Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS Contents

4Dispersal and distribution


65.The policy of dispersing those seeking asylum accommodation in the UK was introduced by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The legislative intention was that distribution across the country would prevent any one area providing support to considerably more asylum seekers than other areas.

66.Prior to 1999, when an asylum seeker made an asylum claim the responsibility for support fell upon the local authority for the area where the claim was made. Most asylum seekers made their claims in London and the South East, which meant that the pressure fell most heavily on these authorities. The effect of the 1999 Act was to pass the support responsibility to the Home Office. The dispersal policy established in 2000 meant that, as a general rule, asylum seekers were expected to be accommodated in areas where there is a greater supply of suitable and cheaper accommodation.92

67.Under the scheme, local authorities reach voluntary agreements with the Home Office to accept asylum seekers. The National Audit Office’s 2014 report on COMPASS provides some additional information about how dispersal areas are identified:

1.6 Dispersal accommodation is located in particular areas in the community where the local authority has agreed to take asylum seekers up to a defined cluster limit (defined as an assumption that there will be no more than one asylum seeker per 200 residents, based on the 2001 census figures for population). In some areas local authorities have agreed a variation to this arrangement with the Department. Not all local authorities currently participate. Dispersal arrangements are subject to ongoing monitoring and review by the Department.

1.7 Under the terms of the COMPASS contracts, contractors are required to consider a range of social cohesion, housing and community factors alongside cost when proposing properties to be used for dispersal accommodation for asylum seekers. These factors include:

68.The financial constraints of the 2012 contracts mean that asylum accommodation tends to be concentrated within those dispersal areas, and parts of dispersal areas, where accommodation is cheap and more readily available. Existing dispersal areas have been asked to accommodate and support increasing numbers of vulnerable people.

69.The table below illustrates how the number of asylum seekers accommodated under s95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 at any one time has increased steadily since 2012. The number of local authorities which have agreed to participate in dispersal has not, however, increased correspondingly. Our previous report recorded that, in September 2016, 121 authorities out of 453 (27%) had s95 asylum accommodation within their boundaries.94 According to the Immigration Minister, in November 2018 the total number of authorities who were willing to participate had risen to just 150 (33%) out of which 129 were actively supporting dispersal.95

70.While dispersal is inequitable across the country, there are also inequities within regions. The ‘cluster limit’ which applies at the local authority level does not apply at ward level, meaning that it is possible to get higher concentrations in specific wards which—because providers will seek out areas where accommodation is cheap—are often also economically deprived. Councillor Roger Lawrence, Chair of the West Midlands Strategic Migration Partnership, told us that

Our region has something like 14% of national cases. We are about 9% to 10% of the national population, so there is clearly an inequity there. That is worsened by the fact that only seven of the 30 authorities in the region are receiving dispersal placements at the moment, which is probably around half the population of the region. That means that in some of our wards we are well in excess of the one in 200 recommendation. In fact, in Stoke-on-Trent, 10 wards are beyond one in 200.96

71.Councillor Sir Stephen Houghton, leader of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, wrote to us that,

10% of the UK’s asylum seekers are in just 40 wards in [Yorkshire and the Humber] out of a possible 10,000 wards in the UK. Many of these 40 wards have a range of other challenges and multiple deprivation, and we can see no justification for the Home Office ignoring these concerns up until now. The impacts are not just current, but are cumulative over the last 20 years.97

72.Councillor David Simmonds told us that the concentration of asylum seekers was “very striking”, commenting that “in very specific places there are grossly disproportionate numbers”. He suggested that cluster limits should also apply at the ward level, or that local authorities should have a mechanism which enabled them to say to a provider that too many people were being placed in a specific area.98

Previous Committee recommendations

73.We reported in January 2017 that the clustering of asylum seekers in specific local authority areas, and in particular in specific wards in local authority areas, presented challenges in terms of the impact upon local health, education and other services.99 These local authorities tended to be located in the most deprived parts of the country since these were areas where providers were able to obtain accommodation more cheaply. Local authorities which accepted asylum accommodation were coming under great pressure, because a significant number of authorities had not agreed to participate.100

74.The pressures, which even then were clearly evident, prompted us to recommend that local authorities should be given greater control over the distribution of asylum accommodation in their area, and more time to consider providers’ requests for new accommodation. We recommended that local authorities should continue to be allowed to refuse requests for accommodation where there were genuine concerns over the quality or concentration of accommodation or the potential impacts of that accommodation on local services and any risks to social cohesion, and that any such refusals should only be overturned by the Home Office in exceptional circumstances. We said that local authorities should be additionally funded for the costs of supporting the asylum system.

