Forty-two refugee support organisations across the UK have today published a report based on evidence they provided to the National Audit Office during its investigation into the Home Office’s new asylum support contracts.
In their report, Wake Up Call, the organisations say problems that arose during the change almost fatally disrupted the asylum support system, which they say has for years operated on a knife edge and lurches from crisis to crisis.
Evidence presented to the NAO revealed problems with:
- Impossible hold times on the advice line: One charity said it had to wait 13 hours 40 minutes on hold between just three clients;
- Appalling delays receiving asylum support: Refugee Action said it took on average 40 days for destitute people it supported to receive financial support and/or accommodation between July 2019 and January 2020. It added on average people waited an extra 15 days to receive their prepaid Aspen cards, which are used by people seeking asylum to shop;
- Terrible accommodation standards: one charity said a family with a disabled daughter was moved to a flat on the fourth floor; in another case a mother and her child were sent to a home without any furnishings, white goods, or equipment to cook;
- Long stays in contingency accommodation: the organisations’ report said during the troubled transition the new contractors began using more contingency accommodation to house people, resulting in a lack of dignity for people in such accommodation, risks to mental and physical health, and people living in unsuitable accommodation for weeks.
Many of these problems are reflected in the NAO’s own final report, also published on the 3rd July, which reiterates that during the transition, people seeking asylum faced difficulties accessing appropriate accommodation and specialist support and advice.
Asylum Matters has worked to improve transparency and accountability in the asylum support and accommodation contracts over the last few years. In 2019, we produced a number of resources designed to help organisations and individuals better navigate the contracts and advocate for better service provision.
However, we maintain that there are systemic problems with these contracts that too often result in the needs of people seeking asylum not being met.
Wake Up Call goes on to draw parallels with the Home Office’s response to the COVID pandemic, where it appears the Department has learnt little from these lessons, with much of its response showing that it’s running a system with serious underlying problems.
Ewan Roberts, Centre Manager at Asylum Link Merseyside, who contributed evidence to the report said:
“During the transition of the contracts, our services were severely affected by the paralysis on the Migrant Help phone line. Volunteers were on hold, twiddling their thumbs, while people in need went without any financial support or accommodation.
“The transition period exposed deep rooted problems with a system that is unfeeling, inflexible and causes serious damage to people.
“The solution requires massive change: we need independent, public scrutiny of these contracts and transparency from the Home Office.”
The Migration and Asylum Justice Forum in the North East, who shared the experiences of their members in the report said:
“The period of transition from Jomast to Mears has been fraught with uncertainty for many asylum seekers in Tyne and Wear. Despite some workers from a number of service providers doing their utmost to make the process smooth; there have been many occasions where caseworkers have been unsure of the available housing stock, the responsibilities of different agencies in regards to repairs or amenities, or the access needs of tenants.
This has meant that tenants have often had no idea how long they were staying in their current accommodation, where they might go, or who to approach when a housing crisis occurs.
While there have been some improvements since the new year, there remains much to do to ensure that asylum seekers are always accessing decent, appropriate housing.”
Paul Hook, Director of Asylum Matters, said:
“The issues highlighted by the NAO today will come as no surprise to many of those living in asylum accommodation, or those who support them. These contracts have been plagued by systemic problems since their inception, resulting in a chronic lack of transparency and poor accommodation standards.
“Lessons must be learned and acted upon – the Home Office cannot just return to business as usual.
“We have grave concerns that unless action is finally taken as we emerge out of lockdown, familiar problems will recur and the asylum system will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.”
If you want to know more about this report, or how to get involved in our work on asylum accommodation, please contact Julia Savage on julia[at]asylummatters.org