Continuing delays, disrepair and insanitary conditions have caused one local authority to decide it will tell the Home Office to end its contract with the Mears Group, and will take asylum housing back in-house.
Last week Cllr Paul Wood, Sheffield City Council cabinet member for neighbourhoods and community safety, talked to me about the widespread problems with the management of the asylum housing contracts by new contractor the Mears Group. At the end of our discussion he told me:
‘I intend to instruct officers tomorrow (16 January) that the policy of Sheffield City Council is that we want this asylum housing contract to revert to the Council. We will push for the Mears contract to be terminated by the Home Office. I think the job of a local council is to do its best to make sure that all its residents have safe and decent homes to live in.’
How have things come to this pass?
A crisis for asylum housing tenants in Mears housing in South Yorkshire
At half past midnight on Christmas eve, Ruth, an asylum seeking mother with a 3-year-old child, rang me. Ruth and the other mothers in a Sheffield Mears ‘mother and toddler’ asylum house could not get through to Mears to fix their boiler, and faced a cold Christmas day without heating and hot water. I knew the house well – I had visited on each of the four previous occasions the families had been left without heating and hot water – and this was the fifth time in two months the boiler had broken down. ‘I hope you can get Mears to come quickly. Last time they sent somebody who said he had come up from near London,’ Ruth said. I emailed my emergency contact at Mears, who unsurprisingly was on holiday and unavailable. Ruth and I then separately rang the national number – demand was low at 1.30 am on Christmas morning, and we got through.
This scenario has been playing out across the UK since September 2019, when three companies – Serco, Clearsprings and the Mears Group – took over the Home Office contract for the provision of asylum housing for asylum seekers awaiting decisions (currently 48,000). Serco and Clearsprings had been providing asylum housing since privatisation in 2012. In September, the Mears Group, an outsourcing company working in housing management and home care, became the UK’s biggest refugee landlord, starting three 10-year asylum accommodation contracts from the Home Office worth a total £1.15 billion. Mears is one of the UK’s biggest maintenance and repairs contractors, working on over 650,000 homes for councils and housing associations. Mears’ home care division provides care to 15,000 older and disabled people. The company employs 12,000 people.
Also in 2019, the charity Migrant Help won the £100 million contract to run a new Home Office system called Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE) services, which includes the reporting of repairs in asylum housing. The AIRE contract has been a disaster. I and others researching asylum housing warned the Home Office in 2018 in consultation events that separating off the reporting of repairs from the company that actually did them would slow down the response to repair requests and in emergency cases, create dangerous situations for asylum seeking families – and so it proved. Since September, there have been continual massive delays in the passing on of tenants’ requests for repairs from Migrant Help to Mears, which Migrant Help puts down to ‘teething problems’ and ‘high demand’. In October a letter to then Home Office minister Victoria Atkins, signed by more than 100 charities, warned that the new repairs reporting and advice system was causing ‘needless suffering among those it is meant to protect’, and called on the government to take urgent action to address the situation.
Asylum tenants have been failed
Over the past four months, the combination of these delays and Mears’ contract performance – its failures in terms of the quality, cleanliness and general management of homes – have failed tenants. In Sheffield, in October, I visited a family with a 7-year-old daughter, who had reported a boiler failure back in August, when Mears was taking over their house. Two months later, there was still no heating or hot water, and Mears staff had not visited the property. David, the teenage son of the family who met me at the house, said, ‘We have an electric shower, so we go and have a shower when we need to warm up.’ David was concerned about his sister: ‘She has something like asthma, and the cold in the house means she has had colds and infections and time off school and had to go to hospital.’ In November, lone mother Ruth’s boiler failed for the first time. In December, I discovered April and her disabled family, forced into a totally unsuitable house in Rotherham by previous provider G4S and then ignored and neglected by Mears, left with a flooding living room and rats in the kitchen.
In other Mears contract areas, similar examples were emerging. In Belfast, the BBC reported in September that a woman asylum seeker reported water leaking into her kitchen. Mears did not respond and three days later her ceiling collapsed. She was moved to temporary accommodation which Housing4All and their Housing Rights Watch described on Twitter thus:
‘Resident has been given temporary accommodation but there is currently no hot water or lights in the stairwell which is hazardous. The pots in the kitchen are rusty – how can she be expected to use these? Further complaint has been sent.’
Dirty houses and enforcement notices
Asylum housing tenants and others have told me of Barnsley HMOs which Mears had not cleaned for months and where basic hygiene repairs had simply not been done. Outside the properties there were piles of rubbish near the street entrance. I visited two of the houses where, despite the fact that communal areas were really dirty, there was no evidence of recent cleaning (the visitation log mentioned cleaning on 8 October 2019). Michael, who invited me into one property, showed me a blocked toilet upstairs. ‘It has been like that for at least two months.’
