9.The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 places a statutory responsibility upon the Government to support asylum seekers at different stages of the asylum process.
10.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, along with their dependents, for support while their claim for asylum is considered.5 Support can be financial—asylum seekers are entitled to receive £39.60 a week for essential living expenses, on a payment card (known as an ASPEN card)—and in the form of accommodation.6
11.The Home Office can also offer ‘Section 98 support’ in the form of temporary full board or self-catering short term accommodation, if an asylum seeker is likely to become destitute, while a Section 95 application for longer term support is being considered.7 Those whose asylum claim has been refused, who appear to be destitute and who are taking all reasonable steps to leave or cannot leave the UK or who meet other criteria receive £39.60 on a payment card, but only if they accept Government accommodation.8 Provision for failed asylum seekers is made under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Asylum (Provision of Accommodation to Failed Asylum Seekers) Regulations 2005.
12.Between 2012 and 2019 asylum support was managed in the UK through a series of regional contracts known by the acronym COMPASS.9 In January 2019, the Government replaced the COMPASS contracts with seven new regional Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC) which took effect in September 2019.10 Three providers—Mears, Serco and Clearsprings—were awarded the contracts to procure and manage asylum accommodation across the UK. A new national Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE) contract, which was awarded to Migrant Help, began to operate at the same time.11 The contracts are worth an estimated £4 billion over the next ten years.12
13.The Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts govern the relationship between the Home Office and the three companies contracted to provide asylum accommodation. Detailed specifications on the services which have to be provided are set out in the Statement of Requirements for the contracts.13
14.The Home Office first places eligible asylum seekers in hostel-style accommodation (known as ‘initial accommodation’) on a short-term basis while they make an application for financial assistance to the Home Office. The Home Office guide to living in asylum accommodation states that a stay of three to four weeks in initial accommodation is “normal”.14 However, people can remain in initial accommodation (IA) much longer than this if there is a lack of available dispersal accommodation to move them to or if there are delays in the Home Office making an initial assessment of the application.15
15.The policy of dispersing those seeking asylum accommodation in the UK was introduced by the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.16 The legislative intention was that distribution across the country would prevent any one area providing support to considerably more asylum seekers than other areas. Under the scheme, local authorities reach voluntary agreements with the Home Office to accept asylum seekers.17
16.The Home Office’s dispersal policy has been for many years not to provide asylum accommodation in London or the South East unless there are exceptional circumstances, for example, medical requirements.18 The Home Office allocates asylum seekers on a ‘no choice basis’ to one of the AASC regions and the relevant housing provider transports the asylum seekers to initial accommodation within that region.19 Following the Home Office’s assessment and confirmation of Section 95 support, the relevant provider arranges to move asylum seekers to more permanent dispersal accommodation.20
17.During the initial lockdown period, the Government introduced a number of measures to support those in the asylum system: it suspended evictions from Home Office asylum accommodation until the end of June, and some processes shifted from face-to-face to online. The Government also announced that asylum support payments to refugees, which are normally terminated 28 days after they are granted refugee status, would be continued until the individual receives their first mainstream welfare benefit.21
18.However, concerns were voiced about support for asylum seekers and those in asylum accommodation, who often have to share facilities and live in close quarters with other residents, making it impossible to observe social distancing guidelines. We have also heard concerns over the amount of available accommodation, and the limited capability for self-isolation as well as social distancing within accommodation, given that the asylum population is increasing while evictions and removals are postponed.
19.We welcome the Home Office decision to suspend evictions from asylum accommodation, move some processes online, and extend payments for those granted refugee status until their first welfare benefits payment arrives. These were eminently sensible responses to Covid-19. As we set out later in this report, however, there are areas where we believe the Home Office could have gone further, and where the Home Office should extend its approach during the next phase of the national response to Covid-19.
20.Within the context of the current pandemic, the following concerns and challenges were highlighted in evidence to the Committee about asylum accommodation.
21.During oral evidence on 7 May we asked asylum accommodation providers Mears, Clearsprings and Serco about the number of people in their accommodation who were self-isolating or shielding and how many of them had accessed testing for Covid-19.
22.John Taylor from Mears said that at that time, within the 7,374 properties it manages, two of its service users had confirmed cases of Covid-19.22 He reported that 442 of its service users had self-isolated since the outbreak of the virus with 188 service users self-isolating at that time.23
23.Steven Lakey from Clearsprings recounted similarly high numbers of service users who were self-isolating, with a total of 360 cases reporting as symptomatic.24 He reported that one of its service users was confirmed as positive with Covid-19 in IA and there were five users with suspected Covid-19 in its dispersal accommodation.25 Mr Lakey subsequently provided updated figures, indicating that as of 18 May Clearsprings had 1 confirmed case of Covid-19 in Wales and 15 in the South of England, with 150 people “currently vulnerable and self-isolating” in Wales and 152 in the South.26 Additionally he told us that Clearsprings had a “running total” of 325 symptomatic service users in Wales and 350 in the South.27
24.Sarah Burnett from Serco also reported two confirmed cases in its dispersal accommodation and no suspected cases of Covid-19.28 Along with the other providers she reported high numbers of service users (819) who were self-isolating, 214 of whom were classified within Public Health England’s vulnerable shielding group.29
25.We have no information on the total number of cases in asylum accommodation since the start of the pandemic. However, there have continued to be outbreaks. On 10 July, for example, Wakefield Council confirmed that an outbreak had occurred at Urban House, an initial accommodation centre run by the Mears Group.30
26.In May, all of the providers told us that they had experienced difficulty in accessing testing for their service users, with no clear testing policy available. Steve Lakey told us that Clearsprings was advised by Public Health England that if any of its service users were symptomatic, they should self-isolate and that testing would only be required if they were admitted to hospital.31 Conversely he said that, in Wales, Public Health Wales (PHW) took a different approach, offering tests to any individuals housed in HMOs.32 However, Clearsprings had not requested tests for any of its symptomatic service users in Wales because it was not aware that it could do so.33 He said that PHW had advised Clearsprings to inform its service users to request testing directly from PHW if needed, rather than going through the accommodation provider.34 Mr Lakey also confirmed that Clearsprings had not requested testing from PHW for any of its frontline staff as none of them had asked for tests at that time.35
27.Similarly, John Taylor told us that testing had not been “readily available” for service users and consequently Mears had followed government advice on social distancing, ensuring that its service users were aware of the guidelines for whichever type of accommodation they were housed in.36 He added that testing for service users was an evolving policy but he hoped to see more service users accessing testing soon given the establishment of some local testing centres.37 Sarah Burnett told us that it was a “similar picture” for Serco with regard to testing for service users.38
28.Following the outbreak in Mears’ initial accommodation centre in Wakefield which was confirmed on 10 July, Wakefield Council supported testing of residents through a mobile testing unit.39
29.We are deeply concerned that there was so little early access to testing for Covid-19 for asylum seekers housed in shared facilities, whether IA or dispersal, given the higher risk of spreading infection in accommodation where it is often difficult to self-isolate, and where there are other residents who are shielding. We heard from accommodation providers on 7 May that they had significant numbers of asylum seekers who were currently self-isolating but were not being tested. Testing and tracing should have been readily available and organised through accommodation providers from early on in the pandemic for anyone housed in institutional accommodation.
30.At this point in the response, testing is widely available: any symptomatic person can apply for a test, including a home test kit, and live translation services are now available in more than 200 languages including British Sign Language to support those wishing to access test and trace services.40 These provisions are available to asylum seekers as they are to other members of the population, and this is very welcome. We are however concerned that there is no readily accessible guidance online to support local health managers in maintaining a clear and consistent approach to testing wider resident communities in asylum accommodation where a resident is symptomatic of Covid-19.
31.The Government must urgently publish a clear policy on residential testing if there are outbreaks. This must be put in place immediately to ensure that accommodation providers are prepared for all potential scenarios in the next phase of the pandemic.
32.Any service user who wants and needs a test must have easy access to that test. This also means that asylum seekers should be informed of the opportunity to request a test and of the associated translation support available to them through that process; they should be provided with any financial or transport assistance required to reach an appropriate testing facility. With a clear testing policy in place, it is essential that all accommodation providers proactively monitor and ensure that their service users are accessing the assistance they need.
