Dispersal policies are polarising city councils, with some having their contracts terminated and others abdicating their responsibilities to house asylum seekers.
In January 2011 the North East Contracting Consortium for Asylum Support issued a press statement, through Newcastle City Council, announcing that it was considering mounting a legal challenge against the UK Border Agency (UKBA). UKBA had informed the Consortium that its contract for housing asylum seekers was being terminated and, instead, being awarded to a property development organisation, Jomast. The Consortium, made up of seven local authorities in the north-east, housed 1,100 people and had been providing accommodation for asylum seekers dispersed to the region for ten years. In its press statement, it maintained that, ‘Putting all delivery into the hands of the private sector could deprive asylum seekers and communities of the extensive expertise and resources which councils can provide … We have consistently been judged by the UKBA to provide a quality service and to base such a major decision apparently in terms of immediate price, rather than overall cost benefit, is disappointing’.
If the legal challenge goes ahead, it appears that it will be the first of its kind to confront a decision to withdraw funding for housing provision. Yet the decision itself is the latest in a series of steps which have marked a gradual shift in dispersal policies: one which has seen local authorities abdicating, or being absolved of, their responsibilities to house and provide shelter for asylum seekers.
Asylum dispersal: a history of exploitation, vulnerability and racial violence
The dispersal of asylum seekers around the UK has been subjected to considerable criticism. Instigated by the Labour government in 1999, in an attempt to reduce the concentration of asylum seekers in London and the south east, it meant people being housed on a ‘no-choice’ basis in towns and cities throughout the UK. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) was established to administer dispersal, and effectively, removed asylum seekers from mainstream welfare services.
Financial support (initially in the form of vouchers) was set at thirty per cent less than the value of income support and a complex market of housing provision was created. Lucrative contracts to house asylum seekers were frequently taken up by local authorities, sub-contracted to accommodation providers and then sub-contracted further to private landlords. The result was a housing system which in many instances was poorly regulated, substandard and unsafe.
Complaints by asylum seekers were routine and when investigations were carried out they uncovered evidence of uninhabitable conditions. In 2004, for example, the Home Office announced that it was terminating its contract with Landmark Liverpool Ltd, stating that the majority of their properties ‘were below an acceptable standard. Many had insect infestations, damp and poor electrical installations’.
Houses were often provided in hard-to-let and dilapidated areas. Racist attacks against asylum seekers dramatically increased as dispersal policies were introduced. In 2002 the Home Office disclosed that approximately 2,000 racially motivated attacks had been carried out on asylum seekers in the two years since the policy had been introduced. Some, such as those on Firsat Dag in the Sighthill area of Glasgow in 2001 and Peiman Bahmani in Sunderland in 2002, were fatal. Other people, isolated and frightened, took their own lives.
Reduced local authority care
In 2004 six police forces were reported to have requested suspensions of dispersals within their localities, in part because of the frequency and severity of racist violence. Yet, despite clear evidence that dispersal policies had created fertile ground for violence and exploitation, decisions on ongoing contract procurement appeared to be underpinned more by financial considerations than the protection of those seeking safety in the UK.
Contracts for housing asylum seekers were initially offered for a fixed number of years. In 2006, as the second round of housing agreements were being negotiated, the then immigration minister Tony McNulty announced his intention to further increase private sector provision, stating ‘We want that degree of flexibility and contingency built into the contracts to reflect numbers as they go up and down. I think the private sector is better placed to respond to that type of contract’. NASS had already terminated its agreement with Southampton City Council, ostensibly in response to decreasing numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK. And the renewal of housing arrangements saw numerous public bodies losing their contracts as well. As a representative of the Yorkshire and Humberside Consortium for Asylum Seekers and Refugees warned, after several housing associations in the district lost their contract, such decisions could potentially cause disruption to families and to children’s education as new accommodation providers re-housed them.
But whilst certain public authorities and bodies had their contracts terminated, other city councils voluntarily withdrew from their arrangements with the UKBA. In February 2006 Wigan Council announced that it was opting out of its housing pact, enabling private accommodation providers to fill the gap and to release council properties ‘to address local housing needs and create an opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees on the Gateway Protection Programme’. And in 2010, as the second round of housing arrangements began to draw to a close, Birmingham City Council declared that it had turned down a renewal of its contract; maintaining that, ‘we must help the citizens of this city first and foremost … With a long waiting list for homes, we really need all our properties for our people in these difficult economic times. In the interest of local people, this decision has been made’. Days later Wolverhampton Council took the same decision, stating that, ‘This has been a difficult decision to make, but one that is in the interests of local people on our housing waiting list’.
A third round of housing contracts
Now, a third round of housing contracts is being negotiated, channelled through the Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services (COMPASS) project set up in 2009.
This venture, launched by UKBA, scheduled bidding events for March 2011. As such the contracts procured through the project will be overshadowed by the coalition government’s commitment to reduce expenditure on provisions for asylum seekers amidst a wider programme of savage public spending cuts. The outcome of the government’s spending review, on 20 October 2010, prompted UKBA publicly to state its intention to ‘drive down the cost of asylum support’; continuing to assert that ‘The agency will save around £500m in efficiencies by reducing support costs, improving productivity and value for money for commercial suppliers’. About two weeks later one implication of this decision was made clear.
In November 2010 all of the (approximately) 600 asylum seeking families in Glasgow, housed by the city council, received letters from UKBA saying that the council would no longer be supporting them. They were told that they were to be moved to other locations in Scotland and that non-cooperation could lead to the withdrawal of all support. Families were informed that they would be given between three and five days’ notice of any decision and, the same day, the city council was informed that their housing contract was being terminated.
After significant public campaigning these eviction letters were withdrawn and in January 2011 immigration minister Damien Green apologised for their ‘inappropriateness’. But the fear that families have, that they and their children will be uprooted once more, remains.
In over ten years of asylum dispersal the patterns of exploitation, racist violence and social isolation which initially emerged have persisted. In 2009 for example Jasraj Kataria, a 23-month-old child, died after falling from the window of a third floor flat in Glasgow provided by NASS. The company whose property it was, the Angel Group, insisted that the windows were fitted with locks, but refused to make public the findings of its investigation into his death. A year later a NASS accommodation provider, which had provided properties in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, was reported to be in a legal dispute with the Home Office with both parties alleging the other owed it money. According to one analysis, the Home Office claimed that the accommodation provider ‘sometimes provided “sub-standard, uninhabitable, or unsafe” housing, with some properties suffering blocked drains, broken doors and windows, and vermin infestations’.
The coalition government is casting aside a whole swathe of services of which housing support is one, including funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses and legal aid for migrants and asylum seekers.
Read in this context; with some local authorities admitting publicly that they no longer wish to house asylum seekers in their locality and others losing contracts to more ‘flexible’ private accommodation providers, those seeking safety in the UK face being dispersed into areas which are potentially both increasingly hostile and under-equipped to provide for their needs. At the same time, the shift in the award of contracts may portend less regulation and less accountability.