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20 Mar 2019

The scandal of asylum accommodation

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18 Dec 2018
Could you imagine spending Christmas in housing that was extremely badly maintained, that was damp, had broken windows or had broken heating systems in these temperatures, or which was infested by vermin? 

That is what many of those seeking asylum will be experiencing over this holiday period.

These are people who are exercising their international legal right to seek asylum, and in many cases that right has been granted. Many of them will be very vulnerable people, frequently the victims of torture or other abuse, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some will be pregnant women or have very young children. Nearly all of them will be fleeing desperate circumstances of war, famine, water shortages, persecution and even attempted genocides.  Yet they face ghastly, completely unacceptable living conditions, highlighted by a report of the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee.

The Committee’s report is a damning indictment of Government inaction. The Committee made almost exactly the same criticisms of the asylum housing regime two years ago. It seems that the Government has done nothing effective to remedy the situation, despite sharp criticism from MPs of all parties.

The housing is provided by private contractors, who of course are in it to make a profit. Private companies are not benevolent funds.

The Government insists in this case, and in all similar cases that the private sector is a more efficient provider. But it offers no evidence for this repeated assertion.

How could it be that the private sector, where the costs charged to Government must include a hefty profit margin, is a more efficient provider? In providing a service such as accommodation, the main ways to meet those profit targets are to over-charge the customer, which is ultimately you the taxpayer, as well as cutting back on the service provided. That is why windows stay broken, heating doesn’t work or vermin are not eradicated. We are all worse off from this system, none more so than vulnerable asylum seekers
themselves.

In the next few weeks the housing contracts are due for renewal. At this late stage, the Government should at least be imposing and effectively policing minimum service terms on the contractors, so that these disgraceful conditions are ended. Previous payments should also be clawed back, as contracts clearly have not been met in a reasonable way. The medium-term solution is to bring all these contracts back into the public sector, where they can be properly administered and monitored. The likelihood is that taxpayers would also save money. At the very least, these disgraceful conditions would end.

The Government has also thrown many of the ancillary costs of asylum accommodation onto local authorities but without providing the necessary funding. These other costs include safeguarding and education, as well as the increased demand for wider public services that arises.  And a very small number of local authorities are over-stretched while others do little or nothing to meet our collective duty to asylum seekers.  Tory Ministers with a large number of refugees in their areas are as rare as hen’s teeth. Local authorities need more resources, and the allocation of refugee families to each area needs to be more evenly spread.

In this society at this time of year, almost irrespective of our faith or none, we are invited to recall the plight of the family in the nativity. This is in part a story of refugees fleeing terror.  Many others face similar hardships now, and receive a scandalously poor welcome under this Government. We are better than that.

Asylum seekers in this country deserve better.

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