33.A joint submission from nine refugee and asylum support organisations told us that practices such as bedroom sharing between unrelated adults, communal eating facilities and crowded social spaces make social distancing and isolation difficult for people in asylum accommodation.41 Other submissions also expressed concerns about room sharing among unrelated adults in asylum accommodation.42 The new Accommodation and Asylum Support Services Contracts prohibit the sharing of rooms between “unrelated adults of the opposite sex in the same sleeping quarters” but permit bedroom sharing between unrelated same sex adults.43
34.Our predecessors reported on asylum accommodation in 2017 and expressed concern about the fact that the majority of people in the asylum system “will be required to share accommodation with people they do not know, often from different countries, ethnicities and religions”, and that some vulnerable people (including pregnant women, and individuals with mental health conditions) were “by default” accommodated in shared bedrooms despite requests to the contrary.44 The Committee recommended that “forced bedroom sharing be phased out across the asylum estate as a whole”.45
35.Many of the submissions we received indicated that providers inadequately exercised their duty of care to some of their most vulnerable service users. Freedom from Torture told us that one of its “severely traumatised” clients was allocated “a box room where the bed touched the wall on 3 sides” which triggered memories of the torture he had experienced when held captive in a small space. It added that many of its clients were required to seek legal advice to remedy the problems relating to their inadequate accommodation.46
36.The Helen Bamber Foundation told us that many of its vulnerable clients who require a single occupancy room remain in shared rooms in Initial Accommodation (IA) including several individuals who are sharing with “strangers”, in some cases with up to three others, despite being granted single room accommodation by the Home Office.47 It reported that those clients who remain in shared rooms are “terrified of contracting the virus and unable to adequately distance or isolate themselves”.48 The Foundation expressed concern that these circumstances are exacerbating individuals’ pre-existing mental health issues.49
37.Vulnerable people such as pregnant women, victims of abuse and people with PTSD should never be placed in accommodation in which they have to share a room with an unrelated adult, nor should they be required to use shared bathroom/toilet facilities which may have a detrimental impact on their mental and physical health.
38.Asylum Matters wrote to us on 5 May stating that room sharing among unrelated adults was continuing to take place during the pandemic in Birmingham, Wales, London and Wakefield.50
39.In oral evidence to the Committee all of the providers confirmed that, at 7 May 2020, single people newly arriving in the asylum accommodation system would be housed in single rooms.51
40.John Taylor of Mears however told us that he expected sharing would continue to take place in its initial accommodation (IA) in future, including at Wakefield. In Wakefield’s case, this was because of “the nature of the building, which has been in use for many years” and reflected the fact that IA was supposed to be short term housing for “two to three weeks at most”.52 He added that Mears was very “sensitive to the concerns” of residents and that a number of individuals had been moved to single rooms during the pandemic: he said that no one had to share a room at the Wakefield centre if they were unhappy.53 In subsequent written evidence dated 4 June, Mears said that the Wakefield centre was the only place where room sharing of non-related service users occurred within its IA estate. Seventy-one 2-person rooms there were being used for sharing by 142 non-related service users.54
41.Sarah Burnett told us that the only unrelated people sharing rooms in Serco accommodation were those who had been doing so prior to the enforcement of lockdown restrictions.55 In subsequent written evidence Serco clarified that the last date on which individuals had been moved into shared accommodation was 16 April. It also said that it expected to resume the use of shared rooms in its IA when it was safe to do so.56
42.In subsequent written evidence Steven Lakey of Clearsprings told us that the company stopped moving people into shared rooms within its IA provision on 15 April.57 He confirmed that 149 people remained in shared rooms in its IA provision in Wales while in London and the South of England 187 people—approximately 12% of those remaining in shared rooms across the asylum accommodation estate—were sharing rooms in IA.58 Clearsprings was then developing plans with the Home Office for the exit from pandemic restrictions and could not confirm if it would resume room sharing post lockdown.59
43.John Taylor of Mears told us that it was phasing out bedroom sharing in its dispersal accommodation. Serco wrote to us in early June to confirm that it was not company policy to use shared rooms in its dispersal accommodation.60 Clearsprings said in writing that the company had stopped moving people into shared rooms in its dispersed accommodation on 23 March.61 In Wales Clearsprings had only 12 unrelated adults still sharing rooms in dispersed accommodation; however, in London and the South of England 1,316 people remained in shared rooms in hotels or dispersal accommodation.62 While sharing in dispersed accommodation in Wales had almost been eliminated Clearsprings told us that its asylum accommodation contract in London had been tendered “on the basis of unrelated adults sharing rooms”.63
44.When we asked the providers if they should be accelerating the moves of asylum seekers from shared bedrooms to single bedrooms to allow adequate social distancing, Serco and Clearsprings told us that they had been advised not to do so with the exception of vulnerable individuals.64 John Taylor explained that the Home Office had agreed such moves should be avoided where provision of a single bedroom would require the service user to move from institutional accommodation to other provision such as a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO), and in doing so come into contact with new people.65 Public Health England and UK Visas and Immigration advised providers to consider those people already sharing as one household, in “a similar way to an HMO or student accommodation [ … ] so they practise social distancing as shared accommodation”.66
45.We recognise that once the lockdown started in March it was more difficult to move people into alternative accommodation, both because of public health requirements and because of the increased demand overall for accommodation. However, that only makes resolution of this issue more pressing as scientists warn of the possibility of a second national outbreak peaking in January–February 2021.67
46.Our predecessor Committee recommended that shared accommodation should be phased out across the estate as a whole. While we welcome the progress towards ending this practice, we are extremely disappointed that the Home Office did not take the opportunity of contract replacement in 2019 to make this change in full. It is deeply concerning that the contract for dispersed accommodation in London and the South East until 2029 was tendered on the basis of non-related adults sharing rooms. Further, the argument that room sharing is more acceptable in short term initial accommodation is unsustainable, given the increasing duration of service users’ stays in these facilities.
47.The risks posed to vulnerable individuals by Covid-19 make more urgent the necessity of a complete end to room sharing by unrelated adults. While the first peak of infection has passed in some parts of the UK, there continues to be a real and substantial threat of further outbreaks. Providers must move people out of shared rooms now in advance of a possible second major national outbreak.
48.The Home Office must take appropriate action, including contract variation if necessary, to ensure room sharing across the whole estate is phased out. The Department must also ensure that additional accommodation obtained to meet this requirement is of a high quality and fit for purpose. Fulfilment of this recommendation will provide an opportunity for the Home Office to pursue its commitment to a more equitable and sustainable system by expanding the areas participating in dispersal.
49.The UNHCR told us about some of the challenges that those living in asylum support accommodation may face in complying with current public health advice and guidance. These included: inadequate provision of sanitation and cleaning supplies (including lack of laundry provision), and the operation of communal spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and dining halls, which make it difficult to clean and practise social distancing and/or self-isolation.68 We heard similar concerns from other organisations including the Birth Partner Project, which supports pregnant and post-natal asylum seeking women in Cardiff.69 It reported that cleaning supplies were not provided in some dispersal accommodation where their female clients were housed. Consequently, the project said it had had to support clients to purchase cleaning supplies.70 Asylum Matters reported that Refugee Action had told them of one asylum seeker living in a hostel in London who has no access to soap: he is provided with hostel accommodation and food but receives no money for other necessities.71
50.Accommodation providers must urgently put in place measures to enable greater social distancing and effective hygiene practices. We are appalled at reports that service users have not been universally provided either with laundry facilities, a generous supply of cleaning products, soap and sanitiser, or with financial support to enable them to access these essentials. It is difficult to conceive of any provision which is more fundamental to public health during the pandemic. The Home Office must immediately take steps to ensure these essentials are provided to all service users, whether in initial, contingency or dispersed accommodation. It must write to us confirming the steps taken, and how it will monitor the ongoing provision of these supplies, within 4 weeks of receiving this report.
51.The Helen Bamber Foundation also reported that its clients are frequently relying on local networks and charities to meet their basic needs, despite being in receipt of statutory support.72 Refugee Women Connect reported that many of its service users live in HMOs with shared cooking facilities and bathrooms which limit their ability to self-isolate.73 It said that one such woman, who is recognised by the Home Office as ‘vulnerable’ because she is pregnant, has raised concerns to her provider about large families sleeping in the same room and “unsanitary” shared facilities but with no solution provided.74 The charity also reported that access to food and other essential living items (including nappies and powdered milk) were the most cited concerns of their clients due to the costs of bus fares to access shops which sold these items and the heightened risk of contracting the virus when using public transport.
52.Sarah Burnett told us that Serco provides an additional level of outreach support for its more vulnerable service users in dispersal accommodation including phone calls from its housing officers and care packages for people who are reporting as shielding.75 She added that Serco has a vulnerability tracker which it uses in collaboration with Migrant Help and the Home Office to ensure that all its service users are receiving the support they require.76
53.In a parliamentary question on the National Asylum Support Service in May Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister of State for the Home Office, said that the Home Office was working with accommodation providers and NGOs to ensure “that they are providing services to vulnerable asylum seekers”.77 She added that the Home Office’s providers had identified vulnerable adults and were providing them with additional support including food parcels where required. She confirmed that the Home Office had procured “4,000 single hotel rooms to assist with initial asylum seekers” during the pandemic.78
54.All Home Office contracted housing providers must ensure that any vulnerable adults are accommodated appropriately. Where the Home Office has explicitly authorised an individual to have a single room, this must be implemented without question or delay. To ensure that this is enforced in practice, the Home Office must write to us within 4 weeks of receiving this report outlining how it will require providers to account for their response to such individual cases both during the pandemic and for the long-term.
