At any one time the Home Office provides accommodation for around 23,000 destitute asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their application to remain in the UK, although this number fluctuates as world events impact on the numbers seeking asylum.
The cost of providing this accommodation in 2011-12 was £150 million. In March 2012 the Department decided to introduce a new delivery model involving fewer and bigger housing providers than under previous contracts. There are now six regional contracts (known collectively as COMPASS – the Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services project), delivered by three prime contractors (Serco, G4S and Clearel, each of which has two contracts):
London and South of England, Wales: Clearel Ltd
Midlands and East of England: G4S Care and Justice Services (UK) Ltd
North East, Yorkshire and Humber: G4S Care and Justice Services (UK) Ltd
North West: Serco Limited (Serco Civil Government)
Scotland and Northern Ireland: Serco Limited (Serco Civil Government).
Serco, G4S and Clearel are multi nationals and the contracts to manage the accommodation and transport services provided to people seeking asylum in the UK are worth £620 million in total. All three companies already provide immigration, detention and removal services to the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), but only Clearel had previous experience running asylum accommodation. The Home Office, through the introduction of these new contractual arrangements, aimed to save around £140 million over seven years.
The numbers of asylum seekers that need to be housed by the three companies has jumped from 25,220 people in 2013 when the contracts began, to 36,069 by the end of September 2015. All three companies are making a loss on every asylum seeker they house. They say an eight-year high in the numbers has put “unsustainable” pressure on their business.
The contracts for asylum seekers have had problems in the past. A National Audit Office report last year found that the companies had taken on rented housing stock without inspecting it, and subsequently failed to meet contractual quality standards.
Currently, rather than the nine working day wait that people booked Priority C can expect, single males can expect to wait the best part of a month to be accommodated in the North West. Serco say there is nothing they can do about this other than accept the monthly financial penalty they receive from UKVI.
Sadly, this is not a problem confined to the North West. A woman living in London waited for 9½ weeks for her application to be processed. She was heavily pregnant when she applied, and gave birth whilst waiting for a decision. She should have been priority A but it appears that exceptionally long delays are the norm for everyone, irrespective of their priority band.
The experience of the Red Cross Refugee Service in London is the same – Section 4 applications regularly take a month to be processed.
The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) and other organisations are seeking to persuade the Home Affairs Committee to initiate an Inquiry into Compass and the future of asylum accommodation, so that there is independent scrutiny of the existing approach/performance prior to the Home Office making a decision on whether to extend the contract for a further two years (from June 2017 to June 2019).
SRC are encouraging organisations to submit evidence they have of poor quality housing and services to Keith Vaz MP in his capacity as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee with the aim of showing a pattern of persistent problems across UK and getting the Committee to start an inquiry into asylum accommodation in Spring 2016. With this timetable in mind, organisations should ideally submit evidence by mid-February.
Those interested in making a submission and/or discussing this further should contact Graham O’Neill at SRC: scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk or call 07799 600 545.