75.We also recommended that if the Government was not successful, within 12 months, in persuading more local authorities to participate it should use its statutory powers to mandate participation, to address the obvious unfairness of the responsibilities being carried by those authorities which had volunteered. That deadline passed nearly a year ago.101

76.The Government affirmed that it was committed to ensuring “a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers across the UK” but it did not directly address our recommendation about mandating participation, merely restating its commitment to work with authorities to increase the number of areas participating in dispersal. Nor did it comment on our recommendation that participating authorities required additional funding support.102

The benefits of participation

77.Despite the pressures generated, local authorities participating in dispersal often take great pride in their role. Councillor Susan Aitken of Glasgow City Council said, “We are very proud to have been a dispersal city—and I think a very successful dispersal city—for all these years. It has become part of Glasgow’s culture and … for Glaswegians’ own sense of themselves it has been a very positive thing.”103 Councillor David Simmonds told us that, as well as feeling a “sense of moral responsibility”, some authorities recognised in dispersal an opportunity to sustain and revitalise communities which might be struggling, for example, because there were not enough children in the settled population to sustain a school, or housing which was not being used.104

78.Councillor David Simmonds noted “a sense of frustration” that a proportion of authorities—the 21 noted by the Minister—had expressed willingness to participate but had not had accommodation procured within them.105 The cost of housing in those areas was likely to be the reason why those authorities had not been activated. “There is no way” he said, “within the financial envelope of the contracts you could possibly consider placing people other than in the lowest possible housing cost areas in the UK”.106

Local authority and third-sector costs

79.Individuals who are destitute and in need of s95 support will often require other support from public services and third sector organisations. Councillor Lawrence told us that the costs falling on local authorities related to “greater community liaison, greater environmental health, education, and also our colleagues in health.”107 While councils receive council tax revenue in connection with resident asylum seekers, this does not cover the full cost of services authorities are required to provide.108

80.There are also long-term costs for authorities involved in dispersal. When an asylum seeker’s application for asylum is approved and they receive refugee status, they are required to leave asylum accommodation during a 28-day ‘move-on’ period. Central government support ends and the Department for Work and Pensions provides access to benefits and support to find work. However, a number of reports have highlighted problems in the move-on period which mean support under s95 ends before a first benefit payment or salary payment is made, thereby leading to destitution.109 It may then become the local authority’s responsibility initially to provide shelter, while third-sector organisations and community groups sometimes step in to help. Equally, some asylum seekers whose application is refused have no further entitlement to central government support, meaning that the local authority may have to step in to prevent homelessness while that individual’s next steps are determined.110 In both cases, the local authority’s continuing responsibilities are unfunded.

81.The Government initially indicated that the dispersal ratios for different areas would be rolled forward under the new contracts, which has caused local authorities a great deal of concern.111 Andy Burnham warned:

If this is looked at purely through driving down the cost, in the end you will have people saying, “This cannot lead to a process that is fair to anybody” and it will, therefore, collapse. The public support will not be there [ … ] Yes, we understand the need for the Home Office to keep an eye on the cost, but it also has to look at the wider social consequences and the manageability of the levels of dispersal.112

82.All the council representatives who gave evidence stressed that dispersal authorities were serious about looking to withdraw from participation unless the Government recognised and addressed the pressures which the system placed upon them. Given the high proportion of asylum seekers housed in these authorities’ communities, the Government would quickly find itself in very severe difficulties if their support was lost.

83.This message is now being recognised by the Government. The day before we took evidence (19 November 2018) the Home Secretary wrote both to Andy Burnham and to the Local Government Association and its devolved counterparts. Andy Burnham told us that the Home Secretary had said:

I am happy to commit my officials to work with you on the question of a more equitable distribution of supported asylum-seekers and what this would look like in practice. This is part of a wider intent that from the start of the new contract onwards we will achieve a progressive reduction in the proportion of dispersal in the higher-volume areas, with a commensurate increase in the ratios in areas that currently have lower or non-existent volumes.113

It is noticeable that the prospect of more equitable distribution offered by the Home Secretary is described as an “intent” on the part of the Government rather than a firm commitment. While Mr Burnham described this change of position as a “significant movement” he pointed out that there was very little time to give effect to this commitment before the introduction of the new contracts. The words themselves were not enough to give dispersal authorities confidence that the operation of the dispersal policy would change.114

