A private company being paid millions of pounds in public money by the Home Office to provide housing for people seeking asylum in Scotland is putting vulnerable and traumatised people in “slum” accommodation that is causing children’s health to suffer, according to health professionals, charities and lawyers.
Asylum seekers told about squalid housing conditions provided by Orchard and Shipman – who are subcontracted by Serco to deliver the £60 million contract – including rat and insect infested homes, mould caused by unfixed leaks, and overcrowded flats. Serco insists that its housing complies with strict Home Office standards.
One Iraqi woman with a young child and health problems was placed in a dirty second-floor flat for months despite a doctors’ letter and instructions not to carry her child up stairs. She claims drug addicts also frequented a shared close. Serco says repairs took longer than first thought and she has now been moved.
An asylum seeker said that despite reporting racial harassment against herself and her baby outside her flat four times to police she and her toddler had not been moved. Serco said a housing officer had visited, is taking the complaint “very seriously” and monitoring the situation.
Another asylum seeker raised alleged “aggressive and intimidating” behaviour by Orchard and Shipman staff who evicted him late last month, an allegation reported to Police Scotland, but which Serco disputes. Agencies report pregnant women and families also face eviction. Serco said that all had their asylum claims refused and were not entitled to housing.
Others reported insect-infested couches, dirty carpets, walls, bathrooms, kitchens, and common stairwells where people regularly urinated. Two women said their children had developed skin infections. Serco insists all accommodation is clean and meets all the required standards.
The claims come as a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the accommodation provided to asylum seekers in Glasgow looks set to launch later this month. Accommodation is under increasing strain with up to 400 recently arrived asylum seekers housed in low budget hotels around the city due to a lack of alternatives.
Scott Ross, Serco’s contract manager, said: “The number of asylum seekers in our care has increased significantly over the past two years due to well-known world events and it has been necessary to use hotels for some short term accommodation. Our priority is to move families out of hotels first, and with the occasional exception this is normally achieved within a few weeks. Currently, there are only two families in hotel accommodation and only one of those has been there for more than four weeks. We will move these families to more suitable accommodation as soon as possible.”
In the last two weeks up to 20 single men have been bussed from Glasgow to London and Manchester at short notice, with a total of 44 expected to be relocated within a month. Twenty families will then be moved to Glasgow, which Serco says will make the best possible use of properties available.
The Scottish Refugee Council is calling for the Scottish Government to intervene in the “failing” and “chaotic” system. Meanwhile, Govan Law Centre, which has intervened in six housing cases over the last nine months – including three threatened evictions – and is contacted about twice a week by asylum seekers, claims Orchard and Shipman is “largely unaccountable”.
Mike Dailly, principal solicitor, said: “There are also repeated cases of overcrowding and severe disrepair. This organisation is largely unaccountable despite receiving significant public funds to protect some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
Scott Ross, of Serco, said that the company had not received any letters from the Govan Law Centre but added that the company was willing to meet lawyers. He added: “Only people who are no longer being supported by the Home Office and who are no longer entitled to accommodation and who are now being housed at O&S’s expense face possible eviction.”
Fiona McBride, of the charity Children 1st, said the children of asylum seekers were suffering from ill-health because their accommodation was so sub-standard.
“Under UK legislation families in the asylum system have no right to social housing, and often no recourse to public funds, and agencies in Scotland are powerless to provide effective support,” she said. “It is very frustrating that we cannot help to get it right for children in the asylum system.”
The Asylum Seeker Housing Project (ASH), which supports asylum seekers, said it received about 15 complaints a week in Scotland and is taking referrals from the British Red Cross. In recent months it has dealt with several cases of overcrowding and of families sharing flats. In one still unresolved case a child with a fish and dairy allergy was hospitalized. Food was contaminated accidentally by another family in the same home. In another case, a man who was moved out due to water damage in his flat was told all his property – including documents – had been lost. Serco is investigating both cases.
Shafiq Mohammed, a former Orchard and Shipman employee turned volunteer for ASH, said: “I would describe some of the properties that we’ve come across as slums. In essence, asylum seekers are living in the poorest-quality accommodation in the city.”
