Serco and the degrading living conditions for asylum-seekers

12 Jan 2019
The inadequate housing system for refugees is a disgrace.

In the last months of 2018 we saw two damning reports of outsourced asylum accommodation in Britain, and yet this week the Government went ahead and gave billions of pounds worth of new contracts to outsourcers including SERCO anyway.

These private companies have already failed to provide decent asylum accommodation, as they have failed in so many areas of social provision, and campaigners have termed the award of these contracts as a slap in the face to those of who have suffered at their hands.

A report from Parliament’s Cross-Party Home Affairs Select Committee in December received widespread coverage and delivered a devastating critique of the system of housing for those who apply to be a refugee, and castigated Home Office failure to show “greater urgency” about improving conditions.

It is a simply a disgrace that in 21st century Britain, ministers are failing to fix ‘degrading conditions including 'vermin-infested' housing for asylum seekers, yet the report found exactly that, saying ministers have "done little" to ensure that companies providing housing have met their contractual obligations.

The report also warned that "vulnerable people, including pregnant women, torture survivors and individuals suffering from PTSD, have been housed in badly maintained, damp and vermin infested properties."

It also warned that councils are at risk of pulling out of the system because of a lack of support by the Home Office, saying “the Government must act now to reset its relationship with local authorities on asylum accommodation.”

Many of us have felt for some time that the “dispersal” scheme used to place asylum seekers around the country simply doesn’t work.

As the scheme is voluntary, some local authorities are not taking part, meaning that applicants are more concentrated in a small number of areas, including some of the most deprived areas.

A very small number of local authorities are over-stretched while others do little to meet our collective duty to asylum seekers.

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, and ultimately, it is for the Home Office to ensure that councils receive adequate support so they can provide the housing and services these incredibly vulnerable people need.

The services have been run by the outsourcing firms G4S, Serco and Clearsprings since 2012, and this report is the latest in a series of critical reports by the committee. 

Two-and-a-half years ago, MPs accused the Home Office of very similar failures, and it seems that the government has done nothing effective to remedy the situation, despite sharp criticism in this time period.

Indeed, this Home Affairs Select Committee report a came just weeks after a much-delayed official report found that less than a quarter of state-run accommodation for asylum
seekers is compliant with standards.

In this report, Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Bolt cited evidence of damp, dirty and vermin-infested properties, and found that some of the accommodation was found to be unsuitable for vulnerable groups.

He added that the inspection "proved more challenging than most" because of "several reasons, not least the difficulty of extracting evidence from the Home Office."

According to the report, Home Office contract officers - whose job it is to check accommodation meets the requirement of the contract - inspected 8,313 properties in 22 months and declared 3,567 (43%) as "not fit for purpose" or needing "urgent" repairs. Only 24% were found "compliant" with standards.

Mr Bolt also expressed concern about the way information on pregnant women and new mothers was recorded and shared, saying "an overall grip on the numbers and distribution of pregnant and post-partum women within the asylum accommodation system is not a 'nice to have', but is essential to a proper understanding of whether the present policies and practices are meeting the needs of this particularly vulnerable group."

It is clear then that we are failing in our collective duty to people in this area.

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.

Many will be fleeing desperate circumstances of war, famine, water shortages, persecution and even attempted genocides.

As I have already mentioned, 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.

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.

Everyone should be able to access decent housing, and the sooner these services are run by the public sector once more, the better.

Private firms have no business running homes for asylum seekers, and Labour will end this rotten system.

These reports have played an invaluable role in highlighting this important issue -  now lets build up the pressure for change.

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