55.We welcome the additional support that providers have told us that they are giving to their service users, specifically those who need to self-isolate, during this time. Nonetheless we have heard evidence that not all service users are receiving the support they require from providers, with some particularly vulnerable individuals reporting that they are unable to self-isolate as a result. We urge all accommodation providers to ensure that no individual in their accommodation is placed in the precarious position of being unable to self-isolate or shield due to difficulties accessing basic necessities such as nappies for their children, food, toiletries and cleaning equipment.
56.Written evidence submitted to the Committee by a group of nine refugee and asylum support groups also highlighted a number of concerns including an absence of communication support for those in the asylum system: some asylum seekers have no access to the internet, Wi-Fi or television in their accommodation, and asylum seekers have also lost access to face to face support and outreach services as a consequence of the pandemic.79 The group reported that “people in the asylum system are at greater risk of social isolation and mental health issues than any other group”. Not only does this lack of access to communication facilities make it difficult for asylum seekers to keep up to date with the Covid-19 pandemic and to access information about their asylum cases, but it also prevents asylum seekers accessing valuable support networks in the UK and abroad.80 The Helen Bamber Foundation told us that it works with many vulnerable clients who do not have access to the internet/Wi-Fi and “many more” who do not have access to smart phones. As a consequence, it reported that some asylum seekers are unable to attend video consultations with their GP and other healthcare professionals including secondary specialist mental health services.81
57.Coventry City Council reported to us in May that asylum seekers housed in a local hotel operating as Serco-run contingency IA were being asked to pay £7 per day if they wished to have internet access in their rooms.82 This is more than the daily sum provided to asylum seekers for their essential expenditure including food and toiletries.83 Conversely, Asylum Matters reported that in the North East and Yorkshire and Humberside regions Mears was providing phones to service users who had no access to one and discussions were ongoing between Mears and the Home Office about solutions for “a lack of phone credit” among some asylum seekers.84 We note that the Home Office has increased a phone allowance payable to residents in immigration removal centres to £10 a week, to ensure that residents “can keep in contact with friends, family and legal representation” since the start of the lockdown.85
58.The Refugee Council reported that on 23 June the Home Office announced that it would provide internet access for asylum seekers in some types of accommodation, as a result of PHE recommendations during the pandemic. Service users accommodated “within the larger Initial Accommodation facilities where there is no Wi-Fi provision” would be provided with data-only SIM cards to enable internet access while they remained in that accommodation. The Home Office was not providing SIM cards to service users in hotels as “Free Wi-Fi is currently available to the asylum seekers accommodated within hotels as part of the general offer to residents” and did not intend to provide free access to service users in other types of asylum accommodation. Information provided to the Refugee Council by the Home Office further stated:
There is no Public Health advice to suggest that and that is not our intention. The Home Office is however working with partners to gather details of where free Wi-Fi is provided in the towns and cities where asylum seekers live within Dispersed Accommodation to include this within Induction Packs. The Home Office will also work with partners to ensure where there are schemes for the general UK population to gain access to free Wi-Fi, asylum seekers will be included where possible. The Home Office did not plan to provide mobile telephones to service users who did not have their own devices, as other measures were in place to enable service users to contact services such as Migrant Help.86
59.We are appalled that the Home Office response to the communication support requirements of service users who are not accommodated in hotels or large IA facilities was simply to gather information about where free Wi-Fi might be provided locally—thus encouraging vulnerable people to go to public places—especially at a time when many such places might be closed or restricting public access. If there is a second major national outbreak and lockdown, the Home Office must not repeat this advice.
60.Users of asylum accommodation are often very vulnerable people, including torture survivors, individuals suffering PTSD, pregnant women and mothers with small children. Smart phones, access to the internet and television can be a lifeline to a range of external information and support services. Prior to the lockdown many asylum seekers will have relied on local libraries and voluntary support groups, which are now impossible to access physically, to obtain such support. Without access to phones, internet and television, asylum seekers may be unable to access essential Covid-19 updates and crucial support networks in the UK and abroad. Asylum seekers’ ability to attend video consultations with their GP and other healthcare professionals, including secondary mental health care, may also be impeded by this lack of communication provision.
61.The Home Office’s recent provision of SIM cards to asylum seekers in larger IA facilities is welcome. However, we are concerned that the denial of provision to individuals who do not have personal phones, or who are currently being asked to leave their accommodation in order to access free Wi-Fi in their local area, increases their vulnerability.
62.While asylum support payments were provisionally increased in June 2020 from £37.75 to £39.60 per week, people with ongoing asylum claims may still struggle to meet their essential needs on this weekly amount, particularly during the pandemic. It is imperative that all asylum seekers have access to essential support services and Covid-19 information through television, phones and the internet at this time. The Government must urgently assess, and work with its contract holders to secure, asylum seekers’ access to these facilities; we also urge the Home Office and its providers to ensure all asylum seekers receive £10 a week to top up their phone credit.
63.Individuals are only expected to remain in initial accommodation briefly, while their eligibility for s95 support is assessed. Our predecessors in 2017 recorded that the Home Office’s target for completing this assessment was 19 days; however, an individual’s stay in initial accommodation could be significantly longer if there was no suitable dispersal accommodation available for them to move into, or if it took the Home Office longer to assess their claim.87
64.There are indications that Government expectations regarding the duration of the stay in IA have changed in the three years since that report. The Home Office Guide to living in asylum accommodation records that a stay in initial accommodation of “3–4 weeks is normal”,88 and the National Audit Office reported on 3 July 2020 that in the period September 2019–February 2020 (i.e. prior to the pandemic) the average length of stay was 26 days. This was a lesser duration than the Government’s expectations for the length of stay: the NAO recorded that the Home Office now expects people to move to dispersal accommodation “within 35 days of their arrival in initial accommodation”. However, it also stated that
Some people have stayed much longer. For example, the Department’s data showed that 981 people who had arrived by the end of December 2019 were still in initial accommodation on 24 March 2020 [the day after the lockdown began], a stay of at least 86 days.89
65.The National Audit Office noted that a “sharp increase” in the number of asylum seekers requiring accommodation during autumn 2019, and the requirement to upgrade some dispersal accommodation to higher standards imposed in the new AASC contracts, had contributed to the delays in moving people on during this period.90
66.In oral evidence to the Committee all of the providers (Mears, Serco and Clearsprings) confirmed that there had been a significant increase in the average length of stay in IA. Sarah Burnett of Serco told us that the length of stay in IA had increased because of lockdown restrictions with asylum seekers remaining in IA on average for 115 days, compared to 30–35 days prior to Covid-19.91 Steve Lakey of Clearsprings said that the length of stay in its IA had “started out around 20 days on average” but that this was starting to increase, “particularly for single cases”.92 Similarly, John Taylor of Mears reported that 263 people who are accommodated in its IA building in Wakefield have been there for “a number of months”.93
67.Asylum seekers in initial accommodation are given only limited access to support services because this provision is intended to be temporary, functioning as a gateway to longer-term support. Initial accommodation in hostels or hotels provides three meals a day, toiletries and bedding, and transport to medical and related appointments.94 However, those in initial accommodation are unable to register with a GP, or enrol their children in school, and are not given any subsistence payments.95 Individuals seeking s95 support do so because they are destitute. Our predecessors in 2017 noted that “Many asylum seekers will arrive in IAs with little more than the clothes they are wearing”.96 If official expectations of the length of stay in initial accommodation have increased, the nature of the support package available to them should be adjusted correspondingly.
68.Our predecessors reported on asylum accommodation in 2017 and found that stays in IA of over three weeks were common.97 Following the National Audit Office’s report that asylum seekers are now expected to remain in initial accommodation for up to five weeks, with many staying for nearly three months, the Home Office must urgently reconsider the provision of medical services, subsistence payments and children’s educational support in initial accommodation. We appreciate the reasons for the current lengthy stays in IA as a result of lockdown and delays in being able to move people on. However, we are very concerned that so little progress had been made before lockdown in addressing the shortfall of dispersal accommodation, making it harder to respond to Covid-19. It is vital that swift progress is made now in advance of any second wave this winter.
