Opinion: Below the radar - G4S asylum housing and housing professionals
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities
Child asylum seekers 'denied food and medicine' by UK Border Agency
John Grayson is an independent researcher and adult educator who works as a volunteer with South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG).
Here he critically analyses a good practice guide for asylum housing published by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH):
In a column for 24dash published on February 12, John Perry assessed the impacts of a good practice guide he had published last June for the Housing and Migration Network and the CIH.
Perry commented that “it’s always good to see if guidance actually works, so I’ve been collecting a few examples since then of what housing professionals have been doing in this field”.
The problem for those of us researching asylum housing in asylum rights organisations is that the original guide and Perry’s February assessment of its impact managed to almost ignore the world of asylum seeker housing.
The original guide was written at a time when it was known that the UKBA through its commercial arm COMPASS was privatising the whole of asylum housing and had given contracts worth £620m to three security companies – Serco, Reliance, and the world’s largest security company, G4S.
Over the past year, in Yorkshire, the Midlands and the North East alone around 9,000 vulnerable asylum seekers and their families waiting for outcomes to their asylum claims have become tenants of G4S.
In terms of advice on working with this large scale privatisation, the CIH guide was pretty vague.
Social housing professionals were alerted to “a new challenge to forge partnerships between the private companies that will provide asylum accommodation, local services and migrant support organisations…it is going to be vital to encourage the companies to take a strategic view, recognise the ‘civic’ role they need to fulfil and contribute to successful integration” (p.14).
In an earlier May 2012 publication by Perry for the Joseph Rowntree Trust – ‘UK migrants and the private rented sector’ -) he had suggested that there might be problems with “contracts that go to largely private providers” bringing about “consequences for community integration if local authorities, local migrant networks and voluntary organisations working with migrants are side-lined” (p.12).
Not a word in all this about the fact that the private security companies who were taking the contracts had no experience of housing at all, and were seen primarily by asylum seekers as companies linked to managing detention centres and deportation services.
The original guide pointed out that “no secure or assured tenancy is created” when asylum seekers are housed. The guide perhaps should have mentioned that the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act stripped asylum seekers of all tenants’ rights and security.
Since 2005 the UKBA has placed duties on housing professionals to report regularly on asylum tenants – to report extremist political activity, or any evidence of asylum seekers working. This has meant as far as private sector landlords are concerned a regime of intrusions into the households of asylum seekers and their families.
Local authority asylum teams on the whole respected the privacy of asylum seekers homes giving notice of visits, and in the case of local councils like Newcastle, undertaking housing satisfaction surveys with asylum housing tenants.
In his review of progress since the original guide, Perry might have mentioned the growing evidence of deteriorating standards of housing allocated to asylum seekers and the collapse of professional standards in housing management we have witnessed in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Sarah Teather MP in a debate on the recent Children’s Society Report on asylum support on February 27th said: “Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking… It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.”
In the same debate, shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant spoke of the “hideous conditions in which many people live” in asylum housing.
John Perry as policy adviser to the CIH sees his role as an optimist, proving how the social housing sector can demonstrate “good practice” faced with the challenges of migration and political controversies surrounding links between housing shortage and migrants. The problem with this worthy but apolitical approach is that it completely ducks the impacts on real people (asylum seekers and refugees) in favour of a focus on the practice of housing professionals and social housing agencies.
Perry does mention “destitute migrants” and there are interesting examples of efforts to meet their extreme housing needs. The problem is how to define the notion of “destitution”, because the UKBA now routinely refers to “destitute asylum seekers” in asylum housing. In fact asylum housing is means tested and if an asylum seeker has managed to bring funds with her/him then these have to be spent supporting themselves whilst waiting for outcomes of asylum claims. A percentage of new asylum seekers opt to stay with relatives and claim only cash support.
The UKBA actually itself creates a category of “destitution” by ending support for those (mainly single people, women and men) who have exhausted the claims and appeals process. The UKBA simply ignore the fact that most of these “destitute” asylum seekers cannot be deported, or return voluntarily to their countries of origin, because they face discrimination or violence there.
The CIH guide stressed the role that social housing providers have in the “integration” of migrants and refugees. By February Perry reports good progress on this and again good practice. This displays a somewhat blinkered view of what has really been happening to refugees over the past few months once their claim for asylum is successful.
There has been a total breakdown of refugee referral services for housing since the withdrawal of funding for advice services, and the disappearance of experienced local authority asylum teams. Problems and delays with benefits have had tragic consequences highlighted by the death through starvation of a refugee child in London. Keith Cooper in reports for Inside Housing has demonstrated that “destitution and homelessness are all too often the first greeting for refugees entitled to housing support”.
John Perry is a respected authority on migration and housing but he also speaks from a compromised position in the tarnished world of social housing and within the contradictions of the world of charitable housing associations.
G4S appointed a former president of the CIH, Andrew Gray, to the post of accommodation director for its contracts. Metropolitan who sponsored the guide through the Metropolitan Migration Foundation has 36,000 homes and 80,000 customers. Within its empire are the former Refugee Housing Association and Safe Haven housing association which pioneered asylum housing in Yorkshire.
The present chair of the board Barbara Roche as Labour Home Office minister began the dispersal of asylum seekers and brought in a hated voucher system for support in 2000. Metropolitan, like most large housing associations, has decided to embrace the world of marketised rented housing.
G4S documents show that in 20111 Metropolitan made a bid to join G4S as a subcontractor for the new COMPASS contracts (1). Other social housing bidders included In Communities (the transfer housing association for former Bradford council tenants), Target Housing Association and Horton Housing Association. In a competitive bidding process G4S chose Target HA along with private companies UPM, Mantel and Live Management Group.
Although allocated almost 70 percent of the delivery contracts, UPM was subsequently removed as a result of a campaign exposing their actions in dumping an African mother and baby in a dangerous Doncaster flat. UPM was replaced by Cascade in West Yorkshire. Metropolitan did still profit from the G4S contract by “novating” some of its asylum housing to Target. In Communities profited from the new contracts by leasing all its existing asylum housing with sitting tenants to Cascade and G4S.
In February of this year when Perry’s review article was published, the G4S contracts in Yorkshire were dramatically unravelling amidst scandals of cockroach infested properties and general chaos and confusion. Cascade were suspended for three months from contracts, and Mantel have resigned. G4S faces investigations by the ICIBI (Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration) and the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in the near future.
It would be interesting if Perry was able to reflect on this rather sorry tale which has created havoc in the lives of hundreds of already traumatised asylum seekers and their families when he next reviews the world of migrant housing.
The vast majority of housing professionals who had worked for local asylum teams in Yorkshire refused to transfer over to G4S on principle – preferring to take early retirement or face redundancy rather than be associated with a security company with a controversial human rights record.
I trust that this stand by housing professionals will be cited as “good practice” in any future CIH guides Perry produces.
1. COMPASS G4S Draft Service Delivery Plan 0.1.1. (Draft) 16 May 2012