The damning case against private providers of housing for asylum seekers

Home safe? Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/Press Association Images

For four years, the Home Office has held a series of contracts with three private providersG4S, Serco and Clearel – to procure and operate housing for asylum seekers in the UK. These contracts, known collectively as COMPASS (Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support), replaced previous arrangements with local authorities, housing associations and private landlords that existed in the decade after powers over asylum housing were centralised in 1999. Today, the COMPASS project has been marred by reports of discord, inefficiency and questionable service practices.

Both Serco and G4S have made accounting provisions of £6m and £31m respectively, to cover anticipated losses from the asylum seeker housing contracts. Now, the government is under pressure to make the terms more favourable when the contracts come up for renewal in 2017. Considering the scale of the reported failures of these firms, an extension of the COMPASS programme may prove politically and financially damaging.

Multiple costs

One of the main reasons that the government tendered the COMPASS contracts was to reduce costs. The £620m spent on COMPASS over seven years was expected to result in savings of around £140m over the seven-year length of the contracts. In reality, between 2012 and 2013, the savings amounted to £8m.

While Schedule 2 of the COMPASS contracts states that each provider must “ensure that it complies with all relevant mandatory and statutory requirements … including but not limited to housing”, there is evidence to suggest that G4S, Serco and their subcontractors have failed in this regard.

In its January 2014 report on the state of COMPASS, the National Audit Office declared that during the transition from previous suppliers “G4S and Serco took on housing stock without inspecting it, and subsequently found that many of the properties they had taken on did not meet the contractual quality standards”.

Extreme reported examples of asylum seekers’ substandard living environments include the experience of a mother who claimed to have found a cockroach in her baby’s milk bottle in her accommodation in Leeds, and reports of asylum seekers in Glasgow living in “slum conditions”.

Easy target. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/Press Association Images

There is evidence to suggest that asylum seekers have been segregated and exposed to harm by members of the public as a result of actions taken by COMPASS subcontractors. According to Andrew Norfolk’s exposé in The Times, asylum seekers living in Middlesborough claimed that they were easily targeted for abuse, because Jomast, a subcontractor of G4S in the region, had housed many of them in properties with distinctive red doors.

Though the minister for immigration, James Brokenshire, reported that the distinguishing hue of asylum seekers’ doors was “inadvertent”, G4S representatives agreed that the number of asylum seekers living in housing with red doors was “too high”, although they insisted that this had not been done deliberately.

Meanwhile, it was alleged that asylum seekers felt threatened and humiliated by staff of Orchard & Shipman – a subcontractor for Serco in Glasgow. The Scottish Refugee Council has called for the Home Office to address these accusations through the commissioning of an independent inquiry.

In response to these allegations, a spokesperson for Serco, speaking on behalf of Orchard & Shipman, said: “All property is cleaned prior to residents moving in and checked for compliance with the Home Office requirements. Every property is also inspected weekly and both Serco and the Home Office conduct random inspections covering at least 20% of all properties every month”. They added: “Orchard & Shipman staff are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times. If any resident is unhappy with the behaviour of staff there is a complaints procedure that residents are briefed on. All complaints are fully investigated and appropriate action taken if required.”

Missing the mark

Given that these firms have been implicated in the unsatisfactory provision of housing for asylum seekers, it seemed incongruous when, on March 8, hosts of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme warned that the COMPASS project was “at breaking point” due to conditions outside the firms’ control. It alleged that confidential documents showed that local authorities were refusing to accept asylum seekers and that this was evidence of weaknesses in the asylum housing system as a whole.

The COMPASS programme was developed to replace the asylum housing agreements formerly negotiated between the Home Office and local authorities. Indeed, the promise of cheaper properties sourced by private providers was a key selling point in the firms’ bids for the COMPASS contracts.

So, local authorities’ involvement in housing asylum seekers following the commencement of COMPASS has happened when firms have failed to meet their contractual obligations. For instance, when G4S reportedly missed its November 2012 deadline to transition asylum seekers into alternatively sourced housing, Leeds, Barnsley and Kirklees councils extended provision into December for more than 300 residents.

Restoring the balance

During the Radio 4 broadcast, the 29% increase in asylum applications between 2014 and 2015 was cited as a key contributor to strains on the asylum housing system. A manager from one of the private firms operating COMPASS was quoted as saying: “We don’t have enough suitable accommodation, so we have to put people in hotels.”

While fluctuations in the number of asylum applicants may place strains on provision, increases in asylum applications are not unforeseen phenomena; they are a feature of an expanding “asylum market”. When asked why Serco would enter into a contract of questionable profitability during a Home Affairs Committee meeting in 2013, former Serco UK and Europe CEO Jeremy Stafford referred to COMPASS as a “platform that we felt was scalable” and accommodation management as “an important development area”.

Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the Today broadcast was the producers’ over-dramatised reproduction of their informant’s claims. One provided the voice of an anonymous COMPASS manager, saying:

We have a lot of aggressive service users. When we go to a property, we don’t know what to expect and it makes the job incredibly scary.

While not wishing to invalidate this reported experience, the absence of residents’ perspectives was conspicuous. To restore the balance, I offer this quote from an asylum seeker describing the COMPASS housing programme during an interview for a doctoral research project:

They just take us [asylum seekers] and dump us wherever they feel like. It’s like we died, but they didn’t bury us yet.