The National Audit Office has urged the Home Office to work with providers to address early problems with its new asylum accommodation contracts, which have left some asylum seekers waiting months for long-term housing.
Asylum seekers have been left unable to register with a GP or enrol their children in schools while they wait for long-term accommodation, the National Audit Office said.
In a report today, the watchdog said the facilities some housing providers inherited from the previous contracts was so poor that they had to do extra maintenance, causing delays.
Meanwhile, some asylum seekers were left in short-term accommodation for far longer than they should be as newer arrivals were moved on.
It is not yet clear that the asylum accommodation contracts, which began last summer, will be better value for money than the last deals they replaced, despite costing more, according to a report by the watchdog today.
The seven housing contracts, worth a combined £4bn over 10 years, are part of the Home Office’s Asylum, Accommodation and Transformation Project. Alongside the contracts, which provide regional accommodation and transport, is an eighth deal to provide a new national helpline and support service, AIRE.
They replace the COMPASS contracts, which were awarded in 2012 and were fiercely criticised by both campaigners and MPs. In 2014, the Public Accounts Committee said asylum accommodation was “poorly planned and badly managed”, and last year the Home Affairs Committee said asylum seekers were living in “degrading conditions”.
Under the new contracts, some providers “struggled in the early months”, the NAO said.
Serco told the watchdog that some houses it took over from contracting giant G4S in the Midlands and East of England were “below the standards required by the new contract”.
Mears, which took over G4S’s former North East, Yorkshire and Humberside contract, as well as the Scotland and Northern Ireland contracts from Serco, also said some of the facilities it inherited were substandard.
“This increased the maintenance work needed and made it harder to move people into longer-term housing on time,” the report said.
Asylum seekers supported by the Home Office are initially moved into short-term accommodation, before moving into long-term housing, usually within a few weeks. They cannot register with a doctor or enrol their children in school while in the initial accommodation.
Between July and October 2019, the first three months of the new contracts, the number of asylum seekers in short-term accommodation nearly doubled from 1,678 to 3,289, according to the NAO report.
Between September 2019 and February 2020, the average time spent in short-term accommodation was 26 days, in line with Home Office expectations. But 981 people who had arrived by the end of December 2019 stayed in initial accommodation for at least 86 days.
The Home Office has charged Mears £3.1m in service credits for failures in meeting targets on moving people to longer-term accommodation, as well as property maintenance and responding to complaints.
And it charged Serco £2.6m in service credits for failing to move asylum seekers into longer-term housing, as well as “many failures” on property maintenance issues in the Midlands and East of England.
Support service failed
Meanwhile, the AIRE support service “failed its users in its early months”. After receiving more than double the number of calls it expected to per month, the contractor only managed to answer a fifth of calls.
The contractor, Migrant Help, failed to provide an induction briefing to some 2,800 asylum seekers within a day of moving into their accommodation, as the contract requires.
And it took three to four times longer than expected to complete application forms for asylum seekers whose applications were denied, and who were facing destitution.
Even following improvements, the service has “not yet delivered consistently acceptable performance”, the NAO said.
The NAO has urged the Home Office to work with contractors to address their early failings.
In particular, it said the department should work with Migrant Help to improve the performance of the AIRE service, and review whether asylum seekers who have been in short-term accommodation for a long period are being offered longer-term accommodation at the same rate as recent arrivals.
NAO head Gareth Davies said: “The Home Office has replaced the previous COMPASS asylum seeker accommodation and support contracts to improve services at a higher but realistic cost. However, performance standards were missed in initial months, which left some asylum seekers facing difficulties accessing suitable housing and specialist support and advice.
“The department has shown that it has learned from the COMPASS contracts and has laid the foundations of a better service. The department now needs to show that it has addressed the challenges we identify, in order to deliver value for money over the life of these contracts.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a long and proud record of providing protection to those who need it. The health and wellbeing of those seeking protection has and always will be the priority, and we will continue to provide support to those that need it.
“The NAO is clear in this report that the Home Office is paying a realistic price for service provider contracts and has learnt the lessons from previous arrangements. The Home Office continues to work closely with service providers to ensure our asylum system is providing the necessary support to those who genuinely need it.”