84. People in all stages of the asylum system experience destitution:
- those awaiting a decision if they are unable to access support;
- those whose appeal rights are currently exhausted but fail to return to their country of origin, who lose all support and are evicted from accommodation 21 days after a final refusal; and
- those who have been granted leave to remain and therefore have 28 days to leave accommodation, but are unable to access mainstream support because National Insurance numbers, benefits and housing applications are not processed within this time frame.
It is estimated that many destitute refused asylum seekers come from countries where there is ongoing conflict or political instability. Many will come from Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Malawi, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which are countries where it is difficult to facilitate a return. This can be because governments are unco-operative, it is not possible to obtain travel documents, there may be practical difficulties such as trying to return people to countries where airports are not in operation, or of course individuals who simply refuse to co-operate.
85. Destitute asylum seekers survive through the support of social networks, voluntary sector organisations, and churches and other faith-based organisations. Many will stay with friends though there is evidence of destitute asylum seekers providing services in the form of childcare, cooking, housework, gardening and in some cases even sex in exchange for meals, small amounts of cash, shelter, or other daily necessities. Some will visit voluntary sector organisations such as the British Red Cross, who told the Committee that they assisted around 6,000 destitute clients a year. They noted that over half of these clients were destitute due to administrative failings or delays within the asylum system. A 2011 report by Oxfam noted that of all institutions cited by refused asylum seekers, churches appeared to have done most to respond to their needs. The support provided by churches included not only cash and food, but also English language classes, clothes and social events.
86. From anecdotal evidence presented by the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London it is clear that some women engage in commercial or transactional sex work in order to avoid homelessness. There were also examples of both men and women entering into relationships merely to ensure that they had somewhere to stay. Most worrying were the accounts of women remaining in abusive relationships as it was seen as preferable to sleeping on the streets. Research by the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London found that 13% of destitute female asylum seekers had experienced sexual violence.
87. The destitution of those with leave to remain is especially concerning. Being recognised as a refugee and therefore in need of protection ought to be a time of relief yet many witnesses highlighted that in actual fact it took six to eight weeks (rather than the 28 days allowed by the Home Office) for mainstream benefits to be processed. In some cases, the period where the refugee was unable to access these benefits was as long as four months. The Home Office accepted that this was an issue, telling us that
Since December 2012, we have been working closely with DWP on reviewing a small sample of cases to identify process improvements to be implemented individually and between both Departments to resolve issues, taking account of relevant evidence provided by key external partners. We continue to work on this, in order to improve the transition from asylum benefits for recognised refugees, with the support of targeted external partners.
One witness noted that for many refugees there was a difficulty in navigating the telephone and internet-based systems which are associated with these benefits because of their lack of fluency in English. The reduction in availability of English language classes for asylum seekers was a cause for concern for a number of witnesses who felt it limited their ability to engage with both members of the local community and professionals. Given that a lack of fluency in English will hamper their chances of being able to find work and come off benefits, we are concerned that English language classes are being provided by a small number of volunteers who cannot possibly fulfil the need of the of all of those within the asylum system.
88. It is unacceptable that someone who is recognised as refugee should be reduced to a state of destitution due to the inefficiency of governmental bureaucracy. We recommend that asylum support should not be discontinued until the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that the recipient is receiving mainstream benefits.
89. We recommend that the Government reinstate the previous level of availability of English language classes for those who have been granted asylum by the state to encourage them to be able to contribute more to Britain and the UK economy.
90. The COMPASS contract (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) provides accommodation, associated services and transportation to eligible destitute asylum applicants and their families in the UK. The six contracts under COMPASS replaced over 30 UKBA contracts for accommodation and transport previously called ‘Target’ and ‘Transport Plus.’ Contracts were awarded exclusively to large companies, with SERCO, G4S and Clearel each gaining two contracts (four in England plus one each in Wales and Scotland/Northern Ireland).
91. At the transfer of the contract last year, G4S were unable to house some asylum applicants. In November 2012 The Independent newspaper reported that hundreds of asylum-seekers in Yorkshire were left in council housing when G4S failed to meet a deadline to re-house them in private sector accommodation. Many asylum applicants complained that the houses they were moved in to were inadequate, which we discuss further below. Despite this delay in moving tenants at the start of the contract, it is understood that the UKBA did not institute any financial penalties against G4S and G4S, although recognising that their subcontracting housing companies were in breach of contractual guidelines (particularly in the pre-inspection of contracted properties prior to allocation), the company has not instituted financial or other penalties on their subcontractors.
92. The reports that we have received on the quality of the accommodation are extremely worrying. Concerns were raised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Housing and Migration Network and the Local Government Association about the standards of property provided to asylum applicants. Problems cited in evidence include pest infestations, lack of heating or hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked, lack of basic amenities including a cooker, a shower, a washing machine and a sink and a general lack of cleanliness. Furthermore, many of those who submitted evidence cited difficulties in contacting housing providers and the slow resolution of problems. G4S told the Committee that they recognised there had been problems.
