should take effect from the point at which the transition to the new contracts is complete.

59.The Government’s Action Plan, drawn up in response to the ICIBI report, indicates that the Government has already taken steps to review the KPI regime and implement a consistent methodology to support decisions on contractual non-conformance; and that it is procuring independent professional advice in relation to management of the maintenance of property standards.88

60.The recent steps taken by the Government to make it easier for officials to assess the main contractors’ performance in providing and maintaining accommodation are helpful developments which should support the Government in holding future providers to account, and we welcome them.

Systemic mistrust

61.As we noted at paragraph 48 above, the Independent Chief Inspector identified a lack of trust in the intentions or actions of others as a significant problem within the asylum accommodation system.89 Our discussion with the Minister and officials about the ICIBI inspection illustrates this point. We asked the Minister and officials what steps had been taken to address specific examples of substandard accommodation which had been raised in the ICIBI report. The Minister told us:

One of the concerns that I have is that when issues are identified either by the Inspector or by NGOs is that they are not necessarily flagged up to the Home Office and identified fast enough so that we can act upon them. I look at the photographs with horror because it is not acceptable. However, we have to be able to identify those properties and the service providers they are in the portfolios of so that we can make sure that problems are rectified.90

Paul Morrison advised us that “there has been some discomfort with sharing some of that information given it was shared in confidence [with the Independent Chief Inspector] by some of the NGOs”. While the Home Office was “very keen” to establish the whereabouts of the accommodation highlighted in the report, it had not succeeded in obtaining that information.91

62.We are concerned that there continues to be systemic mistrust affecting engagement between the Home Office, the ICIBI and NGOs. In our previous report, we described the fear of asylum seekers that complaining would affect their asylum application or might result in them being moved out of the area. It is not good enough that nothing seems to have changed. Rightly, those who have the confidence of asylum seekers put great emphasis on retaining that confidence. Yet essential improvements to accommodation are proving hard to secure, and providers who are failing in their contractual responsibilities are not being held to account. We are also concerned that, even though the Home Office was made aware of the Inspectorate’s concerns that NGOs and asylum seekers did not want to tell the Home Office about problems with their accommodation, the Home Office has not acted to resolve this.

63.The further concern we have is that, while we accept that the Government had asked the Independent Chief Inspector for information about accommodation highlighted in his report, and had been refused, it appears that it had not tried any other avenues to identify this accommodation at any point between 9 July and 19 November, in order to get urgent repairs made for which it was ultimately responsible.

64.Changing this culture, and building stakeholders’ confidence in their ability to report concerns without detriment, represents a significant challenge for the Government and for its future delivery partners. The failure of the Home Office to properly follow-up issues raised by the Independent Chief Inspector is evidence of a deeper problem. The Government should commission an independent review of the experience of asylum seekers in asylum accommodation, and of their treatment by providers and the Home Office, as the Authority. This review should report by March 2020.

51 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 59

52 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, paras 61–65

53 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 87

54 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 88

55 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 71

56 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 88

58 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 74–77

59 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 78

60 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, paras 81–82

62 Asylum accommodation debate 10 October 2018 Hansard Col 120

64 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 90

65, Inspection work in progress, accessed December 2018

66 Oral evidence taken on 13 November 2018, HC (2017–19) 1713, Q239

69 Home Office, Asylum Support - Assurance Action Plan, 20 November 2018

79 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 88

86 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, para 82

88 Home Office, Asylum Support - Assurance Action Plan, 20 November 2018, C: Property standards and contract compliance

Published: 17 December 2018