Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (Coronavirus): institutional accommodation Contents

4Exiting the lockdown

Government strategy during the lockdown

186.At the start of the lockdown period the Government introduced a number of temporary measures to support those in the asylum system, to which key stakeholders and support services have adapted in their support of individuals.294 Stakeholders working to support immigration detainees have also witnessed significant changes in the immigration detention system. These include changes to the way the AAR policy is applied to vulnerable people, specifically those at risk of contracting the virus; in addition a large number of individuals have been released from detention alongside a halt in removals.

187.Some of the temporary measures introduced by the Government in response to Covid-19 hold open the prospect of future improvements in the operation of both the asylum and immigration removal processes. Among these, the decision to extend asylum support for refugees until their first welfare benefit payment is received was a simple and sensible as well as a compassionate measure and should be made permanent. Within the immigration removal process, the decision to remove from immigration detention people who did not need to be there, who were not a danger to the public, and who had no prospect of imminent removal was equally sensible. We are encouraged to note that this action was in line with the Home Office’s Enforcement Instructions and Guidance, which stipulate that detention should only be maintained when removal is imminent (i.e. within 28 days (four weeks)), and which our predecessors in 2019 urged should be formalised through creation of a statutory time limit.295

Asylum seekers

188.The measures that the Government has implemented for those in the asylum system, including the suspension of decisions of asylum cases, were due to run until 30 June. In a parliamentary debate on 17 June, a number of MPs expressed concern about the Home Office’s intention imminently to restart decision making in asylum cases, which would result in the withdrawal of support (cessation) for those asylum seekers: both those who have been granted refugee status and those who have been refused asylum.296 Members argued that the resumption of support cessations could result in eviction for many asylum seekers, potentially rendering them “street homeless in [ … ] an ongoing life-threatening pandemic”.297

189.There may be an increased need for dispersal accommodation as borders open, and if asylum numbers rise. The Minister, Chris Philp MP, told the House on 17 June that the number of people in asylum accommodation was “going up a lot” and that during the last 10 weeks the number had “risen by about 4,000” and continued to increase on a weekly basis.298 The Minister thanked local authorities and Home Office officials for finding emergency accommodation for the 4,000 extra places required at such short notice and in such challenging circumstances.299

190.Members in the parliamentary debate also highlighted the Housing Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP’s decision to pause evictions from social and private rented accommodation until 23 August and questioned why the Home Office had not taken the same decision for those in asylum accommodation.300 Further concerns were raised about the “acute risk of Covid-19 and severe illness and death for BAME communities” particularly those living in areas of social deprivation and “often higher population density”.301 Members asserted that this Covid-19 risk could escalate if asylum seekers who are from BAME groups, including individuals from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and China, were made destitute.302

191.The Minister was asked what advice he had sought from Public Health England to inform his decision on recommencement of cessations and evictions in light of these concerns.303 In the same vein, Members asked the Minister to set out how he was adhering to the Public Sector Equality Duty in his decision.304 The Minister responded that no eviction notices had been issued and that the Home Office was “thinking carefully” about the transition back to a more “normal state of affairs”.305 He added that the Home Office would be talking to “the relevant authorities, including local government, and [would] take public health advice seriously”.306 At 14 July evictions remained paused, pending a decision from the Minister on resumption.307

A strategic exit

192.The evidence presented to us has highlighted a lack of detailed and targeted Government guidance on Covid-19 in institutional accommodation, together with deficiencies in communication to stakeholders working across both asylum accommodation and immigration detention during the pandemic period. Birmingham City Council, an established dispersal authority, told us that the Home Office had not shared any information with it about the lockdown exit strategy. It called on the Home Office to engage and consult both with the Council and local stakeholders about the strategy, including the additional demand created on local services such as health and education.308

193.In oral evidence, all of the providers agreed that a staged exit from lockdown was required. John Taylor from Mears Group told us that “it cannot be one day everything has to change. We have to exit this very, very sensitively.309 Sarah Burnett of Mears told us that the Home Office has committed to working with Mears and all of its stakeholder agencies to ensure that its exit from lockdown “is managed in a phased fashion”.310

194.As government lockdown restrictions are eased, it is imperative that the Home Office and its providers communicate in a clear and timely manner to key national and local actors. The Government needs now to work closely with stakeholders across both the asylum accommodation and immigration detention sectors to ensure a smooth transition out of lockdown. The Government and providers of both types of institutional accommodation must also be alert to new concerns about protecting people in the event of a second wave of Covid-19.

