The Home Office has failed to improve “unacceptably poor” conditions at asylum accommodation centres, according to a group of MPs, who said they are “deeply concerned” about the department’s handling of the next round of contracts.
In a report calling for an independent review into housing for people seeking refugee status, the Home Affairs Select Committee said the Home Office had on several occasions failed to address problems identified with asylum accommodation.
The report comes as the Home Office is preparing to award contracts worth £4bn to replace existing contracts with the contracting firms G4S, Serco and Clearsprings.
It said the department had relied too heavily on assurances from outsourcers managing the accommodation that they were meeting their contractual requirements, despite “overwhelming evidence… that the condition of some accommodation is unacceptably poor”.
Problems raised by non-governmental organisations, local authorities and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration had gone unaddressed, according to the report, which warned of “systemic mistrust affecting engagement” with these bodies.
The committee reiterated its call from its 2017 report on asylum accommodation to make local authorities responsible for inspections and give them the power to impose sanctions on providers. It also said the Home Office must commission a review of asylum seekers’ experience and treatment in asylum accommodation by March 2020.
It pointed to the chief inspector’s report, published in November, that said inspectors found some accommodation centres “had various visible defects (leaks, damp, broken equipment), poor quality furnishings and fittings, and were dirty”.
The committee also found “very little [had] changed” since its 2017 report, which identified several barriers to asylum seekers raising concerns about accommodation defects – such as difficulty getting through on contact lines and fear that complaining would negatively affect their asylum application – while on some occasions complaints were not logged or were met with “disbelief or hostility”.
“The department has a duty of care and must show a greater urgency about the degrading conditions in which very vulnerable people are being housed under its contracts,” the report said.
The Home Office must also work to improve its relationship with local authorities ahead of awarding the next contracts for accommodation in the coming weeks, the report said. Local authorities voluntarily participate in the dispersal scheme that places asylum seekers around the country, but some had become so disenfranchised by the department’s failure to involve them in the handling of the contracts that they were considering withdrawing from the scheme, the report said.
Their withdrawal “could present a significant risk to the government’s ability to meet its statutory responsibilities for the asylum system”, the report warned.
In a statement accompanying the report, committee member Stuart McDonald said the government had “done little” to support authorities in Glasgow, Manchester, Wolverhampton and elsewhere, which “have done so much to support those seeking asylum in the UK”.
“In the final weeks before contracts for asylum accommodation worth billions of pounds are agreed, the government must ensure they provide for a long-term, workable partnership with local authorities,” he added.
The report said officials overseeing the new contracts should be “protected from other demands”, including the department’s mounting Brexit workload, to concentrate on ensuring the transition goes smoothly.
"A botched transition would have immediate repercussions for some of the most vulnerable in society," it said.
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said the department was “committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while applications are considered”.
"We consider all requests from those who may have particular vulnerabilities, care needs or health problems that require specialist accommodation,” they added.
"We also monitor contractors and their accommodation closely and take action – including financial penalties – where issues are not addressed within certain timescales.
“We continue to work closely with local authorities on asylum dispersal and have committed to comprehensive engagement with the Local Government Association and local authority chief executives to review the process.”