Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.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. (Paragraph 6)

Procurement and oversight of the Asylum Accommodation and Support Services contracts

2.The UK’s proud tradition of providing asylum relies on the support and consent of local communities, many of which have a long history of welcoming those in need of sanctuary. We are deeply concerned that the Government’s handling of the replacement for the COMPASS contracts has led dispersal authorities to consider, as a last resort, withdrawal from participation in the dispersal scheme. With a significant percentage of asylum seekers located in these regions, withdrawal of these areas would impact heavily upon vulnerable individuals and on the wider operation of the dispersal policy. It is essential that this outcome is avoided by making sure that participating local authorities have a genuine partnership role in the new contracts. (Paragraph 18)

3.Local authority responsibilities for safeguarding, providing education and other public services, licensing HMOs, managing community impacts and preventing destitution mean that they have a very clear interest in the progress of the contracting process, and they also need to be able to plan for the transition. The decision not to share risk management information and contingency plans with them, after the experience of introducing COMPASS, is ill-judged. (Paragraph 26)

4.The Government must recognise that the introduction of these contracts, valued at approximately £4 billion over 10 years, remains a priority. A botched transition would have immediate repercussions for some of the most vulnerable individuals in society and, if it were to result in the withdrawal of authorities from the dispersal system, could present a significant risk to the Government’s ability to meet its statutory responsibilities for the asylum system. Staff responsible for managing and supporting the transition to the new contracts should be protected from other demands, including dealing with Brexit pressures. (Paragraph 28)

5.While we welcome the Minister’s recent acknowledgement of the “huge role” which local government plays in supporting asylum seekers and refugees, we are concerned at how little time there is for the development of an effective strategic partnership with local government before the transition to the new contracts. The Government’s words about developing an understanding of the impact of dispersal on authorities, and seeking to mitigate these impacts and authorities’ currently unfunded costs, are encouraging but, with only a matter of weeks before the new contracts are signed, there is little evidence that the change in the Government’s approach goes beyond words. (Paragraph 33)

6.We regret that the issues raised in the Committee’s previous report persist, and that the Government has not taken the opportunity to act upon many of our recommendations. We are concerned that the Government did not accept our previous recommendations for changing the commissioning process in time for these contracts, and we continue to believe that wider changes are required. We reiterate our belief that local authorities should be closely involved in developing the replacement to COMPASS. (Paragraph 34)

7.We are disappointed that the Government has not taken up our suggestion for the commissioning of asylum accommodation to be devolved to the regional Strategic Migration Partnerships or our recommendation that local authorities should have essentially joint decision-making powers so that their refusal of provider requests for asylum accommodation are only overturned in exceptional circumstances. (Paragraph 35)

8.The next few weeks present a vital opportunity for the Government to make the provision of asylum accommodation work better for everyone: first and foremost, for asylum seekers but also for the dispersal authorities, providers, communities housing asylum accommodation and other stakeholders. To succeed the Government must, in the words of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, start by building each of the parties’ confidence that they can “trust the intentions and actions of the other”. (Paragraph 36)

9.The Government must act now to reset its relationship with local authorities on asylum accommodation: it must realise its recent commitment to understand those authorities’ concerns better and provide clear evidence of improved funding support for the full range of impacts they are required to address. In return the Government should be able to draw upon these authorities’ experience to manage the distribution of asylum seekers more fairly and have their assistance in facilitating and maintaining sufficient accommodation which meets the contractual standards. An improved relationship will require better cooperation between key stakeholders. If this is not secured soon the relationship will become unsalvageable and some local authorities may withdraw altogether. We reiterate our previous recommendation that the Government should insist on formal, regular meetings between providers, local authorities and the third sector (and devolved governments) to coordinate their activities and address concerns about clustering and community cohesion. Local authorities must have a stronger role in decision making under the new contracts, and a more significant role in oversight of performance of them. (Paragraph 37)

10.As a first step the Government should consult local authorities on the full details of the proposed contracts before they are finalised. In view of the current timetable for signing the contracts this would need to be done within the next few weeks. If the Government acts with sufficient urgency we believe this can be done without significant detriment to that timetable. This action would help to build dispersal authorities’ confidence in the Government’s commitment to develop an equitable, strategic partnership with its local partners. (Paragraph 38)

Accommodation standards

11.We are pleased that the Independent Chief Inspector has accepted a role in the oversight of asylum accommodation provision and welcome his scrutiny. (Paragraph 46)

12.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. (Paragraph 56)

13.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. (Paragraph 57)

14.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. (Paragraph 57)

15.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. (Paragraph 58)

16.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. (Paragraph 60)

17.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. (Paragraph 62)

18.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. (Paragraph 63)

19.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. (Paragraph 64)

20.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. (Paragraph 64)

Dispersal and distribution

21.The Minister confirmed to us that participation in the dispersal policy for asylum accommodation is voluntary. 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. (Paragraph 89)

22.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). (Paragraph 90)

23.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. (Paragraph 91)

24.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. (Paragraph 92)

Published: 17 December 2018