69.Doctors of the World and Asylum Matters raised concerns to us about asylum seekers in initial accommodation who had “poor access to NHS services and little knowledge of their right to healthcare”.98
70.Doctors of the World UK highlighted that health screening appointments on arrival in initial accommodation centres and emergency accommodation centres (such as hotels) were not mandatory with “no obligation on accommodation providers to register asylum seekers with a GP”. Consequently, many asylum seekers are not linked into mainstream health services.99 One of the reasons for this is the expected short length of stay in initial accommodation. However, as we have noted above, within the context of the current pandemic the length of stay in IA has been significantly longer for many, and the potential need for health support is greater. The Helen Bamber Foundation told us that lengthy stays in IA are exacerbating mental health conditions and preventing their clients registering with essential services such as GPs and mental health services.100
71.In a parliamentary question Baroness Williams of Trafford, Home Office Minister of State, said that all asylum accommodation providers provided translated public health guidance, in 12 languages and that “Nobody, whether an asylum seeker or not, need worry that healthcare will not be available to them”.101
72.Urgent Government action is needed to ensure that access to primary and secondary health services is in place for all service users, and that healthy, fresh food that is appropriate to individuals’ dietary needs is available.
73.We know that asylum seekers with an active application or appeal are entitled to access NHS primary and secondary healthcare free of charge but there is no obligation on accommodation providers to register asylum seekers in IA with a GP.102 The Home Office Minister of State recently gave assurances that healthcare would be available. However, evidence we have received makes plain that, while healthcare may technically be available, it is not accessible to many of those in initial accommodation. This is a deeply concerning situation.
74.While service users remain in IA for more than three weeks, accommodation providers should ensure that all of their residents are linked up to primary and secondary health provision. We call on the Home Office to ensure that this change is made, if necessary by a variation to the Asylum Accommodation and Support Statement of Requirements. The Home Office should also ensure that the necessary funding is secured for affected statutory health services in any such provision.
75.Evidence to us highlighted a lack of communication and guidance from the Home Office and its providers to key stakeholders about providers’ contractual obligations to their service users during the pandemic. Asylum Matters told us that:103
The Home Office [ … ] has failed to issue timely or detailed guidance about the revised contractual obligations of accommodation providers in the context of the pandemic. Communication from Providers, both to people in asylum accommodation and to the voluntary and community sector has often been ad-hoc and inconsistent.
76.Asylum Matters told us that the only publicly available information from the Home Office relevant to asylum accommodation in the context of Coronavirus was a “Factsheet” on the Home Office media blog, which states that “a wide range of measures have been implemented to ensure that guidance on social distancing and self-isolation is properly applied”.104 At the time of writing it remains the case that this document is the only publicly available Home Office information on asylum accommodation during the pandemic.105
77.The British Red Cross is the Home Office’s single point of contact for the NGO sector on asylum matters related to Covid-19.106 Asylum Matters expressed concern that the Home Office had not circulated written guidance to key stakeholders via the British Red Cross, specifying “the revised contractual expectations of accommodation providers” during the pandemic “particularly in respect of dispersal accommodation”. This was in spite of requests made by them and their partner organisations.107
78.We are concerned to learn that key stakeholders have reported a lack of information from the Home Office and its providers about revisions in contractual expectations of accommodation providers during the pandemic. The pandemic has impacted hugely on asylum seekers housed in asylum accommodation who have experienced lengthy stays in IA, social distancing concerns and inconsistent access to healthcare in IA, as well as difficulties accessing phones, Wi-Fi, internet and television. We urge the Home Office and its providers to send a memorandum to key stakeholders outlining any revisions to providers’ contractual obligations since 1 March. This memorandum should be issued to the Home Office’s single point of contact, all strategic migration partnerships and dispersal authorities by 15 September.
79.Doctors of the World UK and Asylum Matters reported concerns about the availability of information to individuals in asylum accommodation regarding what they should do to protect their health and what support is still available during the lockdown.108 Doctors of the World UK told us that until 20 March the Government had not produced any advice or guidance on Covid-19 in languages other than English, and while by 24 March the guidance had been translated into 10 languages it included only two of the languages most spoken by people seeking asylum in the UK. It added that the guidance was produced in plain text without any visuals, which meant that it was not suitable to display in asylum accommodation or to distribute among community groups.109
80.Asylum Matters told us that they were aware of Covid-19 guidance being sent by some providers to asylum seekers in dispersed accommodation in the top ten languages. This included some “basic details on service provision” and advice “that people should contact 111 if they were symptomatic”. However, it was not clear whether all service users in asylum accommodation had received this information.110
81.In a parliamentary question Baroness Williams of Trafford, Home Office Minister of State, stated that the “translated public health guidance is available in 12 languages, with instructions to service users”.111 In written evidence to the Committee, UNHCR reported that Doctors of the World had produced Covid-19 advice for patients in 23 languages in partnership with the British Red Cross, Migrant Help and Clear Voice. It called for the Government to continue working with trusted partners like these to ensure that essential Covid-19 information is disseminated and updated as required.112
82.In oral evidence John Taylor, COO of Mears Group, told us that it provided advice on social distancing guidelines to all of its service users in their own language and “on a regular daily basis”.113 Similarly Steven Lakey, Managing Director of Clearsprings Ready Homes, told us that in its initial accommodation Clearsprings had provided “additional signage in the top ten languages” on social distancing guidelines.114
83.While we welcome the communication of Covid-19 guidance by providers to their service users, we urge all providers to check regularly with their service users, and with wider stakeholders, to ensure that they are receiving up to date and timely Covid-19 guidance. This is essential given the Government’s gradual easing of the lockdown restrictions and its fast-changing key messages.
84.We recommend that the Government continues to work with trusted partners such as Doctors of the World UK to translate all updated Covid-19 guidance for the general public into the languages most commonly spoken by those individuals in the asylum system. This guidance should be sent out in digital and print format by providers to all of their service users.
85.At the end of March the Government announced that all evictions from asylum accommodation and terminations of asylum support would be paused for three months, and Home Office officials asked asylum accommodation providers to source additional capacity “in the form of sole-use, self-contained facilities” across the UK.115 The Government also sanctioned providers to source accommodation in areas which had not previously participated in dispersal and “paused the requirement” for providers to seek prior agreement to do so from the local authority.116 In a parliamentary debate, Baroness Williams of Trafford, Home Office Minister of State, said that no asylum seeker whose case has been concluded will be asked to leave the UK “up to June and possibly beyond”.117
86.In oral evidence to the Committee all of the providers, Mears, Serco, and Clearsprings confirmed difficulties in sourcing additional temporary accommodation due to the lockdown restrictions and the closing down of the properties and letting market.118
87.Our predecessors reported on asylum accommodation in 2017 and expressed concern about the use of hotels for ‘temporary dispersal accommodation’ (TDA) including the “substandard” quality of some premises.119 The Committee made a number of recommendations including:
88.The Committee further recommended that “asylum seekers in temporary accommodation receive some financial support”.121 In response to that report, the Home Office agreed to:
work with providers on developing different contractual terms to ensure that there is sufficient Initial Accommodation available and thereby further reduce the need to use contingency arrangements, such as hotels, in the future.122
89.Evidence we received indicated that, three years on from that report, limited progress has been made in respect of providers’ procurement and use of hotels as temporary accommodation.123 Asylum Matters told us that whilst it understood the need to use hotel-type accommodation at this time, the problems with this kind of accommodation, especially for lengthy stays, have been well documented.124
90.A joint submission from nine refugee and asylum support organisations told us that “large numbers of people remain in hotels across England and Wales” due to issues with accommodation supply resulting from the transition to newly contracted accommodation providers.125 In a separate submission the Scottish Refugee Council said that the Government’s recent procurement of 4,000 hotel rooms across the UK reflected the urgency of the situation but that the Home Office’s continued use of hotels was not sustainable and was evidence of a “poorly managed accommodation system” with no “discernible contingency” plan.126
91.The joint submission from nine refugee and asylum support organisations expressed concern that hotels can be overcrowded and lack adequate sanitation, with children having no space to play or to receive education, and with meals often eaten in crowded and shared spaces.127 Furthermore, it reported that in hotels where meals are not provided it may be difficult for people to self-isolate if rooms are not self-contained, and that they may not have financial resources to buy food and other essential items.128 Birmingham City Council told us that broader deficiencies in IA including the isolation of symptomatic service users, a lack of facilities and limited outdoor space presented “a significant challenge in terms of antisocial behaviour and risk to mental health” of service users.129
92.In oral evidence to the Committee Mears, Serco and Clearsprings confirmed that new entrants into the system were primarily being housed in hotel accommodation.130 John Taylor, Chief Operating Officer for Mears, told us that it had sourced approximately eight hotels across its three contract regions including a small hotel in Northern Ireland, five hotels in Glasgow and three in the North-East, Yorkshire and Humber; it had plans to procure more in the North-East and Yorkshire and Humber.131 Sarah Burnett, Business Operations Director, Justice and Immigration, for Serco told us that Serco was currently using hotels for new people coming into the system but had also used hotels prior to Covid-19 to accommodate “particularly vulnerable people within the core initial accommodation”.132
93.While there have been longstanding concerns about the appropriateness of hotels as a form of asylum accommodation, particular concerns have been expressed about the use of hotels in Glasgow over the lockdown period. In April, the Guardian reported that “more than 300” asylum seekers in Glasgow were moved at short notice from self-contained accommodation to hotels procured by Mears where social distancing was claimed by some asylum seekers to be “impossible”.133 John Taylor, COO of Mears explained to us in oral evidence that Mears did not have an IA building in Glasgow and that prior to the lockdown restrictions it had housed a number of its service users in “IA type accommodation” in flats. Following the lockdown, Mears took the decision to move 321 of these individuals into hotel accommodation to ensure they had better access to healthcare provision and to avoid Mears staff having to make journeys to the flats to distribute cash for their service users to buy food.134 In supplementary written evidence Mears subsequently provided the following statement:
Once Covid-19 restrictions were announced by the UK and Scottish Government, Mears considered how best to ensure the safety and wellbeing of asylum-seekers in our care, as well as our staff, and playing our part in limiting community transmission by maintaining social distancing We had a particular concern about the safety and wellbeing of those in Initial Accommodation, located around the city. To reduce the need for both asylum-seekers and Mears staff to make regular journeys to and from multiple accommodation locations we considered, in discussions with the Home Office and with Glasgow City Council, providing fully serviced support in good quality hotel accommodation. The aim was to create a safe environment to greatly reduce the spread of Covid-19 among asylum seekers in Glasgow. By providing food and other essential items directly to private hotel rooms by staff using suitable personal protective equipment, the risk of infection has been greatly reduced.135
94.The Minister subsequently told the House that there had been “not a single confirmed case” of Covid-19 amongst this population and that, on this measure, the decision to move individuals into hotels had been justified.136
95.Significant criticism has however been voiced about the implementation of this decision, with concerns reported by local MPs on behalf of public sector partners as well as NGOs. These concerns have related to: the decision-making process; the treatment of individual service users being moved from self-contained accommodation into the hotels; and the conditions in the hotels.