Managing outbreaks in institutional accommodation

195.As the lockdown ends there will be ongoing challenges for providers as Covid-19 continues to circulate and service users begin to move into and out of accommodation. The concern this presents for the safe management of individuals in asylum accommodation is shown by the outbreak of Covid-19 at Urban House, which was confirmed by Wakefield Council on 10 July.311 Our attention has not been drawn to any other outbreaks in asylum accommodation during the course of our inquiry.

196.We were first made aware of this outbreak by John Grayson, working on behalf of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group. In a submission to our inquiry he reported that, after rumours of the outbreak began to spread in the facility on 10 July, reception staff told service users that they were in quarantine but some people would be leaving at 6pm. He suggested that while some individuals such as pregnant women were selected for dispersal others with vulnerabilities including asthma and diabetes were not. Particular concerns raised about this dispersal were: that the service users were dispersed over a wide area including Newcastle, South Shields, Rotherham, Sheffield and Leeds; that in some instances people were moved to unclean and poorly furnished properties; that no cash was given to individuals moved out of full-board to self-catering accommodation to bridge the period until the asylum support rate was provided, and that in one case two households were merged. He stated that none of the people moved from Urban House that day had been tested before they were distributed across the region, and that the local authorities which received them had not been informed by Mears of its plans for dispersal. He also recorded ongoing concerns about support for those individuals remaining in Urban House following this outbreak, including an absence of health cover or social distancing in Urban House over the weekend 11–12 July.312

197.Newcastle City Council was one of the local authorities which received individuals from Urban House. It expressed concerns to us that, following the dispersal on 10 July, it was first alerted to the arrival of service users from Urban House by emails from voluntary sector groups on 12 July. The first official communication of the dispersal was received from the North East Migration Partnership on the afternoon of 13 July, but this provided no confirmation of the council areas people had been dispersed to. It said that full details including names, dates of birth, telephone numbers and Covid-19 status, including confirmation that three new households had tested positive for Covid-19, were not provided until 16 July.313

198.We are extremely concerned at this failure of communication by Mears Group with the receiving local authorities, and at the lack of arrangements for testing individuals who were being moved across the country out of an accommodation centre where other residents had Covid-19, and which had previously been treated as a single household during lockdown. We are also very concerned at reports of a wider failure in the duty of care towards these individuals and households.

199.Newcastle City Council further reported that Mears had failed to communicate that a child protection safety plan was in place for one child who was moved with their mother to the city, and that they “were not confident that these welfare checks were identifying and responding to the household’s welfare needs”. The Council stated that its own staff found that mother and child being forced to share the only bed, that the mother had run out of medication she had been provided with at Wakefield, and that she requested paracetamol and sanitary products, which Mears had not provided. In a second case Mears failed to make a referral required to the Council’s Children with Disabilities Team.

200.The City Council has criticised “the lack of real time data and systematic communication from Mears [and … ] an apparent lack of appreciation of the strain placed on local services by these uncoordinated dispersals.” It has also expressed concern about community tensions and a lack of community support facilities and amenities where other service users are accommodated in city hotels.314

201.We wrote to Mears raising concerns about the impact of this dispersal on one particular family, and about their wider practice. Replying to our letter, Mears stated that there had been pre-existing plans to disperse some individuals from Urban House as properties became available in the week of 13 July; in view of the anxiety caused by the outbreak it was decided on 10 July to expedite the moves “for welfare reasons” and to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading in Urban House by reducing the number of residents there. However, it added:

