As chaos and confusion dominate the transition to the new G4S asylum accommodation contracts in Yorkshire and the Humber, John Grayson from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) explains how the new delivery model works (or doesn’t), drawing on recent cases from the region.
Private accommodation shortage
We already know that G4S and its subcontractors cannot simply find enough Private Rented Sector accommodation in West and South Yorkshire to place families moved from council housing and council-contracted housing. This desperate search for PRS accommodation means some appalling properties are being brought into service to fulfil the new contracts.
All dispersals are now being made to the North East via Clare House in Huddersfield. The latest information suggests that single people may be moved under the new COMPASS contracts to Halifax (Calderdale) and the North East. All ‘social cohesion’ requirements on concentration of accommodation and risks of racial harassment and hate crime seem to have been ignored. The Barnsley asylum team, whose contract runs out on the 12th November, are now suggesting that moving families with school-age children may well be postponed to the October half-term holidays.
The new delivery model
Information gleaned from meetings and correspondence with government and private agencies suggests that the new contracts include inferior ‘space’ standards in accommodation. For example:
1) A lone women with children can be housed together with other lone women with children. This ‘hostel view’ of the housing needs of lone women and children could be extremely damaging and stressful, particularly where different languages, nationalities and religious practices are involved. There is indeed evidence of the effects on the well-being of children exposed to the stress and distress of mothers going through the asylum process. In hostel conditions, the situation for children and parents is obviously worse.
2) A relatively large number of young children can be accommodated in one bedroom with parents in another bedroom in a two-bedroomed terrace. A recent case of four children aged between six months and seven years, who were threatened to be moved to a two-bedroomed house with their parents, was described by one worker as “probably just within the UKBA space standards”.
The new delivery model, with various tiers of subcontracting and an even more complicated chain of contractors, further undermines the housing standards and dramatically reduces accountability.
In a recent case in Barnsley, a landlord contracted by United Property Management (UPM) under the Target contracts had provided flats for asylum seeking families. The flats were spacious and of reasonable quality but none of the families had been supplied with washing machines (a UKBA contract requirement). After campaigners raised the issue, the landlord provided, within a few days, a washing machine to one of the families who had been in their flat without one since their arrival in December 2011. He had previously suggested September as the earliest date for doing so, when Live Management took over the property from UPM.
The Barnsley landlord also claimed that his flats were subcontracted from UPM / Live Management, with a three months’ notice clause, so that he could “get rid” of “unsatisfactory asylum seeker tenants”.
Thus, in Barnsley at least, there are four tiers of subcontracting for the privatised asylum housing falling under the G4S contracts, building in permanent problems in ensuring decent accommodation for asylum seekers, and permanent uncertainty about being constantly moved. These tiers are: the UK Border Agency, G4S, Live Management, and small private landlords with three months notice clauses.
A Sheffield case last week exposed major failings in the way G4S and its private landlords (in this case Live Management) approach the transition to the new contracts and the moving of asylum seeking families with children to new accommodation.
The family with four children aged between six months to seven years were given a two weeks’ notice to move to another property on 6th August. The family had been moved from the South Coast only on 7th June this year, to a poor-quality, three-bedroomed terrace house. The house was filthy and extremely damp, with dirty carpets and mattresses and dangerous electrical wiring. Even the family’s UKBA case worker in the South intervened to get a few improvements.
The parents spent months cleaning and making the house habitable, though major problems remained. In an email dated 18th August 2012, the father wrote to supporters:
“I hope they come and change the carpets and do all other work on the property. There are slug trails on the carpets and there is also something that keeps stinging you from the carpet as well, do not know what it is.”
Soon after the family were told they were to be moved to another terraced house by G4S. The father went to look at the outside of the property and all he saw an overgrown, rubbish-strewn back yard. Neighbours said it had been empty for a long time and had only two bedrooms. The family feared an exact repeat of their appalling housing experience of the past three months. In addition, after touring local schools, they had just found a school for their two school-age children for September, three miles away from their house. They feared the move would put the school places in jeopardy.
And so they appealed to UKBA and G4S, who rejected their appeal and were told the property was a four-bedroomed property and would be thoroughly cleaned by Live Management before their move.
The family contacted SYMAAG on August 10th by email. SYMAAG raised the issues about the move with G4S, Live Management and the Council. As late as Friday 17th August, with the move scheduled for 20th August, the G4S management was saying the new address was a four-bedroomed property “according to Live Management.”
A SYMAAG volunteer had seen the property on Wednesday the 16th and confirmed that it was in poor condition externally and “certainly looked like a two-bedroom terrace.” These facts were confirmed by an internet property search, where the property was described on www.mouseprice.com as having two bedrooms. On the same street:
“Some of these properties are relatively old, as at least 10 of them were built 112 years ago in 1900. The average value of the properties ……..is £53,220, which makes it one of the least expensive places to live in … Sheffield.”
When Live Management was contacted in Leicester early on the 17th, they said their ‘area manager ‘ would be urgently contacted. Later that morning, all the parties involved (the UKBA, G4S and Live Management) confirmed with the family that the move had been cancelled, and urgent replacement carpets and improvements would be made to their existing accommodation.
Some lessons for campaigners
When SYMAAG contacted the G4S ‘help line’ number, the response was very professional and friendly. But it later emerged that G4S was simply passing on totally inaccurate information from its subcontractors without checking its accuracy.
It also emerged that an appeal to the UKBA and G4S, as per the ‘rights’ given to asylum seekers, were dismissed out of hand, without any checks whatsoever of the claim of Live Management to have provided a four-bedroomed property in good condition.
The Sheffield case also demonstrates the total inaccuracy of the claim in the Stakeholders’ FAQ’s that the UKBA is involved and fully informed of private contractors’ actions and the dire effects they are having on the well-being of children and families. The FAQ’s state:
“UKBA will be working with current accommodation providers to identify any special requirements that service users may have and will be sharing this information with new providers so that the most appropriate accommodation can be provided. UKBA will oversee the current providers’ Exit Plans and new providers’ Transition Plans to ensure that the provision of services is seamless during the transition period.”
As campaigners have previously argued, there are no procedures or proper consideration given to “identify any special requirements of service users” (that is, asylum seekers and their children), prior to moves carried out by the UKBA or G4S under COMPASS transition. The Sheffield case is further evidence of this.
The Sheffield case also casts doubt on whether the UKBA is actually involved in ensuring contract compliance. On 1st August, Anita Bell, UKBA Project Manager for COMPASS Transition, stated:
“UKBA are working closely with G4S to ensure properties utilised for transition purposes are contractually compliant and will take appropriate steps to ensure any properties not meeting the required standard are either brought up to standard within the required timeframe or taken off line.
We are working closely with G4S to ensure that the majority of people will continue living in their current properties. Where people do need to move, proper consideration will be given to any special requirements to ensure minimum disruption.”
The Sheffield case suggests that is is simply not true. SYMAAG has said all along that the appeal procedure is inadequate. The group is now advising asylum seekers to challenge appeal decisions and seek legal action via SYMAAG and Public Interest Lawyers. The group has produced an advice leaflet about this, which can be found on its website (www.symaag.org.uk).
The threat of legal action both G4S and Live Management on 17th August in the Sheffield family’s case seemed to resolve the matter incredibly quickly. However, the conditions of the family’s existing accommodation, with four young children living there, is still a major concern.