Around 40,000 people are currently housed by the Home Office while their claims for refugee status are decided.
In 2012 the Home Office contracts to provide housing for dispersed asylum seekers were taken from Local Authorities and awarded to three companies, G4S, Serco and Clearsprings Ready Homes under the Compass (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) contracts. These contracts run until 2019.
The companies rent the properties that they have subcontracted from private Landlords. This is similar to the provision of temporary accommodation for homeless people in the UK, in which many local authorities acquire contracts with private landlords to let and manage a range of temporary accommodation in exchange for guaranteed rent.
However, asylum seekers’ only port of call relating to disrepair are only with the companies rather than government agencies. The Home Office’s position is that it is the responsibility of the above contractors to provide accommodation that is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. Despite this, it appears that much of the accommodation falls far short of this description.
Whose responsibility is it?
In 2017 the House of Commons home affairs select committee carried out their own inquiry into housing for Asylum seekers. They reached the conclusion that “the current contract system for asylum accommodation isn’t working and major reforms are needed. The Committee brands the state of some asylum accommodation provided by Government contractors a “disgrace” and says it is “shameful” that very vulnerable people have been placed in these conditions”.
Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Committee, commented that “We have come across too many examples of vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation for example children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women, or inadequate support for victims of rape and torture. No one should be living in conditions like that.” She also recommended that when the current contracts end the responsibilities should be handed back to Local Authorities.
The agreements themselves are subject to the normal UK laws requiring landlords to maintain the structure and exterior of the property as well as the services for provision for water, gas and electricity (s.11 Landlord and Tenant Act 1980) as well as the protection offered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that a property should be free from Hazards. The responsibility for these repairs would lie with the company who manages the property, although in many cases the lease agreements between them and the private landlords puts the responsibility back on the owner. The occupant is then put in the difficult position stuck between the two with no rights to enforce against the owner.
A report on Housing conditions for asylum seekers in Birmingham and the west Midlands created by Migrant Voice in January 2017 found that the majority of those surveyed were dissatisfied with the physical condition of the property, with issues raised with infestations, broken windows, toilets or essential appliances.
The Migrant Voice report also stressed that many satisfied occupants expressed that their satisfaction stemmed from the fear of being street homeless, and that any property was preferable to this very real possibility. The report also highlights that people placed in this accommodation often felt that their concerns were not listened to as well as accompanying feelings of hopelessness
Does the current system work?
Asylum seekers in the UK are prevented from working or from accessing a tenancy themselves, thanks to the “right to rent” introduced in 2016 which requires landlord to ensure that their tenants have status in the UK before entering into a tenancy agreement. If a person rejects accommodation provided by asylum support, no further assistance will be provided and they may face destitution.
The main issues that were identified relate to vermin, to include infestations of mice, rats and bedbugs and unclean living conditions including dirty carpets and rotten sofas. The Committee also established that the three contractors were housing more people than they were funded for and that asylum seekers were being housing in concentrated areas.
People seeking asylum in the UK, many of them children, are among the most vulnerable in our society. People often waiting for months or years to hear from the Home office on their applications for refugee status, often subject to appeals or detention in the meantime. This insecurity could even prevent people from complaining to asserting their rights to safe, decent accommodation.
Currently, legal assistance is available to people through legal aid to obtain assistance in ensuring that properties are safe and do not pose a risk to their health, although proposals have been made to remove access to subsidised legal representation to those who do not have settled status. It is no secret that good-quality, affordable accommodation is in short supply for all inhabitants of the UK. The shortage can be addressed and the legal means are there for people to use, we should not be satisfied with poor housing standards for anyone.