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Asylum Seekers: Middlesbrough

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on the revelation today about discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers in Middlesbrough.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking this urgent question and allowing me the opportunity to set out the Government’s response to the issues raised in The Times today.

From the outset, I underline that the United Kingdom has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it, and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while asylum cases are considered. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced the policy of national dispersal, which was designed to share the impact of asylum seekers across the whole United Kingdom. Under that arrangement, asylum seekers are housed across the UK under voluntary agreements between national Governments and local authorities. Those arrangements have been in place since 2000. Under current arrangements—the commercial and operating managers procuring asylum support services, or COMPASS, contracts—three companies provide asylum seeker accommodation, transport and related services. In Middlesbrough those services are provided by G4S.

As right hon. and hon. Members will have seen from my response published in The Times this morning, I am deeply concerned about the issues raised and the painting of doors of asylum seeker accommodation in a single colour. Anything that identifies asylum seeker accommodation to those who may wish to harm those accommodated in the properties must be avoided. I spoke to the chief executive officer of G4S this morning, and he assured me that neither G4S nor its subcontractor in Middlesbrough, Jomast, has a policy that states that asylum seeker properties should be identified in such a way. However, Jomast does accept that the company uses red paint across its portfolio of properties.

I have asked Home Office officials to look into this issue as a matter of urgency, and to report to me and the permanent secretary. G4S has advised that doors in the area will be repainted so that there is no predominant colour. As part of the audit that we have commissioned, I have asked it to ensure that COMPASS contracts have been appropriately implemented in Middlesbrough, and I have considered the Home Office’s arrangements for monitoring contract compliance in that area and more generally.

The Home Office works with COMPASS providers and local authorities to ensure that the impact of dispersal on local communities and services is taken into account when allocating accommodation. It is the responsibility of the suppliers to ensure that all accommodation used meets required contractual standards, and complies with the decent home standards—specifically, that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. Each property used is subject to a housing officer visit every 28 days. In addition, Home Office contract compliance teams inspect a third of all properties using an intelligence-led, risk-based approach to monitor standards and ensure maintenance faults are rectified within the prescribed timescales.

Let me be clear to the House that I expect the highest standards from our contractors. If we have evidence of discrimination against asylum seekers, it will be dealt with immediately.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his very thoughtful and considered response. I share with him Middlesbrough’s proud record of welcoming people fleeing persecution and torture. We are rightly proud of the excellent arrangements we have with our churches and charities. I am proud of those people and the welcome they offer.

As the Minister rightly says, the background is that the contract for housing asylum seekers in the north-east is held by G4S and subcontracted to Jomast. The excellent article by Andrew Norfolk published in The Times explains that Jomast has 168 properties in two wards. Some 155 of them have their front doors to the street painted red. This marks out the properties and their inhabitants for those with prejudicial motivations and evil intent. There are accounts of asylum seekers being abused in their homes as a direct result of being so readily identifiable. Their doors have been smeared with dog excrement and daubed with graffiti showing the National Front logo. Eggs and stones have been thrown at their properties and they have been subjected to verbal abuse.

Such a policy may not be deliberate, but Jomast have to think it through. There is clearly a risk of undermining social cohesion and the safety of those seeking sanctuary. I am aghast that G4S claims no knowledge of that. Jomast has undertaken to remedy the position, but it is imperative that the Government insist that remedial action be taken as a matter of supreme urgency, and that the contractor and subcontractor are held to account. The Minister talks about the way the contract is managed. I ask him to stick to the theory he outlined in such great detail, because I am aware that the practice is far from the theory. Many people can be confined to one bedroom. That, simply, is not dignified. It is not a humanitarian response to put people in those conditions.

The public policy implications for contracting out the arrangements are devastating. People should not derive public profit from these matters; they are a matter for central Government and local government. Local government is the best organisation to look at the wider implications of welcoming people into our communities in this way. I therefore ask the Minister to review and reconsider that matter.