‘This is the living room.’ David showed me damaged furniture and a decaying wall cupboard, then a storage area with stained and damaged wall and dirty stair carpets. ‘The other day I think it was the Council who came and they saw the house and the toilet and other problems. They said they would do something.’ Next door I was welcomed by two asylum seeking men on their way out, who encouraged me to look around and take pictures. This was another HMO with damage and dirt throughout; the kitchen in particular was a health hazard for the tenants. I checked the visitation logs and Barnsley Council’s Environmental Health Officer (EHO) had been there the day before. Barnsley Council served an enforcement order on the two properties they had licensed as HMOs, demanding action on cleaning and repairs and giving Mears a time limit.
Barnsley has been inspecting all the licensed HMOs which Mears has been using. Nearby Doncaster had begun a similar programme of inspections. Cllr Wood said Sheffield, too, was prioritising inspections of asylum houses and concentrating resources there.
Complaints in Parliament and in the media
On 20 October Alex Cunningham, MP for Stockton North, raised issues around the ‘failing’ Mears contract in the North East in the House of Commons, accusing the government of ‘failing to ensure their new contract works for the people it’s there to serve’. He told the Independent, ‘I had hoped for a huge improvement in services for refugees, but it’s clear the system is failing due to lack of capacity. It’s critical that ministers recognise this crisis and act to ensure some of the most vulnerable people in our society are protected.’ In early November, the Independent reported on Mears cases in Halifax, Leeds and Sheffield where ‘Asylum seekers (were) left in houses with no heating in rat-infested homes.’ But we have no way of knowing the true scale of harm or dangerous situations resulting from the new contracts. Asylum housing tenants simply do not ‘complain’, and are often frightened about challenging any official, including their landlord.
An asylum housing landlord strike in South Yorkshire
Mears depends on entering into leases with private landlords to provide houses, flats and HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation). The HMOs in the contract must be licensed by local councils. In the four South Yorkshire council areas there are around 2,000 asylum seekers in asylum housing, with Sheffield having around 900. The number of properties in use varies depending on size, but around 300 are presently being provided in Sheffield. Over the past weeks it has become clear that in South Yorkshire at least, the working of the Mears housing contract is in chaos, putting asylum tenants at daily risk. But landlords are also frustrated and angry. They complain that the contracts with Mears are less favourable than the previous ones with G4S, giving them fewer rights and paying them less, which is one reason Mears have been able to procure only a few new properties in South Yorkshire, with none of the large landlords with many properties signing. There is in effect an asylum housing landlord strike across the county. A landlord with a long history of providing asylum housing for Home Office contracts told me, ‘Only two or three existing asylum housing landlords have signed contracts with Mears in the whole of South Yorkshire. The landlords had an informal meeting and decided that they would prefer to give notice on their existing leases and get their properties back.’
‘Mears are totally incompetent’, they claimed. ‘In one house with six residents the landlord discovered that Mears workers had taken out a faulty boiler which was still under warranty and were in the process of doing checks to install a new boiler, leaving the residents without heating or hot water. Of course, the cost of all this falls on the landlord, not Mears. No report was sent to the landlord.’ Another contact alleged that ‘None of us know how Mears is working. There is a Mears guy up in Newcastle who has told us he is responsible for 500 properties and has no record of the landlords.’ Another landlord with eight asylum houses on the G4S contract told me of longstanding tenants contacting him, frightened because Mears repair staff had been in a property and disconnected the fire alarms and smoke detectors and told tenants that ‘someone would return to repair them’. He was very angry: ‘Not only are people at risk, but if there is a fire, my insurance for the property is void.’ One asylum tenant with disconnected fire alarm and smoke detector told me, when I visited the house. ‘We are all worried here in the house, it is dangerous for us to have no alarms.’
‘Mears is not coping at all’, another contact told me. ‘They have no understanding of what asylum housing is about. It seems to be all about their bottom line, their profits. Asylum seekers need some care and support. You can’t just put them in the house and say “get on with it” like an average council tenant.’
Hundreds of asylum seekers in hotels in West Yorkshire
After asylum seekers register their asylum claims at the Home Office in Croydon, they may stay with relatives or friends to await the outcome of their claims, signing at reporting centres, or (which happens to the vast majority) may be sent to IACs (Initial Accommodation Centres) and from there to asylum housing. The IAC for Yorkshire and the North East is Urban House in Wakefield. While in the IAC, asylum seekers, whether single or families, receive no money at all, simply a room and food. Urban House is very unpopular with asylum seekers. Last week I was sent mobile phone pictures from residents of the hostel, showing dirty toilets,crowded shared rooms and infestation by bed bugs.