96.The Second Permanent Secretary told the Committee that officials in the Department were kept “closely in touch with [Mears’] decision-making” and understood the reasons why it had made the decision to move individuals into hotels during the lockdown. She noted, however, that “given the position and the circumstances around lockdown at the time” decisions “were inevitably made quickly”. She confirmed Mears’ statement that the decision was made as “part of the discussions that took place on a regular basis through the Glasgow partnership, which involved Glasgow City Council, which involved Mears, which involved the Home Office” and added that this approach was “obviously a very, very complex effort at substantial scale and of course at a time when [ … ] a variety of decisions needed to be made”.137
97.John Taylor told us on 7 May that in planning the moves Mears had “obviously” consulted the Home Office; he said also that Mears “talked to Migrant Help. Certainly, the health partners in the IA facility in Glasgow were notified, and we were talking to the NGOs as well”. He added that “Over the last few weeks” prior to his appearance before the Committee Mears had “worked very closely with the NGOs to make sure the hotel estate is well managed”: he claimed that the Red Cross and ASH project had visited the hotels and “were very happy and content with how it is organised”. He said that the Scottish Refugee Council had also been invited to visit but had been unable to do so.138 Details provided by some of those organisations however suggest that this engagement with other partners did not take place for some weeks.
98.Following Mr Taylor’s oral evidence ASH project wrote to us that it understood the moves to have taken place “just prior [to] or concurrent with” communications it received from Mears on 27 March and 2 April, which reported that moves would happen “very soon”. It had visited two of the hotels on 30 April.139
99.The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) wrote to us that it had not been informed about Mears’ planned moves of asylum seekers from “serviced apartment accommodation in Glasgow, to hotels” before those moves were initiated.140 It added that it first learnt about these plans through a partner organisation on 13 April, and after several emails to Mears representatives received “basic” information about the hotel accommodation from Mears on 21 April.141 The SRC also reported that other key stakeholders, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership and the Asylum Health Bridging Team had told it that they learned of the hotel moves only after the moves had started. The SRC told us its understanding was that all of these moves took place after the lockdown “took effect” on 24 March; it visited one of the hotels on 14 May,142 around six weeks after the accommodation is reported to have come into use.
100.ASH project wrote to us that it had been notified of the moves to hotels in phone calls from Mears staff on 27 March and 2 April. During those calls it said that it was advised that
101.While questions have been raised about the timeline for the moves and communication about them, the handling and impact of these moves on service users has also been strongly criticised, including in the House of Commons Chamber.144 Contrary to the assurances from Mears cited above by ASH project it has been reported that individuals were moved at very short notice and without appropriate public health precautions: Alison Thewliss MP told the House on 17 June of a report from the Scottish Refugee Council that “one family with food on the hob and clothes in the washing machine were given half an hour to gather their belongings” while Chris Stephens MP related accounts from asylum seekers of being “bundled into vans with no social distancing”.145
102.We were also concerned to receive evidence from the office of Anne McLaughlin MP reporting similar treatment of a service user who was also reportedly given 30 minutes’ notice in which to gather his belongings, prior to a move into dispersed accommodation in late April. This submission notes a statement from Mears that it had attempted to give the individual notice the previous day but was unable to do so as the service user was not present at home; this was denied by the service user and Ms McLaughlin’s office suggests that even a day’s notice is unlikely to be adequate for a vulnerable person. We were told that, on that occasion, the service user struggled within his existing accommodation to socially distance from the Mears staff who had arrived to move him and it was reported that these staff wore no PPE. We were also told that the service user was unable to obtain information from the Mears employees about where he was to be taken, and that Mears staff threatened “that they would be reporting to the Home Office that he had previously absconded”, which was incorrect.146
103.While some disruption to procedures might have occurred in the pressured early stages of the lockdown the similarity between these reports of different encounters with Mears staff over a period of perhaps 5–6 weeks may raise questions about the regular monitoring and supervision of these staff.
104.In a letter to the Committee on 22 July, Mears told us that “Staff are expected to act with professionalism and care towards service users and we would take action in any circumstances where a staff members fell short of the standards Mears expects, and which the Home Office requires. There have been incidents [ … ] where staff members have not followed process or behaved in a manner that is not in line with our ethos. In these cases disciplinary action has been taken where clearly appropriate up to and including dismissal.” It confirmed that it also has a whistleblowing policy and would respond to any whistleblowing notification.147
105.Questions have also been raised about whether vulnerability assessments were carried out prior to the moves. In supplementary written evidence Mears told us that, prior to the moves, it had risk assessed which service users it was appropriate to move and had taken into account any identified vulnerabilities of “Children, pregnant women, and all service users with documented health conditions that are COVID-19 vulnerabilities”: the company said that it had not moved these individuals into hotels. The Second Permanent Secretary affirmed that “Mears did look quite carefully with respect to each individual as to whether it was the right decision for that individual. The question about [ … ] the most appropriate support that could be provided was taken on a case-by-case basis.”148
106.Alison Thewliss MP however told the House of Commons that “Contrary to the oral and written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by Mears boss John Taylor, those people [moved] included pregnant women, trafficked women, torture victims, family groups and vulnerable people, young people included”.149 ASH project wrote to us that it had been told by the Asylum Health Bridging Team “that they were not informed of the decision to move service users into the hotels and no vulnerability assessments were undertaken.” ASH project and other witnesses urged that appropriate notice is provided of any move, so that the impact on the individual can be assessed, and any support network activated to support them.150
107.The importance of vulnerability assessments may be illustrated by the evidence from the office of Anne McLaughlin MP. The asylum seeker who they reported to us was moved at 30 minutes’ notice in late April was reported by them to have serious mental health issues. The office wrote:
From working with numerous asylum seekers in our constituency we know that many of them, particularly those [fleeing] war in their home country, are terrified of figures of authority. This must also be known to employees of the Mears Group through their work with asylum seekers. Frightening people with poor mental health and threatening to report them to ‘the authorities’ is not an acceptable way of treating people. The direct result of this encounter for our constituent from the way he was treated by the Mears Group that day was that he ‘went missing’ the following day and after several hours was found hunched up on the wet grass, terrified and crying, having been sitting in the pouring rain the entire time–a period of up to 5 hours. He was scared that the employees from the Mears Group would return and send him to a detention centre. It does not seem that any consideration was taken to understand how vulnerable our constituent was and what the impact of this service change would be on him personally and his mental health.151
108.Concerns about the use and management of hotels as emergency accommodation for this vulnerable population have been made more urgent by two tragedies in hotel accommodation in Glasgow. In May Adnan Elbi, a Syrian man, was found dead in his room, having been moved to the hotel from initial accommodation in a serviced flat at the start of the lockdown.152 It has been reported that prior to his death Mr Elbi had expressed concerns for his mental health.153 On 26 June another asylum seeker, Badreddin Abedlla Adam, stabbed six people non-fatally, in a different Glasgow hotel which was being used as temporary asylum accommodation, before being shot dead by police.154
109.On 13 July, the Under-Secretary of State told the House of Commons that concerns about hotel accommodation raised by Glasgow MPs and others were being looked into and investigated seriously.155
110.Asylum seekers should not have been moved to new accommodation during the pandemic without justified and urgent reasons for doing so or without a vulnerability assessment demonstrating that the move could be made safely. This must happen in future. If, following such an assessment, a move is found to be necessary and appropriate, sufficient notice must be given to the individual, to medical and other caseworkers working with that individual and, if they are to be moved to another area, to the local councils, to ensure they are effectively supported. In light of other evidence expressing concern about a lack of primary medical care in hotels,156 the Home Office should also review the adequacy of health service provision within hotel accommodation to ensure that asylum service users are easily and safely able to discuss concerns about their physical and mental health.