Serco’s Scott Ross claimed that only 34 of 700 families were in shared accommodation. He added: “We have worked hard to reduce the number who do so, although in some cases the parents find sharing to be a good thing,” he said.
The Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) said that it had recently worked with six families placed in low-budget hotels for up to a month. Serco says it has not breached the Home Office contract though under Scottish housing law local authorities should only make use of this type of accommodation in emergencies and families should not remain there for more than 14 days. Gary Christie, SRC head of policy, said: “Today’s reports of people in need being treated with such a lack of regard by government-contracted companies are very upsetting and reflect the failings of a system that looks more and more chaotic.
“We welcome the forthcoming UK parliamentary inquiry into outsourced asylum accommodation but it is also time now for Scottish Ministers and the Scottish parliament to hold the companies responsible for delivering this public service in Scotland to account.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said that it was “unacceptable” that asylum seekers were living in “appalling conditions” and confirmed it would be writing to the Home Secretary urging necessary action is taken to make sure standards improve.
A Home Office spokeswoman said that inspections were carried out by Orchard and Shipman to ensure problems were solved within agreed timescales laid out in the so-called COMPASS housing contract. Additional inspections were carried out by the Home Office and by Serco, she added.
She said: “The government expects the highest standards from our contractors. It is the responsibility of COMPASS contractors to provide accommodation of a suitable quality to meet specified welfare requirements set out by the Home Office.”
Scott Ross of Serco, added: “Today in Glasgow we have almost 1600 properties housing families and individuals, all of which meet the required standards under both the law and our contract. They are professionally cleaned before they are used and then regularly inspected and checked. Of course, keeping the place clean is the responsibility of the occupants, but when people complain about an issue we try to sort it out as quickly as is reasonable and all asylum seekers have a designated housing officer who they can call.”
They fled terror in Sri Lanka … now they live in squalor in Glasgow
Rashmi fled political persecution in Sri Lanka and arrived in Scotland in 2014, where she at last felt safe. But, traumatised and suffering from PTSD, the terror returned at night and while sleepwalking she almost fell from a 26th-floor window. As if life wasn’t hard enough, she was abused by her husband, and she and her two children were forced to flee again. The flat they were moved to horrified her. “When I got to the flat the sink was full of black, rotting rubbish and the washing machine was too,” she said. “The smell was so bad. The rest of the house was very dirty too and so dusty I believe it set off my son’s asthma.”
Though workmen did come to look at the sink, Rashmi said it took eight days to fix, though Serco insist they met strict timescales provided by the Home Office. When raw sewage started to come from the sink in both the kitchen and bathroom however – a problem with Serco says affected the whole building – she and her children, 16 and eight, were relocated to a hotel, sharing a room with no cooking or laundry facilities for one month.
In the next flat the carpets were mouldy and damp, and there was a hole in the window, which made her feel unsafe. The window was fixed and after what she claims were repeated calls to Orchard and Shipman, workmen put a new carpet over the mouldy one. This week – after more than two months – the carpets were removed, and the bath, which Serco says was only reported to be leaking 13 days ago, will be fixed next week.
The insect infestation she reported was dealt with but she says there are still rats – pest control has visited twice and the issue is deemed to be resolved.
Though she sleepwalks at night, she is sharing a room with her eight-year-old, allowed under the Home Office contract. “It’s very stressful for my son to see me like this,” she says. “He is suffering too. I’ve had to fight to have anything fixed and I am so tired. The Home Office needs to know what is going on here. People and their children are suffering.”
Scott Ross, of Serco, said: “We are aware of a case of an asylum seeker who has made a series of complaints. She complained about a rat in her property and we immediately referred this to a firm of specialist pest controllers who took appropriate action and who have confirmed that there is no longer any evidence of rats. A problem with the bath was reported on Tuesday May 31 and has been fixed within the week. This lady and her two children are being accommodated in a two bedroom ground floor apartment which is entirely appropriate.”