14.The accommodation contracts allow providers to use hotels as contingency accommodation to meet excess demand. Throughout 2017 and 2018, fewer than 100 people had stayed in hotels each night. But since October 2019, this number has increased to more than 1,000 each night. At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, ministers decided to continue support for asylum seekers after their asylum claim had been resolved to prevent them from becoming homeless. The Department explained that as a result, since March 2020 many more people had entered the asylum support system than had left and providers had placed the additional people in hotels. It further explained that the need to have social distancing within asylum accommodation also meant that there was space for fewer people within its normal accommodation. The Department told us that there were approximately 9,500 asylum seekers located in 91 hotels, the majority of whom were still having their claims considered. The Department said it was keen to end the use of hotels as soon as possible but did not have a target date for doing so.
15.The Department explained that its aim was for as few service users as possible to be accommodated in hotels and that those who do spend as little time as possible in hotels once they are there. The Department expected providers to move people with straightforward needs into dispersed accommodation within 35 days of their arrival. In its letter to us after our evidence session, the Department told us that on 1 October 2020, 428 school-age children had been in hotels for longer than 35 days. The NAO found that the Department penalises providers for each accommodation request and move every month that exceeds agreed timescales, rather than each day, and so providers may not be incentivised to move people out of hotels or initial accommodation once they had been there for longer than 35 days. We asked the Department why it had allowed this to be the case. The Department said that providers need to consider the vulnerabilities and support needs of individuals, meaning that it was not always appropriate to prioritise those asylum seekers that have been in hotels the longest.
16.Hotel accommodation usually lacks facilities for children and suitable accommodation for families to share for extended periods. We received written evidence from the Refugee Council, which told us that while in hotels or initial accommodation, asylum seekers cannot register with a GP or enrol their children into school. We received written evidence regarding the health and well-being themes for initial accommodation residents in Birmingham, which described the importance of addressing the health needs of asylum seekers, who may, for example, be suffering the effects from torture, malnourishment or social isolation. However. the NAO found that support organisations and local health providers have struggled to provide services to asylum seekers in hotels. We asked whether the Department had considered prioritising families with children in determining who should be a priority for moving out of hotels. The Department said that it prioritised getting families with children and other vulnerable service users out of hotels quickly. It said that it was producing further instructions to providers—via a ‘tasking note’—on how to prioritise getting people out of hotels appropriately and ensure consistency in the criteria that providers were using.
17.The Department told us that it currently accommodated asylum seekers in hotels in approximately 50 local authorities. It noted that whenever it arranges for a hotel to be used for asylum accommodation, it instructs its relevant teams to contact the local authority and MP affected. We were therefore concerned to hear of instances where colleagues had not been informed that asylum seekers were being accommodated in hotels in their constituencies. Instead, they had found out through Twitter or the local press. In its written evidence, the British Refugee Council asserted that while the accommodation contracts require providers to engage the relevant local authority and police force when procuring new properties to house asylum seekers, there was no similar requirement when providers used hotels as contingency accommodation.
18.The Department told us that sourcing hotels in the COVID-19 pandemic had been an extremely challenging and fast-moving situation. It recognised that there had been some issues with engaging local authorities and explained that it had redoubled its efforts since we last discussed this issue in July 2020. However, since then we have been contacted by a number of Members of Parliament who reported that neither they nor their local authorities had been informed of hotel use in their area. Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council also wrote to us to describe how the accommodation provider had failed to communicate with local authorities, such as when moving asylum seekers to new accommodation, or to share its plan for dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.
19.We asked the Department about specific examples where there had been issues with its engagement with local stakeholders. At the end of August 2020, the Department moved asylum seekers, 47 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19, from the Stone Road initial accommodation in Birmingham that was closing to hotels in other areas, including in Hammersmith. Hammersmith and Fulham Council would be responsible for the public health of the service users that moved there, but we were concerned by reports in the press that that the Department and its provider did not engage with the local authority before asylum seekers were relocated. The Department told us that the movement of asylum seekers was discussed in depth at incident management team meetings, through which providers should work closely with the Department, Public Health England and relevant local authorities. It explained that the use of a hotel in Hammersmith was a last-minute solution after another in Birmingham had fallen through. The Department asserted that it engaged with Hammersmith and Fulham Council as soon as it could but that the type of engagement would have “depended on the circumstances in the moment”.
20.We received written evidence regarding the health and well-being themes for initial accommodation residents in Birmingham, which told us that the Department’s plans to commission additional contingency hotel sites to accommodate asylum seekers were not shared in a reasonable timeframe. It also told us that the plans were not subject to any form of consultation, making the joint planning of health and well-being services incredibly challenging for the agencies involved. We asked about the situation in Brent, where we heard that the provider gave a week’s notice to the local authority for using a hotel for 160 asylum seekers, but did not notify the local health commissioner, nor inform it of the asylum seekers’ specific health needs. We asked whether the Department would commit to contacting local care commissioning groups and local GPs before moving asylum seekers into their areas so that their medical needs can be properly catered for. The Department accepted that it needed to improve how it works with local partners. It said it had recently set up a group to work with local authority chief executives to take a strategic approach to redistributing asylum seekers, as well as improving engagement with local communities and local authorities.