111.We welcome the fact that the Home Office is investigating these issues seriously. This investigation should engage with those raising these concerns, assessing whether the moves during lockdown were consistent with public health guidance and seeking detail on precisely how any vulnerability assessments were undertaken and by who. The Home Office should set out the findings of its investigations and what lessons the department and contractors have learned as a result in its response to this report.
112.In a welcome change to the previous arrangements, the AASC contracts include an explicit requirement to adjust the service where people are identified as vulnerable. The NAO has reported, however, that it is not yet clear how this duty is being put into practice by providers. The Department set up a safeguarding board in November 2019, including Department officials and provider representatives, to develop a safeguarding framework; however a new assurance framework including all the providers’ responsibilities, such as the identification and safeguarding of vulnerable people, which was planned for the start of the new contracts had been delayed until May 2020.157
113.In a written answer dated 21 July 2020, the Under-Secretary of State said that the “safeguarding framework is a living document which is designed to develop and grow throughout the lifetime of the contracts. It is not a contract requirement but is designed to be an overarching set of principles which sit alongside the more formal contract requirements. There are no plans to publish it”. In relation to a Key Performance Indicator on safeguarding, he stated that “The contracts are designed in a way that safeguarding elements are factored into several of the KPIs. There are no current plans to introduce a safeguarding KPI although we will keep this under review”.158
114.The Department should ensure that lessons learned from the handling of asylum moves during the lockdown are referred to the safeguarding board and incorporated into the safeguarding and assurance frameworks. The Department should consider how local authorities and third sector partners in asylum support can be engaged in the work of the safeguarding board. The Department should also report its progress in developing the assurance framework to us every two months, from an initial report to us four weeks after receiving this report. Given the importance of safeguarding as part of the asylum accommodation system, we would encourage the department to explore whether a KPI could be used to ensure that contractors are properly held to account for their work to safeguard vulnerable individuals. For the same reasons and in the interests of transparency, we believe that the safeguarding framework should be published.
115.Accounts of the quality of the hotel provision have also been contested. One particular area of concern was food which was reported to be “unfit for consumption, and in some [hotels] culturally inappropriate”,159 leading charities to step in to provide better quality meals. Similar to concerns raised more widely about hotel provision, complaints have also been made by MPs and charities that social distancing is difficult in the hotel environment, and that there is insufficient medical support. ASH project told us:
Food provision to the hotels is still complained about on a daily basis. This has been the case since the hotel provision began, with no change despite Mears assuring us that improvements have been made and comments taken on board. There are ongoing organized refusals of the food, with many others simply not eating because they find the food to be inedible. We have been sent video of pieces of wire in food. Ourselves and our colleagues at the No Evictions Network have received reports of plastic or nylon fibres in the food. [ … ]
Social distancing remains next to impossible, with communal eating areas and/or bathrooms being the only option in some of the hotels. Service users (particularly those with underlying health conditions) have reported being frightened to leave their rooms and skipping meals for fear of coronavirus transmission.160
116.The Minister told the House of Commons on 17 June in relation to hotel provision in Glasgow that the meals provided by hotels “meet dietary requirements”, that staggered meal times had been arranged to support social distancing and that during Ramadan “late evening and early morning food is provided for those who observe it”. He also advised that each room had Wi-Fi, that translation, medical and laundry facilities were available and that there was full provision of items such as towels, soap, sanitiser, toiletries and feminine hygiene products.161
117.On 29 June, following the attack by Badreddin Abedlla Adam in a Glasgow hotel, the Minister told the House of Commons that
Hotel accommodation is obviously not the preferred way to accommodate asylum seekers. [ … ] I think that, prior to coronavirus, fewer than 1,000 people were accommodated in hotels, so less than 2% of the total. As I said, we are looking to unwind the hotel accommodation as quickly as logistics allow.162
118.As recorded elsewhere in this report, individuals who are receiving s95 support are eligible for £39.60 a week (increased from £37.75 a week on 15 June 2020) for essential living expenses as well as accommodation.163 Following the recent increase this allowance is nearly £5.66 a day. Those who are awaiting approval for s95 support may receive s98 support in the form of temporary full board or self-catering short term accommodation.164 Payments for those who have been refused asylum have also been provisionally uplifted to £39.60 a week (increased from £35.39 a week).165
119.Concerns have been expressed that this financial support was withdrawn when individuals were moved from serviced apartments into full-board hotel accommodation at the start of the lockdown. Positive Action in Housing commented that this action “looks like a cynical cost-cutting exercise during a global pandemic”.166 On 29 June the Minister told the House that “When [service users] move into a hotel, all those things like food, the hand sanitiser [ … ], hygiene products, laundry services and so on are provided by the hotel, removing the need for the cash grant.”167 As noted at paragraph 115 above other witnesses to this inquiry have however highlighted concerns over the inadequacy of food and toiletries provided in the hotels. They have also expressed concern about the psychological impact on vulnerable individuals of taking away from them the modest allowance for which they had previously been eligible, and reducing their ability to make small choices about their lives; the ASH Project wrote to us that “Given that provision [in the hotels] is so inadequate, this is causing service users to feel trapped, distressed and is severely impacting their physical and mental health.”168
120.In oral evidence, John Taylor of Mears confirmed to us that asylum seekers who were moved into hotels did not receive “a financial payment from the Home Office” and that its service users had expressed concern about this.169 This will have prevented asylum seekers being able to buy basic things such as additional fruit or food, paracetamol, hand sanitiser or phone credit. Sarah Burnett of Serco and Steve Lakey of Clearsprings both said that in self-catered IA accommodation service users received a standard weekly allowance but that there was no incremental allowance beyond this payment.170 All of the providers confirmed that it was concerning that asylum seekers who were accommodated in hotels did not have access to a financial payment to enable them to buy small items such as fruit or to top up their phone credit.171
121.On 1 July the Second Permanent Secretary told us that the arrangements regarding eligibility for the allowance were longstanding, and not related to the pandemic; however, she said,
I believe, certainly, that Ministers have said that they have heard the message, particularly at the moment, around questions of self-isolation and they are happy to consider those … The Minister has said he has heard the message about autonomy and he is prepared to consider that position.172
122.We welcome the Minister’s willingness to consider the case for reinstating the weekly allowance for individuals who have previously had this allowance withdrawn, following forced changes of accommodation during the pandemic. Individuals who were moved into hotels at the start of the lockdown will now have been there for three months and many will have experienced additional costs in that time for essential items such as toiletries, over the counter medicines, additional food, children’s clothing and educational materials which will not be covered by the full board arrangement. This modest allowance also helps traumatised individuals to maintain autonomy, independence and a sense of dignity. We urge the Minister to reinstate the payment for these individuals.
123.The question of essential costs will also arise for destitute individuals in the wider asylum system who are caught in initial accommodation owing to a shortage of dispersal accommodation, and who are similarly not provided with any additional allowance for living expenses. Costs of the type we have described above which may not arise, or may be manageable, during a two week stay in initial accommodation may well become more pressing if the duration of that stay extends to 35 days, 86 days (as the National Audit Office has recently reported) or even longer.
124.The subsistence allowance should be provided to any individual whose entitlement to section 95 support has been accepted from the time that entitlement is determined, whether or not they are then immediately able to move into dispersal accommodation. This allowance should be provided via the cashless ASPEN card system. We believe that there is no legal barrier to such payments, provided they relate to essential living needs, just because an individual remains in initial accommodation. If the Government takes the view, however, that this change would require amendment of the Asylum Support Regulations 2000, it should amend them as soon as possible.
125.The National Audit Office found that providers are not incentivised to move people into dispersed accommodation when they have already been in initial accommodation for longer than the Department’s expected 35 days. This is because the contracts only provide for the contractors to pay a penalty to the Department for each month that exceeds agreed timescales, rather than each day. The NAO cautioned (though it noted that it had not assessed the contractors’ practice) that this may encourage providers to prioritise moves for newer arrivals, whose time in initial accommodation has not yet breached performance standards, over earlier arrivals whose stay has already exceeded performance standards.173 The NAO also noted that the new contracts only require providers to provide a total of 1,750 places in permanent initial accommodation, compared with the demand for around 3,000 places in the period September 2019–March 2020. The remaining places required are provided in hotels and other contingency accommodation.174 This element of the contracts may need to be reviewed if the Government is intent on ‘unwinding’ the use of hotels for asylum accommodation.