Local authorities have expressed concern to us about not being notified of the urgent moves on the Friday. We accept that they should have been notified of the moves that day and prior to travelling. We are working with the Home Office to establish clearer processes around emergency moves and have committed with the Home Office to conduct a lessons learnt exercise led by Public Health Directors. We will ensure that this does not happen again in any circumstances.315

202.While Mears affirms that the dispersal of individuals from Urban House on 10 July without testing, even after cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the facility, was in line with the national system, we are deeply concerned that the company acted in this manner apparently without thought for the consequences of dispersing these individuals into other communities, and without consulting the receiving authorities. Mears’ commitment to participate in a lessons learned exercise is helpful. However this is not the first time during the pandemic that it has been reported that Mears has moved large numbers of asylum seekers from one location to another in a rush, without consulting local authorities or ensuring proper support is in place, and we are consequently very concerned about the quality of planning and decision making within the group. We urge the Home Office urgently to review the way Mears has been operating during the pandemic, to consider its poor management of service users’ welfare, and the wider public health consequences of its approach.

203.It is essential that lessons are learned from the dispersal from Urban House, and that clear policies are put in place to ensure effective communication between providers and local authorities in the event of further outbreaks in asylum accommodation, and in respect of the dispersal of service users from one area to another.

204.The experience of the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of implementing this Committee’s previous recommendations both in respect of asylum accommodation and immigration detention. We welcome the Home Office’s commitment to proceed carefully “back to a more normal state of affairs”. We also welcome its commitment to talk to local government and to take public health advice seriously in respect of asylum accommodation. We will hold the Home Office to account on these commitments. However, we are deeply concerned about the lack of clarity on the Home Office’s plans to end temporary support to those in the asylum support system, following the formal expiry of the provisions on 30 June.

205.On 5 June, the Housing Secretary announced a two month extension, until the end of August, of the suspension of evictions from social or private rented housing to protect tenants and landlords during the pandemic. We urge the Home Office to follow MHCLG’s lead and to agree jointly with local authorities, devolved nations and third sector partners a sensible and fair extension to the current measures in place for asylum seekers that reduces the public health risk for them and for the local community. Any extension to these measures should take account of the potential heightened risk of vulnerable asylum seekers becoming ill from Covid-19 if temporary support and accommodation is withdrawn; sufficient time should be provided for asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status and those who have been refused asylum to access appropriate financial and accommodation support. The Home Office should also ensure that its approach to ending cessations is phased to ensure that changes do not overwhelm other services. It should give due consideration to any impact that its decisions may have on the already stretched capacity of local authorities.

206.We urge the Home Office to set out a full, public, Covid-19 strategy which addresses the key concerns outlined in this chapter in relation to asylum accommodation and immigration detention. The strategy should cover further periods of local or national lockdowns and the period afterwards and should be published on the Government website. The strategy must recognise the need to ensure individuals’ access to clear and timely information about any changes to the Government’s current temporary measures. It should also ensure that support organisations, local authorities and statutory bodies which formally contribute to individuals’ support are appropriately resourced for these responsibilities.

207.As part of this Covid-19 strategy, the Home Office should publish the Public Health England guidance that it has taken to inform its decisions about ending the current measures to support asylum seekers. The Home Office should also confirm how it has adhered to the relevant Public Sector Equality Duty requirements in taking these decisions.

208.The Home Office should conduct a full review of its management of Covid-19 impacts on asylum accommodation and immigration detention in conjunction with its providers and other government departments. It should evaluate the impact of the temporary measures put in place and incorporate this learning into the development of future process and policy interventions before the end of 2020. This will be an important safeguard in the event of further outbreaks.

295 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Immigration detention, HC 913 para 224

296 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

297 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

298 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

299 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

301 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

302 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

303 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

304 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

305 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

306 House of Commons Hansard, ‘Covid-19: Asylum Seeker Services in Glasgow’, 17 June 2020

308 Birmingham City Council (COR0119)

312 John Grayson (COR0187)

313 Newcastle City Council (COR0188)

314 Newcastle City Council (COR0188)

315 Mears Group (COR0189)

Published: 28 July 2020