When did the Minister first become aware of this concern? When did G4S become aware of it and what action did it take? What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the readily identifiable red doors are corrected and on what timescale? At the moment, Jomast says it acknowledges the issue and will address it over three to six months. I suggest to the Minister that that is simply not acceptable. This must be done as a matter of supreme urgency: I have in mind a timescale of three to six weeks, rather than three to six months. I would like him to address that. If the Minister concludes that what has happened is discriminatory, what action will he take? In short, will he outline what penalties he has available to him to make sure that G4S, which has, frankly, suffered a great deal of reputational damage in recent times, and Jomast are held to account?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he raises his concerns. Like him, I pay tribute to the work and the approach that Middlesbrough, as an authority, has taken for many years in seeking to accommodate asylum seekers. He will be aware that a number of discussions have taken place between my officials, Home Office officials and Middlesbrough Council on the concentration of asylum seekers, as Middlesbrough is the only place in the country where our threshold of one in 200 is exceeded. I have asked my officials to look at that closely and at a plan to bring it back within the appropriate standards we have set.

On the report in The Times today and on the experiences of some people being accommodated in housing in Middlesbrough, I condemn absolutely any crimes of hate, any actions that sow divisions within communities and any actions that seek to intimidate or mark out asylum seekers in any way. We have been in contact with the local police this morning to underline any issues of community reassurance. They are actively considering appropriate steps. Complaints about hate crime should be made to the police, so they can be followed up and appropriate action taken.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about the urgency of response. As soon as I heard about the matter, which was late last week when The Times first contacted us, I instructed officials to look into it urgently because of my very serious concerns about what I was hearing. I expect the audit to be concluded on the Home Office side quickly, and completed at the latest by the end of this month.

On G4S, we have an ongoing regime of inspection of the maintenance and condition of properties. G4S has met standards where maintenance issues have been identified as requiring remedial action. It has followed through on them, but the audit will look at that closely. The chief executive officer of G4S underlined to me, in a conversation this morning, the seriousness and urgency of the issue. He underlined the sense of urgency that he and G4S attach to repainting doors to make sure there is no predominant colour. I said that I expected that to be done quickly. That was the message I got back from G4S.

This is a matter of utmost concern. The Home Office is working on it closely. We will look at it carefully and rigorously. It is not simply a question of looking at the contract. If there are issues that need to be brought to the attention of the police, and criminal action taken thereafter, that will be a matter for the police. I urge those with evidence to come forward and ensure it is reported appropriately.

I echo the plea for urgent action on the ground. Throughout the past 15 years, when the number of asylum seekers has been a hugely controversial and sensitive public issue, one of the best things has been that on the ground in communities there has been very little tension and very little violence. At a human level, the policy has been handled very well. It would be tragic if that were to end with some of the actions in Middlesbrough we have heard described. Obviously, the Minister will have to take a number of actions that will take some time, but on the immediate, on-the-ground action, if what is required in the short term is to repaint 150 front doors, then frankly this should not be taking three months or three weeks. The painters should be out now and it should be done by the weekend. I hope the Minister can assure the House that that kind of urgency will be shown.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. He has understanding and experience as a previous holder of the office I now hold as Immigration Minister. I can assure him of the urgency I have impressed on G4S in respect of resolving the issue quickly. The chief executive officer underlined that he recognised and understood that clearly. We will be monitoring the situation closely. I have asked officials to go to Middlesbrough tomorrow to assess the situation on the ground and to start work on the audit. I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend of the urgency that I, my officials, and, from what we are hearing, G4S attach to this matter.

Today’s report in The Times is obviously deeply concerning, and I recognise the Minister’s concern and the steps he has taken to get to the bottom of it. It is concerning that such a thing has happened. It is early days but it seems right—it does not seem that the facts are disputed—that the doors were painted red. It is also concerning because of the underpinning arrangements. How did this come about, and how did nobody think it inappropriate for the doors to be so painted, particularly given that, as the Minister has outlined, there is a Home Office inspection regime and a local authority assurance scheme? How did nobody, under those arrangements, think there was anything wrong? There is also concern about the consequences. Hate crime is increasing—it increased by 18% last year—and the consequence has been hate crime in Middlesbrough. That is concerning in its own right. I echo the view that the sooner something is done to rectify the situation, the better. There is also concern that this matter is before the House only because of the careful work of Andrew Norfolk at The Times, not because some internal inspection or auditing scheme flagged it up as a matter of concern.