21.The Department stressed that it awarded its contracts for the new services on time and on budget, and the National Audit Office found that it had laid the foundations for a better service. The NAO also found that the transition to the new services was relatively smooth, with only 5% of asylum seekers having to relocate, compared to 10% when contracts transitioned to COMPASS in 2012. However, a number of stakeholders wrote to us to describe how the Department and its providers do not adequately focus on the needs and circumstances of vulnerable people. For example, the British Refugee Council described how asylum seekers were dispersed to areas that have few or no legal aid providers locally, resulting in delays in accessing legal advice. Doctors of the World described how the provision of healthcare within initial accommodation was insufficient to meet the needs of asylum seekers, who often cannot access mental health support or counselling services.
22.We asked the Department how it ensured the safety and security of asylum seekers who are housed in hotels, particularly given the public interest that this can attract. The Department said that it worked with its providers when they raised concerns relating to the security of service users, and engaged with them on how they are responding. The Department told us that it was aware that there had been protests from far-right organisations at some hotels housing asylum seekers, but it was not tracking the number of incidents. We received written evidence from Hull City Council, which told us that managing the risks of asylum seekers in hotels, including from far-right protests and COVID-19, placed additional pressures on local partners at a time when they are already overstretched. We asked what the Department was doing to manage the pressures this places on other services such as the police. The Department told us that on security issues, providers will work with local police forces. But it said it was not working with the police nationally to consider the risks and issues arising from hotel usage.
23.The Department told us that 429 asylum seekers had been tested for COVID-19, 122 of whom had tested positive. In its letter to us after our evidence session, the Department further explained that of those that had tested positive, 29 asylum seekers were in hotels. The Department also told us that 750 individuals were self-isolating and 348 shielding. It recognised that it had been difficult to manage asylum seekers in hotels amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and described how one provider, Serco, had brought in more security and worked with the police and local authority in Birmingham to improve compliance with social distancing requirements. The Department said it had been discussing with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care regarding how, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, to safely stop support for asylum seekers who are no longer eligible. It explained that Ministers had been clear that this must be done in a way that was “careful and phased”.
24.We asked why, if safeguarding was essential to the new contracts, the Department’s accommodation contract with providers did not contain a key performance indicator for safeguarding asylum seekers. The Department agreed that this was a critical aspect of the new contracts and explained that safeguarding was instead reflected throughout almost all aspects of the contract. It had set up a safeguarding board, and through that was working with partners to develop a safeguarding assurance framework to ensure the safeguarding elements of its key performance indicators were met. The Department said it would work with its partners, such as local authorities, to ensure that they understand this framework. We asked why, in the interests of accountability, it had not published the safeguarding framework and how it expected to assess whether an approach was good or bad practice without an agreed key performance indicator or standard. The Department committed to looking at this as part of its work with the safeguarding board.
34 Q 26; C&AG’s report, paras 15, 3.17
35 Qq 17, 24–28, 31
36 Q 111
37 Q 57
38 C&AG’s report, para 3.15
39 Correspondence from Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Home Office, Re: Home Office Asylum Accommodation and Support, dated 15 October 2020
40 C&AG’s report, para 3.16
41 Q 59
42 C&AG’s report, para 3.18
43 Q 60; C&AG’s report, para 3.18; ASY0003 - British Refugee Council
44 ASY0011 - Health and well-being themes for Initial Accommodation residents in Birmingham
45 C&AG’s report, para 3.18
46 Qq 59–60, 83
47 Qq 23, 42–43
48 ASY0003 - British Refugee Council
49 Qq 41, 43–44; Committee of Public Accounts, Oral evidence: Immigration Enforcement, HC 407, 13 July 2020
50 Q 41
51 ASY0008 - Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
52 Qq 51–53; Correspondence from Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Home Office, Re: Home Office Asylum Accommodation and Support, dated 15 October 2020
53 Qq 51–54
54 ASY0011 - Health and well-being themes for Initial Accommodation residents in Birmingham
55 Q 79
56 Q 128
57 Q 70; C&AG’s Report, paras 10, 19
58 ASY0003 - British Refugee Council
59 ASY0002 - Doctors of the World
60 Qq 63–65, 67
61 ASY0005 - Hull City Council
62 Qq 68–69
63 Q 49
64 Correspondence from Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary, Home Office, Re: Home Office Asylum Accommodation and Support, dated 15 October 2020
65 Q 49
66 Q 55
67 Qq 134–136
68 Qq 137–139
Published: 20 November 2020