We transferred nearly 3,000 properties across the Midlands, East of England, North-East Yorkshire and Humberside from the previous contract and most of the issues—so of the property complaints we have had, the vast majority, over 65% of those—relate to the properties that were transferred over. We have a programme of working through those, investing in them, so I do recognise there are issues with property but we have a programme to work through those.
It was also acknowledged that the COMPASS contract specified a response time where there were issues with a property. In order to ensure that standards were maintained both G4S and the Home Office carry out random inspections of properties.
93. We were very concerned by the description of the sub-standard level of housing provided to asylum applicants. Furthermore, the length of time that witnesses report it taking to get problems resolved is unacceptable. We recommend that the Home Office publish the results of its random inspections of properties so that the public may monitor the effectiveness of the housing providers—SERCO, G4S and Clearel—receiving hundreds of millions of pounds in public money. The companies awarded the COMPASS contract must prove that they are able to deliver a satisfactory level of service.
94. Sarah Teather MP, chair of an informal Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, drew our attention to the issue of privacy. She has also raised it on the floor of the House, telling MPs that
As chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People I heard numerous examples of individuals working on behalf of housing providers entering properties unannounced having provided no notice, frightening parents and their young children.
When we raised this with both G4S and Serco, they denied that it was a common occurrence although they admitted that they allowed their representatives to enter properties if no one was home as they had duties to perform under the COMPASS contract. Both stressed that entry without admittance by the resident was a last resort. Both Serco and G4S emphasised that there were complaint procedures in place. G4S told us that instructions on making a complaint were included within induction packs produced in a wide range of languages. Unfortunately, at least two organisations who submitted evidence to the inquiry complained that these packs were either inadequate or not provided by sub-contractors to residents.
95. We are unimpressed by the assurances given to us by G4S and Serco that their representatives do not routinely enter properties without first knocking. Entering a room or a house where someone is resident without knocking is rude and intimidating and such behaviour is not appropriate. All the COMPASS contractors must provide their staff with unambiguous guidance on the very limited circumstances in which it will be appropriate for them to let themselves into somebody else’s home unbidden. We also recommend that when the COMPASS contract is renewed that provisions be introduced to require that, except in emergencies, the housing provider leave a calling card the first time that they need entry with the date of another appointment on it. Then, and only then, should it be appropriate for a housing provider to gain entry without admittance by the residents.
96. Evidence submitted to this inquiry highlighted a lack of support following an asylum decision on the part of housing providers. The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group provided a case study showing the stress that can result from a grant of leave to remain, something that ought to be a relief for asylum seekers.
On 8 August a heavily pregnant asylum seeker resident in Target Housing Association accommodation in Rotherham was granted leave to remain in the UK. As a refugee the woman had to leave the property, her landlords, subcontractors of G4S, would not be paid by the UK Border Agency if she lingered there. Her eviction notice was for the same day as the local hospital had insisted that she should go and have the birth induced. Target management made her pack, and suggested that she find her own way with her bags, first to emergency homeless accommodation, and then on to the hospital, pointing out that her destinations were on bus routes. It was only the intervention of a sympathetic member of the Target staff who insisted on using her own car to get the woman to housing and the hospital which made the journeys possible.
The Manchester Refugee Support Network noted that before Serco took over the accommodation contract people living in privately run accommodation had experiences of landlords being flexible and letting people stay on after they had been made destitute or given positive status. The note that this practice has not continued under Serco because housing is so heavily booked that there is no flexibility. The network cites the case of one refugee who told them that when he had received a positive decision, he had had a five week gap without access to funds. However, because he had a positive relationship with his landlord, he was not evicted and when he was able to access mainstream benefits, he paid his landlord back in full.This lack of pastoral care for new refugees is despite the fact the UKBA had stated that part of the role of the COMPASS contract providers would “have to liaise with local authorities and housing providers about move-on accommodation for those receiving positive decisions.”
97. We note that the National Audit Office is currently carrying out an investigation in to the COMPASS contracts. As part of their written evidence the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Housing and Migration Network have recommended that the Government “undertake an urgent, published review of the performance of the current contractors in relation to the contract specifications, especially in accommodation standards and support for transition after asylum applications have been decided.” The NAO’s investigation has the following terms of reference:
- The transition to the six new COMPASS contracts and the first six months of operation;
- The performance of all three suppliers and their subcontractors, including their compliance with the terms of the contract;
- Quality of provision and arrangements for assuring accommodation meets the standards contractors are required to provide: and
- The experience of end users (asylum seekers) during the transition period and the first six months of operation.
We expect that such an investigation will address all of the points of concern regarding the COMPASS contracts raised within this report. The results of the investigation are scheduled to be published in late 2013.
98. We recommend that the National Audit Office’s inspection in to the COMPASS contracts address the issues raised with us regarding accommodation standards and support for transition following asylum decisions. Following the publication of the results of this investigation we will revisit this matter with both the Home Office and the contract providers. We also take this opportunity to recommend that the Government ensure that any irregularities unearthed during that investigation be resolved swiftly.