The Minister has told us when he first knew, and I appreciate he has put steps in place to make further welcome inquiries, but how did this escape whatever inspection or assurance regime was in place? Were the properties inspected or assured by the Home Office or anybody else? If not, what can be done to improve the regime? What conversations has the Minister had with the contractors in Middlesbrough? Is this an isolated example? Is it something that has happened just in Middlesbrough, or are there examples in other parts of the country? Have inquiries been made into that? If so, what have they shown so far? If not, can such inquiries be made? What further conversations can be had with all private providers of accommodation to ensure that this does not occur again anywhere and that, if it has occurred anywhere else, it is rectified as soon as possible?

As I highlighted, I spoke to the chief executive of G4S this morning and asked that work be done to assess whether this is an isolated issue. I have asked how we can talk to all the providers under the COMPASS contract and how inquiries can be made with their subcontractors as well. From initial investigations, it seems that some providers of social housing might, for maintenance purposes, paint in a particular colour. We are investigating that further. Jomast made the point that about 20% of its property portfolio is asylum accommodation. We will focus on this issue as part of the audit work I have commissioned, and we will see whether lessons can be learned about the ongoing maintenance assessment. Inspections are undertaken to identify whether accommodation remains suitable or whether steps need to be taken by our contractors. I have tasked out that work as part of the examination. I underline again that we take hate crime very seriously and will remain focused on it in our forthcoming work.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about inspections. We will look at the processes and procedures to establish why the significance of this issue was not identified earlier. I have noted reports in the press and elsewhere of the issue having been highlighted to G4S and potentially to others. We are seeking to get to the bottom of that.

I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for bringing this issue to the Floor of the House. The provision of accommodation to asylum seekers deserves significant scrutiny, so I welcome the Minister’s announcement of an urgent audit of asylum-seeker accommodation in the north-east. SNP Members and others across the House share his concerns and will have been appalled by the revelation of what seems to have been, at best, an eye-wateringly negligent red-door policy.

We question, however, whether an audit goes far enough. The story of the red doors is troubling, but the delivery of contracts for the provision of asylum accommodation across the country is a broader issue and raises similar serious concerns. Will the Government listen to those concerns? When I speak to the Scottish Refugee Council, I hear about problems of poor-quality accommodation; poor treatment of asylum seekers by staff, sometimes because of a lack of training, sometimes because of inexcusable abuse and mistreatment; inappropriate sharing of accommodation; and about not so much a lack of integration of the services referred to by the Minister but their complete and utter fragmentation. Will he broaden the inquiry into the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers to reflect those concerns? We need an inquiry that speaks to asylum seekers living in accommodation provided by Government contractors and to organisations such as the Scottish Refugee Council, which could have so much input. Finally, when will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?

Property standards are monitored under the COMPASS arrangements by three key performance indicators, to ensure that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. Accommodation is inspected frequently by G4S, the local authority and the Home Office, and, as I have indicated, housing officers visit a third of all properties every 28 days, on an intelligence-led basis, under our overall compliance approach.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about complaints. Provisions in the contract ensure that complaints should be escalated and taken seriously. Again, that is something I want the audit to understand in terms of the situation in the north-east. The matter will be pursued in that way. He also asks for a broadening of the arrangements. I do not judge that to be appropriate. I will see what the audit tells us and then consider whether further action is needed.