126.We support the NAO’s recommendation that the Government should consider whether its performance framework effectively incentivises providers to move service users into dispersal accommodation within agreed timescales; the Government should also reassess the value for money provided by contingency accommodation in hotels and the contractual requirement for initial accommodation provision within the asylum establishment, in light of demand. The Government should consult service users, local authorities, health service and third sector partners as part of this review, to ensure that lived experience of the service is taken into account in this review.
127.As we have described previously (see paragraph 15), the legislative intention of the Home Office’s dispersal policy was to distribute asylum accommodation across the UK, so that no area would be overburdened by supporting asylum seekers.
128.Our predecessors have published two recent reports on asylum accommodation.175 In a detailed report on asylum accommodation in 2017 the Committee 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.176 The report also identified the importance of addressing problems in the relationship between central and local government over the management of the asylum system.177 The Committee then returned to the subject of asylum accommodation in 2018 due to concerns raised about the Government’s handling of the process to replace the former COMPASS contracts. In that report, the Committee reiterated its concerns that the Government’s dispersal policy risked undermining the support and consent of local communities, many of which have a long history of welcoming those in need of sanctuary. It highlighted again the need for equitable treatment of local authorities under the dispersal scheme.178 The Government’s response to that report said that the new contracts would require accommodation providers to “develop close working relationships with local authorities” which would encompass consultation on procurement, sharing key data with local authorities and complying with relevant licensing requirements.179
129.As previously mentioned (see paragraph 85), the Government has requested that providers source additional accommodation due to the added pressures on the asylum system during the pandemic. As part of this process it has “paused the requirement” for providers to seek prior agreement from local authorities to become dispersal areas.180
130.Birmingham City Council, which has reported that in the first quarter of 2020 it hosted nearly double the number of asylum seekers than either Manchester or Leeds,181 welcomed the Government’s decision to move people into dispersal accommodation “beyond the voluntary dispersal areas”, while noting that this step had been forced on the Government by the urgent need during the pandemic to relieve the pressure in initial accommodation.182 The Council told us that the Home Office and other government departments did not understand that dispersal areas and hosts of initial accommodation such as Birmingham experienced “system wide pressures” which were not felt in other areas. It said:
This crisis has made visible the cost and impact of hosting asylum seekers on local authorities and the third sector, none of which is funded. It should not be that this level of crisis and public interest needed to be reached before the Home Office looked elsewhere.183
131.It called for the Government and its providers to retain arrangements for identifying accommodation outside voluntary dispersal areas so that “a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers” could be achieved in the longer term across the UK.184
132.In written evidence to us the Scottish Refugee Council and Asylum Matters called on the Home Office to “directly fund” all local authority dispersal areas.185 The Scottish Refugee Council added that the Home Office should require its accommodation providers to work in partnership with dispersal authorities to ensure that any requirement for asylum accommodation is integrated into immediate and future local housing plans.186
133.Some support groups and local authorities did not however think it was appropriate for providers to follow the Government’s current advice to procure additional accommodation without first consulting the relevant area.187
134.Asylum Matters told us that it was concerned that our predecessors’ previous recommendations on the need for better communication between the Home Office, providers and local authorities had not been progressed in the current context.188 It said that “transparent communication” and “meaningful consultation” were essential to plan services effectively and to mitigate potential community tensions.189
135.Birmingham City Council expressed concern that the Home Office had not yet shared any information with stakeholders about its strategy for exiting the special lockdown arrangements in the asylum system, nor had it shared any “proactive planning “ for a potentially “significant increase in new asylum applications” as restrictions on travel across Europe gradually lifted.190
136.Despite some of the criticisms made about communication and consultation between the Home Office and its providers to local authorities, Asylum Matters said there had been “some welcome examples of enhanced cooperation between local authorities and accommodation providers in responding to the pandemic”.191 It reported that Mears had sent out communications to key stakeholders in the North East and Yorkshire and Humber assuring them that it would “act to support people by conducting weekly phone check ins” to ensure the wellbeing of its service users and to address any concerns, including provision of mobile phones if required.192 Similarly, Coventry Council told us that the Home Office and Serco had “worked hard to maintain effective communications with local authorities” both directly and through the Strategic Migration Partnership, which it welcomed.193
137.John Taylor, COO of Mears told us that the hotels it had sourced were in “existing dispersal local authority areas” and that they had all been procured through communication and agreement with the local authorities.194 Mears said it had not sourced any hotels in new areas because the NHS and NGOs are not always established in those areas, which would pose problems for the quality of support that Mears could offer its service users during the lockdown restrictions.195 He added that where Mears had proposed hotels in areas that were not deemed appropriate by the local authority they did not take the hotel.196
138.Stephen Lakey, Managing Director of Clearsprings, told us that half of the accommodation it had sourced was in “non-traditional dispersal areas or new areas” and that it had received a mixed response from those new areas, with some raising concerns which they were trying to address through consultation.197
139.Sarah Burnett, Business Operations Director for Serco told us that once Serco had proposed a property and the Home Office had approved it, they then engaged with the regional strategic migration partnerships, the local authorities and the local healthcare providers and that engagement with these groups had been positive.198 We were concerned subsequently to see a blog published by Birmingham Council, in which its Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion, Community Safety and Equalities expressed disappointment that a second contingency and fourth overall accommodation centre for asylum seekers had been placed in Birmingham without “meaningful consultation” to assess the risk of additional “strain on already stretched resources including health services, community policing and mental health support” from a further increase in the size of this vulnerable community.199
140.Our predecessors highlighted the shortcomings of the Home Office’s dispersal policy and its failure to make dispersal arrangements equitable across the UK. Three years on from the Committee’s 2017 report, we have noted with concern the pressures on the system since the introduction of the AASC contracts in September 2019.
141.In order to achieve an equitable and sustainable UK-wide dispersal system, the Home Office and its providers must give due regard to the acute financial and capacity constraints currently placed on dispersal authorities, many of which are grappling with even greater community pressures arising from the pandemic, including housing the broader homeless population.
142.In 2018 our predecessors recommended that the Government “must provide dispersal authorities with dedicated funding to better manage dispersal and the related impact on services” and to give currently non-participating authorities confidence that they would be fully supported were they to take an equitable share of this population.200 We are both concerned and disappointed that the Home Office has failed to make better progress on this fundamental issue, which could compromise the Government’s ability to meet its statutory responsibilities under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. We repeat that, to achieve increased voluntary participation in the dispersal scheme, the Government must directly fund all dispersal local authorities to take account of the competing financial and capacity challenges that they face.
143.During the pandemic the Government has asked providers to source additional accommodation in areas which had not previously participated in dispersal, which we understand and welcome. However, at the same time the Government has temporarily sanctioned providers to secure such accommodation without the prior approval of the relevant local authority. Our predecessors’ 2018 report on asylum accommodation reiterated the Committee’s concerns that the Government’s dispersal policy risked undermining the support and consent of local communities, many of which have a long history of welcoming those in need of sanctuary. We repeat this concern again in light of evidence we have received which suggests that communication issues still remain between providers and local dispersal authorities. Nonetheless we were encouraged to hear examples of providers engaging with local areas when sourcing accommodation. We call once again on the Home Office and its providers to work closely with housing providers, local authorities and Strategic Migration Partnerships to increase the availability of asylum accommodation both during the period of lockdown, and afterwards.
144.The Government said that it would review its policy of temporarily pausing all evictions from asylum accommodation and continuing the provision of asylum support before the end of June.201 In a Parliamentary debate on 17 June, a number of MPs expressed concern about the Home Office’s intention to end the temporary additional support for asylum seekers and to recommence moving on those who have been granted refugee status and those who have been refused asylum. At the time of writing in July, we understand that the temporary support remains in place. This is welcome.
145.Before taking any final decision to remove temporary support for asylum seekers, the Home Office and its accommodation providers must engage and consult closely with Public Health England, devolved governments, Strategic Migration Partnerships, asylum dispersal councils and local public health units to ensure that any changes do not place individuals at any risk or overwhelm other statutory support services.
5 Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, Section 95
6 Gov.uk, ‘Asylum support: What you’ll get’; On 8 June 2020, the Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, Chris Philp MP, announced that from 15 June the asylum support rate would be increased by 5% from £37.75 to £39.60 per week. The Refugee Council has noted that this uplift remains provisional, pending a full review; House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support for People in the Asylum System’, 8 June 2020; Refugee Council, ‘Changes to Asylum & Resettlement policy and practice in response to Covid-19’, 14 July 2020
7 UK Visas & Immigration, Asylum Support: Policy Bulletins Instruction, Version 7.0, 21 December 2015; Accommodation provided under s98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 may constitute full board in former and operating hotels, or accommodation in houses in multiple occupation, hostels or self–contained self–catering properties.