In Urban House, residents are means-tested to see whether they should be given ‘support’ (furnished and serviced accommodation plus around £5 a day), and those eligible should, after a few weeks, be ‘dispersed’ to asylum housing. Recently, people have been ‘dispersed’ to some totally unsuitable Mears houses. Last week I was sent video material of bed bugs crawling on woodwork in a Bradford asylum house where people had been placed from Urban House.
The crisis in the Mears contract in South Yorkshire and the North East has meant that there is very little housing for asylum seekers to go to from Urban House, and so many are being accommodated in hotels across West Yorkshire and Humberside. According to official sources, ‘between 600 and 900 asylum seekers are being accommodated in hotels at any one time in West Yorkshire’. Hotels have become asylum housing. And if people are in hotels instead of being dispersed, nobody has any money to buy even the basic necessities.
It is not unusual for IACs to seek very temporary overspill places in hotels when there are spikes in the number of asylum seekers entering the UK; there was such a spike in 2019. Home Office statistics show that there were 34,354 new asylum claimants in the UK (main applicants only) in the year ending September 2019, 22 percent more than the previous year and the highest level for three years. In West and South Yorkshire there was a 13 percent increase in asylum seekers in accommodation, from 5,198 to 5,865, in around 1,500 properties. But this crisis suggests that hotels are being used not just as overspill but as ‘mainstream’ asylum housing. Asylum seekers are also having to spend longer in asylum housing – or hotels – waiting for interviews and decisions.
Terry’s testimony: life in hotels
I went to see Terry, an asylum seeker from the Middle East, at his hotel in West Yorkshire. ‘I have been living in hotels since 8 October 2019,’ he told me. ‘They move us regularly. I have been in five different hotels. I have never had any money.
‘I think the most frightening thing I saw was when there were over a hundred of us in a hotel in November, with families and some children under five, and we were all told to stay in the hotel for a week because on social media someone political had threatened us. Terrorist police came and were hidden in the gardens and parts of the hotel. Muslim women with the headscarf were really terrified and very afraid for their children.’
Terry, a design manager speaking fluent English, told me of his concerns about everyday life in the hotels. ‘Mears men told me that there were just now 800 people in the hotels. They told me they were paying in this hotel £150 for every person every week.
‘I clean my own room here, nobody cleans our rooms in some of the hotels. I spent two months in another hotel and they only cleaned my room two or three times. Women in particular never get shampoo and toiletries normal for guests. I take them from the cleaners’ trolley and give to the women.
‘People who work in the hotels are often really rude to us. In another hotel near a small town, I talked to a church and a Methodist chapel and they were really good, bringing lots of things, toiletries etc. We had complained there were no toiletries and Mears simply said, “You have to get anything extra from charities and the churches.” Then they turned round and said we could not allow people from the churches into the hotel.
‘In one hotel we all refused to eat the out-of-date sandwiches they gave us – they were very smelly as we opened the packs.
‘You do not have any money at all to buy anything extra to what you are given. I don’t know how families with children can exist. Here the food is not bad sometimes but very small portions. In the evening, for dinner, around 6.30 everyone gets chips and a packet of crisps – that’s all. We have some kids here from 5 to 8 years old. I am pretty sure they are starving during the night. Chips and crisps from 1.30 in the afternoon to 8 o’clock the next day.’
Poor health care for pregnant women, people not tracked
Terry told me, ‘In the hotel where I spent two months there was a pregnant woman who was visited by the midwife. The midwife told Mears that the woman had a serious iron deficiency and suggested food she should eat – nothing was done about this by the Mears man. Nurses came to the hotels once every week or two weeks; the Mears man only once or twice a week – no one is in the hotels. They have no idea where some people are.’
Terry showed me a text from Migrant Help saying that he was to be evicted. ‘I was really worried. I thought they meant I was to be deported. I tried to contact them but there was no reply for hours. When I got through, they said they thought I was homeless and not in the hotel. They said they had not tracked where I was.’
As I left him Terry said, ‘I think I am going to volunteer with a food bank, maybe I can persuade them to bring food for the children here.’
What next for the Mears asylum contract in South Yorkshire?
The important statement from Cllr Paul Wood is the first time since 2012 that any council has expressed willingness to run an asylum housing contract for the Home Office. The National Audit Office (NAO) is currently also investigating the new asylum housing contracts; it is calling for evidence from asylum tenants and anyone involved in the contracts. G4S lost all its asylum housing contracts in 2019 after a sustained campaign over six years by asylum tenants with the courage to complain and challenge the international security company as their landlord. So, what next for Mears?
I would like to thank all those individuals, in particular Terry, who gave their time and testimonies to jointly create this piece.
For more information about the evidence sought by the NAO investigation, contact Asylum Matters.