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

Conclusions and recommendations

1.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. (Paragraph 19)

2.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. (Paragraph 29)

3.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. 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. (Paragraph 30)

4.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. (Paragraph 31)

5.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. (Paragraph 32)

6.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. (Paragraph 37)

7.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. (Paragraph 45)

8.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. (Paragraph 46)

9.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 (Paragraph 47)

10.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. (Paragraph 48)

11.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. (Paragraph 50)

12.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. (Paragraph 54)

13.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. (Paragraph 55)

14.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. (Paragraph 59)

15.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. (Paragraph 60)

16.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. (Paragraph 61)

17.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. (Paragraph 62)

18.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. (Paragraph 68)

19.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. (Paragraph 72)

20.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. 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. (Paragraph 73)

21.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. (Paragraph 74)

22.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. (Paragraph 78)

23.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. (Paragraph 78)

24.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. (Paragraph 83)

25.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. (Paragraph 84)

26.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, 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. (Paragraph 110)

27.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. (Paragraph 111)

28.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. (Paragraph 114)

29.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. (Paragraph 122)

30.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. (Paragraph 124)

31.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. (Paragraph 126)

32.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. (Paragraph 140)

33.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. (Paragraph 141)

34.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. 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. (Paragraph 142)

35.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. (Paragraph 143)

36.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. (Paragraph 143)

37.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. 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. (Paragraph 144)

38.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. (Paragraph 145)

39.We welcome the substantial reduction in the number of individuals detained in IRCs since the beginning of the lockdown. This was a sensible response to Covid-19 and will have helped prevent infections. (Paragraph 155)

40.Government guidance which came into force on 5 May 2020, although it was not published until 5 June, confirmed that individuals at high risk of contracting Covid-19 should be treated as AAR Level 3 cases. This clarification, which confirms the commitment made by the Home Office to the High Court on 26 March, is welcome although earlier publication would have provided greater clarity and reassurance. Evidence we received from the IRC providers shortly after this guidance came into effect indicated inconsistencies in their implementation of the AAR policy, specifically as it relates to those highly vulnerable detainees at greater risk of becoming ill from Covid-19. This is deeply concerning, and reflects concerns raised in evidence to us about officials’ attempts to interpret broadly drafted immigration detention policies, and the consequent litigation and uncertainty that can ensue. (Paragraph 168)

41.It is troubling that nearly 40% of those remaining in immigration detention should have been categorised as meeting Levels 2 or 3 of the Adults at Risk policy indicating significant vulnerability and, potentially, that they are at high risk from Covid-19. Government guidance on the operation of the adults at risk policy indicates that evidence meeting the standard for Level 2 in the AAR policy “should normally be accepted and consideration given as to how this may be impacted by detention”, while evidence at Level 3 “stating that the individual is at risk and that a period of detention would be likely to cause harm … should be afforded significant weight… and any detention reviewed in light of the accepted evidence”. On this basis, serious consideration must be given to moving these individuals back into the community. However, we recognise that, as the Home Office has stated, 97% of those remaining in immigration detention are foreign national offenders and that therefore where it is not possible to remove them from detention all possible precautions must be given to enable detainees to self-isolate safely within IRCs. (Paragraph 171)

42.Guidance should be provided for custodial and detention staff on the approach to be taken where an individual is considered to be at high risk of having contracted Covid-19, but is not symptomatic at the point of reception. (Paragraph 177)

43.The Home Office and its providers must communicate timely and accurate information to NGOs as well as to service providers working to support people in immigration detention. (Paragraph 185)

44.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. (Paragraph 187)

45.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. (Paragraph 194)

46.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. (Paragraph 198)

47.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. (Paragraph 202)

48.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. (Paragraph 202)

49.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. (Paragraph 203)

50.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. (Paragraph 204)

51.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. (Paragraph 205)

52.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. (Paragraph 205)

53.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. (Paragraph 206)

54.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. (Paragraph 207)

55.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. (Paragraph 208)

Published: 28 July 2020