8 Gov.uk, ‘Asylum support: What you’ll get’
9 National Audit Office, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, HC 880, 10 January 2014
10 Gov.uk, ‘New asylum accommodation contracts awarded’, 8 January 2019. The following providers were awarded the new contracts for each region: Midlands and East of England: Serco; North East, Yorkshire and Humberside: Mears Group; North West: Serco; Northern Ireland: Mears Group; Scotland: Mears Group; South: Clearsprings Ready Homes; Wales: Clearsprings Ready Homes.
11 Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Support, Schedule 2: Statement of requirements
12 National Audit Office Asylum accommodation and support para 4.12, 3 July 2020
13 Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Support, Schedule 2: Statement of requirements
14 Asylum Information Database, ‘Country Report: United Kingdom’, 19 March 2020; UK Visas & Immigration, A Home Office Guide to Living in Asylum Accommodation, p6
15 Asylum Information Database, ‘Country Report: United Kingdom’, 19 March 2020
16 Home Office, Allocation of accommodation policy, Version 5.0, 7 March 2017
17 House of Commons Library, ‘Policy on the dispersal of asylum seekers’, 29 April 2016
18 National Audit Office, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, HC 880, 10 January 2014, p10; Home Office, Allocation of accommodation policy, Version 5.0, 7 March 2017
19 National Audit Office, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, HC 880, 10 January 2014, p10; Home Office, Allocation of accommodation policy, Version 5.0, 7 March 2017
20 National Audit Office, COMPASS contracts for the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, HC 880, 10 January 2014, p10
21 The Guardian, ‘Home Office to hold on evicting asylum seekers from state accommodation’, 28 March 2020; Refugee Council, ‘Home Office confirms newly recognised refugees will continue to receive asylum support payments until their first Universal Credit payment arrives’, 21 April 2020
30 Wakefield Council, ‘Council act to manage coronavirus outbreak at Urban House, Wakefield’, 10 July 2020; Wakefield Express, ‘Covid-19 outbreak at Wakefield accommodation centre’, 10 July 2020
39 Wakefield Council, ‘Work continues to manage outbreak at Urban House’, 13 July 2020
40 Department of Health and Social Care, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): getting tested’, updated 20 July 2020; Department of Health and Social Care, ‘In-person coronavirus testing continues to deliver results the next day’, 16 July 2020
41 Joint submission from 9 refugee and asylum organisations, (COR0016). This submission was sent on behalf of Asylum Matters, Detention Action, Doctors of the World UK, Freedom From Torture, The No Accommodation Network, Refugee Action, Refuge Council, Scottish Refuge Council and UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group. Subsequently it is referred to as Asylum Matters et al (COR0016).
42 UNHCR (COR0015); Freed Voices (COR0051); Asylum Matters et al (COR0016); Asylum Matters (COR0122); Helen Bamber Foundation (COR0113)
43 Annex C to the Statement of Requirements of the Asylum Support and Accommodation Contract sets out detailed specifications on room sharing. Whilst it prohibits the sharing of rooms between “unrelated adults of the opposite sex, in the same sleeping quarters, without the prior consent of the Authority (the Home Office)”, it makes no such prohibition on the sharing of rooms between unrelated same-sex adults; Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Support, Schedule 2: Statement of requirements, Annex C
44 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, paras 95–6
45 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, para 97
67 BBC News, ‘Winter wave of coronavirus ‘could be worse than the first’’, 14 July 2020; The Academy of Medical Sciences, Preparing for a challenging winter 2020/21, 14 July 2020
77 House of Lords Hansard, ‘National Asylum Support Service’, 6 May 2020, col 440
78 House of Lords Hansard, ‘National Asylum Support Service’, 6 May 2020, col 440
83 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support for People in the Asylum System’, 8 June 2020
86 Refugee Council, ‘Changes to Asylum & Resettlement policy and practice in response to Covid-19’, 14 July 2020
87 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, Chapter 3
88 UK Visas & Immigration, A Home Office Guide to Living in Asylum Accommodation
89 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, para 3.15
90 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, paras 3.11, 3.14
94 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, paras 20–4
95 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, paras 3.11, 3.14
96 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, paras 20–4
97 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017
101 House of Lords Hansard, ‘National Asylum Support Service’, 6 May 2020, col 442
102 Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility Support, Schedule 2: Statement of requirements, pp72–4
105 Home Office, ‘Factsheet—Asylum Accommodation, Applications and Interviews’, 3 July 2020
106 Letter from Chris Philp MP to the British Red Cross, 27 March 2020
111 House of Lords Hansard, ‘National Asylum Support Service’, 6 May 2020, col 441
115 Letter from Chris Philp MP to the Chief Executives of local authorities, 27 March 2020; The Guardian, ‘Home Office to hold on evicting asylum seekers during lockdown’, 28 March 2020
116 Letter from Chris Philp MP to the Chief Executives of local authorities, 27 March 2020; The Guardian, ‘Home Office to hold on evicting asylum seekers during lockdown’, 28 March 2020
117 House of Lords Hansard, ‘National Asylum Support Service’, 6 May 2020, col 440
119 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017, pp21, 31; Providers are allowed to use hotels and hostels as ‘temporary dispersal accommodation’ (TDA) until settled accommodation can be found.
120 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017
121 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017
122 Home Affairs Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2017–19, Asylum accommodation: Government Response to the Committee’s Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, HC 551, 10 November 2017, pp2, 10
124 For example, in the report by the Home Affairs Committee; Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017. In its submission Asylum Matters cited “Lack of inductions; lack of trained staff and female staff to deal with women residents; presence of general public; access to healthcare; no / little toiletries and lack of laundry facilities; lack of activities; overlong stay; problems in postal delivery; community tension issues”; Asylum Matters (COR0122)
133 The Guardian, ‘Glasgow asylum seekers moved into hotels where distancing is ‘impossible’’, 22 April 2020
136 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020, col 25
137 Oral evidence taken by the Home Affairs Committee, ‘The work of the Home Office’, 1 July 2020, Qq23–7
144 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020; House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020
145 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020, col 24; House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020, col 912
148 Oral evidence taken by the Home Affairs Committee, ‘The work of the Home Office’, 1 July 2020, Q23
149 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020, col 24
152 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020, col 913
153 The National, Adnan Walid Elbi: how one refugee’s journey ended in tragedy, 21 June 2020
154 The Guardian, ‘After the Glasgow hotel attack, a week of shock, anger and compassion’, 3 July 2020
155 House of Commons Hansard, Covid-19 support for asylum seekers 13 July 2020 col 1248
157 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, Figure 4, paras 3.13, 3.28
159 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020, col 912
161 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020, col 916
162 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020, col 36
163 Gov.uk, ‘Asylum support: What you’ll get’; House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support for People in the Asylum System’, 8 June 2020
164 UK Visas & Immigration, Asylum Support: Policy Bulletins Instruction, Version 7.0, 21 December 2015;
165 Gov.uk, ‘Asylum support: What you’ll get’; Refugee Council, ‘Changes to Asylum & Resettlement policy and practice in response to Covid-19’, 14 July 2020
166 Scottish Refugee Council (COR0182); Positive Action in Housing, ‘Glasgow asylum seekers’ lives put at risk as Home Office cuts financial support and Mears puts people into hotels without social distancing in place’, 22 April 2020
167 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Support and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers’, 29 June 2020, col 29
172 Oral evidence taken by the Home Affairs Committee, ‘The work of the Home Office’, 1 July 2020, Qq28–9
173 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, para 3.16
174 National Audit Office, Asylum accommodation and support, HC 375, 3 July 2020, para 3.17
175 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017; Home Affairs Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS, HC 1758, 17 December 2018
176 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017
177 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2016–17, Asylum accommodation, HC 637, 31 January 2017
178 Home Affairs Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS, HC 1758, 17 December 2018
179 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Special Report of Session 2017–19, Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS: Government Response to the Committee’s Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 2016, p5
180 Letter from Chris Philp MP to the Chief Executives of local authorities, 27 March 2020
181 Birmingham City Council, ‘Birmingham’s clear message to Government: work with us, not against us, on asylum’, 11 June 2020
199 Birmingham City Council, ‘Birmingham’s clear message to Government: work with us, not against us, on asylum’, 11 June 2020
200 Home Affairs Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Asylum accommodation: replacing COMPASS, HC 1758, 17 December 2018, paras 90–1
201 Letter from Chris Philp MP to the Chief Executives of local authorities, 27 March 2020
Published: 28 July 2020