It is extraordinary that, with all these inspections, it took a journalist as distinguished as Andrew Norfolk to expose the problems. I accept what the Minister has said—he has acted with great speed in trying to put measures in place—but the Home Affairs Committee has written to Ministers in the past with concerns about the COMPASS contract. Over the years, Ministers have given these contracts to big companies, such as G4S and Serco, that are once removed from the real providers. As the House knows, G4S is a serial offender in respect of these breaches. With the greatest will in the world and despite his commitment to making sure something is done, I do not believe that an audit will be sufficient. If it is accepted that the doors were painted in a certain colour, that is appalling, and it should have been discussed and discovered earlier. When the audit is complete, will he undertake either to make a statement to the House or come to the Select Committee with its findings?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I appear before his Committee frequently to update it and, by extension, the House on matters relating to the immigration system. I believe I might be appearing before it in the near term, which might provide an opportunity for me to update him and his Committee and, by extension, other right hon. and hon. Members, about the work being done. I can certainly give him that assurance.

The right hon. Gentleman highlighted the question of whether it was accepted or known that doors were painted a particular colour. As I have already told the House, there is a practice among some social housing providers to paint in a particular colour for maintenance purposes, but it is precisely those factors that I will want to understand as part of the audit of not simply the practice in the north-east but the inspection regimes and processes we have in place to identify whether issues, standards and complaints are dealt with appropriately.

It is a good job that we have journalists such as Andrew Norfolk, who also helped, of course, to expose the Rotherham abuse scandal. Is it not a matter of concern that whenever some abuse is known about and comes into the public arena, the Minister makes a statement and somehow or other G4S seems to be involved? I would have thought that that would be a source of some concern to the Home Secretary and her Ministers. I do not question for a moment the Minister’s objections, just like those of the rest of us, to any form of discrimination, but should not those responsible for what occurred—the painting of doors in red where asylum seekers are concerned—be told in the clearest possible language that certain aspects of 1936 Berlin are not to be repeated in Britain in 2016?

We need to look at this issue very closely and carefully, which is precisely what we have committed to do. As to G4S and the properties it provides in the north-east, we examined about 84 properties where inspections were successfully completed. Where defects were identified, action was taken. According to our assessment, there were no key performance indicator failures in respect of Middlesbrough. That is precisely what the audit will examine further, taking into account the state and condition of the properties. This House has telegraphed its message very clearly today, in standing against hate crime and discrimination and ensuring that those who are here and who have sought lawfully to claim asylum are given a fair and appropriate welcome by this country, as we would all expect.

It is my understanding that concerns about this practice of painting doors red were first raised in 2012 by my Liberal Democrat colleague and then Middlesbrough councillor, Suzanne Fletcher. She has pursued the issue doggedly ever since, and it is largely due to her efforts that the matter has now come to light today. She was told by G4S that it had received no complaints, so there was no need to take any action. That could manifestly not be the case, and does it not raise in the Minister’s mind at least a suspicion that an audit is somewhat less than what is required? Yet again G4S has come to public attention for all the wrong reasons, and yet again it has been found wanting.

I discussed with the chief executive this morning the issue of complaints and when the matter was first made known to G4S. It is a matter that he has committed to examine further to get to the bottom of how G4S handled the issue for its own satisfaction. It is a question of doing the audit I have commissioned urgently to see the situation on the ground and understand how the inspection and audit regime has been conducted thus far. I will obviously want to reflect on what that tells me.

Jomast has a major base in my constituency, and this is not the first time that it has come under national media scrutiny for the wrong reasons. I have visited some of the hovels that have apparently passed the test as “decent homes”, driving huge profits directly from Government contracts. While the Minister inquires further into this latest scandal, will he also order a further review in real detail of the standards of Teesside accommodation, including houses of multiple occupation in my Stockton North constituency, and get a better deal and better value for money for both tenants and the Government?

As I have already indicated, a key part of the work we undertake is to see that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. That is what the inspection regime looks at. To date, on the basis of the advice I have seen, those standards have been met. Clearly, however, we can focus on that element as part of the audit and see what that information tells us.

bill presented

House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Christopher Chope presented a Bill to consolidate and amend provisions about the House of Commons Members’ Fund; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 January, and to be printed (Bill 121).