Improving dispersal

84.The Home Office’s options for addressing inequity in dispersal are limited: it can increase what it is prepared to spend to enable accommodation to be procured more widely; and/or it can find ways to persuade or require more local authorities, like the twenty-one authorities which are waiting to receive asylum seekers, to participate in dispersal. We were told by Sean Palmer, the Home Office Director of Asylum Support, Immigration and Protection, that there was no financial envelope and bids for the new contracts would be evaluated both on quality and on price, keeping in mind the need to “find housing in a range of local authority areas at the standards that we require”.115 While this suggests the Government may not be looking for the savings on asylum accommodation which were initially sought under COMPASS, we were nonetheless told the Government would ultimately seek “the most economically advantageous tender”.116

85.The Government has statutory powers under section 100 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to require local authority support. The statute provides that a local authority must “co-operate in giving the Secretary of State such assistance in the exercise of that power [to provide s95 accommodation] as is reasonable in the circumstances”.117

86.Councillor David Simmonds was sceptical about the benefits the Government might achieve by mandating local authority participation in dispersal. In practice:

[ … ] either that means they will mandate authorities who do not wish to continue to participate because of the overwhelming burden they are facing and simply tell them, “Well, tough. You are going to have to do it and you are going to have to take more”, or they will need to break their own financial limits by sending people to local authorities that they are not currently using because they fall outside of that financial envelope.118

87.In October the Minister cast doubt on “whether” she had powers to mandate authorities’ participation in dispersal.119 She subsequently wrote to us that the statutory powers had been designed to work in respect of local authority housing and did not work well in relation to housing in the private sector.120

88.Appearing before us, the Minister said that she did not “feel comfortable” about the prospect of mandating participation. She told us that mandating would “feel like I was doing it unto them”. She therefore preferred to focus on partnership with local government as the way to increase the number of dispersal authorities.121 As we set out in paragraph 69 above, however, the Government has in the last two years only managed to increase the number of local authorities volunteering to participate in dispersal from 27% to 33% of the whole. It has indicated that it is looking to the LGA to help it in this task.122 Councillor David Simmonds, the Chair of the LGA’s Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group pointed out that the experience of the existing dispersal areas is clearly “a significant bar” to others coming forward voluntarily.123

89.The Minister confirmed to us that participation in the dispersal policy for asylum accommodation is voluntary.124 The Government must therefore accept that it is not unreasonable for authorities who have, in many cases, supported dispersal for the best part of two decades and have carried a disproportionate share of the unfunded costs and pressures, to request more equitable treatment. It has reached the point where local authorities are contemplating withdrawal. While we recognise the benefits of voluntary participation in dispersal, the Government will have to work much harder if it is serious about quickly reducing the pressure on those dispersal areas. The Minister has looked towards the Local Government Association to help persuade other authorities to participate, but ultimately it is the Government which has the power to change the context for these discussions.

90.The Government must urgently reconsider the operation of the dispersal policy and must provide dispersal authorities with dedicated funding to better manage dispersal and the related impact on services. The Government should extend the cluster limit to wards, to be introduced with the new accommodation contracts, to alleviate the most immediate pressures on existing dispersal authorities (with dispersals over and above the cluster limits only allowed with consent from the relevant local authority).

91.It is also essential that the evaluation of the tenders for the new contracts recognises the varying cost of accommodation in different areas, and provides for this, so that all those authorities that are willing to participate can help. We expect that these changes would give currently non-participating authorities confidence that their communities will be fully supported to manage dispersal. The new contracts need to provide for real partnership between Government and local authorities in managing the rate of arrivals, and give local authorities the right to object to the procurement of accommodation when it has concerns about the potential impact.

92.We are concerned at the suggestion that s100 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which provides statutory powers to require local authority support, has become ineffective and that there was a lack of clarity from the Government as to whether it could be used. The Government should urgently clarify whether this power remains fit for purpose.

92 Policy on the dispersal of asylum seekers, House of Commons Library, April 2016

94 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, p 16

96 Q2

97 Barnsley Council and Local Authorities in Yorkshire & Humber, (ASY0002)

99 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637

100 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637 para 38

101 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, January 2017, paras 43–45

102 Home Affairs Committee, Second Special Report 2017–19, Government Response to the Committee’s Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, HC551

109 See for example Still an ordeal: the move-on period for new refugees, British Red Cross, 2018

119 Hansard Col 138 WH

Published: 17 December 2018