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Asylum Seekers: Glasgow

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of services for asylum seekers in Glasgow.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. May I thank the Minister for being here to listen to this debate and for taking time to consider this matter? We met to talk about these issues when extraordinary revelations were published in The Times and by BBC Scotland on the treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow. Since that meeting, more extraordinary revelations have been published by the Sunday Herald newspaper, showing that persistent problems are leading to perverse outcomes.

This debate is very timely. Persistent issues remain in the delivery of housing, which is the lifeline public service for a group of people—women, men and children— who are seeking protection and who, by definition, need more than most the stability that a home should bring. The asylum process is difficult enough without problems of poor housing and treatment to contend with too.

The revelations published recently in the Sunday Herald include the story of an Iraqi woman with health problems and her young child being placed in a dirty second-floor flat for months, despite a doctor’s letter and instructions not to carry her child upstairs. She also claimed that drug addicts were frequenting the shared close. Another asylum seeker said that, despite reporting to the police four times racial harassment against herself and her baby outside her flat, she and her toddler had not been moved. Serco said that a housing officer had visited and was taking the complaint very seriously and monitoring the situation. I do not believe that to be acceptable.

One asylum seeker raised alleged aggressive and intimidating behaviour by the Orchard and Shipman staff who evicted him late last month—an allegation that was reported to Police Scotland. Agencies have also reported pregnant women and families facing eviction. In the past few weeks, up to 20 single men have been bussed from Glasgow to London and Manchester at short notice, with a total of 44 expected to be relocated within a month. Twenty families will then be moved to Glasgow. Another asylum seeker case brought to my attention is that of a constituent who is a single mother of three young children living on the third floor of a tenement building where she is unable to lock her windows.

Organisations representing asylum seekers continue to have concerns. Mike Dailly, principal solicitor and director of the Govan Law Centre, has said:

“There are also repeated cases of overcrowding and severe disrepair. This organisation is largely unaccountable despite receiving significant public funds to protect some of the most vulnerable in our society.”

Shafiq Mohammed, a former Orchard and Shipman employee turned volunteer for the Asylum Seeker Housing Project—ASH—said:

“I would describe some of the properties that we’ve come across as slums. In essence, asylum seekers are living in the poorest-quality accommodation in the city.”

Others have reported insect-infested couches; dirty carpets, walls, bathrooms and kitchens; and common stairwells where people regularly urinated. Two women said that their children had developed skin infections.

Too often we have found that the housing provided through the Home Office’s outsourced commercial contract to Serco, which is then subcontracted to Orchard and Shipman, provides not stability but, sadly, aggravation and harm to those who should be treated with dignity and given housing that is safe and secure. Indeed, the Scottish Refugee Council report of September 2014 shows that what was exposed this year has roots in 2012. There has been a transition from the more locally-rooted and therefore accountable, flexible and efficient model of providing housing for those seeking protection to what we must remember is an experiment in terms of asylum accommodation—a thoroughly market-based approach to the provision of such a vital public service. There is something rather valuable in having devolved, local oversight and delivery of housing for asylum seekers in terms of weaving them into joined-up services, democratic oversight and accountability, the flexibility to, for instance, flip accommodation at the point of positive decision to enable continuity of housing for the refugee and in terms of community cohesion.

Outsourcing may well suit the UK Government, as it allows them to outsource not only service delivery but a fair degree of accountability. Many of us have lost count of how many carefully drafted freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions have not been answered, on the sometimes dubious grounds of disproportionate costs or commercial confidentiality. I trust that the Home Affairs Select Committee will look at that issue; I am pleased to see its Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), in his place. It may well also suit the UK Government to have their contractors on the front page of media exposés rather than Ministers. The reality is that taking such hits for future contracts could, in the long term, be worth it.

Let me return to the present issues in Glasgow. The Sunday Herald article spoke to a system that is increasingly chaotic. Symptoms of that chaos include the one and a half years that Glasgow, alone in the UK, did not have an initial accommodation facility where everyone could access the new services upon being newly dispersed to the city. In practice, that has meant that not all get their orientation briefings or health screenings done, with delays in accessing financial assistance.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I have visited some houses in Glasgow at the invitation of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) knows, the Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into this matter.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that should be explored is the dispersal arrangements? The dispersal map of asylum seekers shows that they are concentrated in certain urban areas, but the whole country should take a fair share of asylum seekers.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right that we must look at dispersal. It is to Glasgow’s credit that the city council decided 16 years ago to tell the UK Government that it was happy to take asylum seekers. We in Glasgow are proud of that approach, but the dispersal issue needs to be looked at.

As the Sunday Herald article detailed, there is persistently high use of hotels and hostel-like accommodation for asylum seekers across the board. We know that the numbers in such accommodation quadrupled between November 2015, when the figure was over 100, and May 2016, when it was over 400. This trend shows no sign of weakening. People are being lost in the system and not getting the safe and secure housing that this approach is ostensibly there to ensure.

We appreciate that priority is being given to taking newly dispersed families out of hotels and hostels as soon as possible, but we have been aware of cases over the past few months of families being stuck in such accommodation for six or seven weeks, with the consequence that they feel isolated and unable to put down roots and their children are not entitled to enter school. These specific issues are underscored by persistent reports of people being placed in unsuitable and often overcrowded accommodation and being shunted around Glasgow at short notice and between Manchester and London with insufficient regard to their wellbeing and needs, as the Sunday Herald piece suggested. With an increase in numbers, the system is struggling to cope.

The Scottish Refugee Council and other agencies, such as the British Red Cross, Govan Law Centre and many others, are finding that too often a crude housing-led approach prevails and the needs of individuals and families are a second or third consideration. What action has the Minister taken since the Sunday Herald article was published? What steps has he taken to ensure that these problems do not persist? Will he tell us what actions or penalties are in place for breaches of contract and poor performance by contractors? Can he remind us what penalties or mechanisms are in place that would result in a contractor being removed from provision of these services?

I want to touch on gender and asylum support. One persistent casualty of the housing-led approach is the visibility of women seeking protection. As the Scottish Refugee Council has articulated many times, the asylum support regime effectively silences women. In a recent written answer, the Minister stated that he had no plans to generate or publish asylum support statistics by gender. We think that is an unacceptable omission, which amounts to the UK Government stating that gender is an irrelevant or insufficiently important part of identity to merit analysis or publication in asylum support policy. In my experience of representing constituents, I believe that is a crucial factor.

Just on the asylum accommodation issue, many agencies and groups have documented that women have, inter alia, felt very unsafe in shared flats with no locks, including on bedroom doors, and that housing officers have entered the accommodation unbidden. There is a lack of women-only initial accommodation, and it is unclear what competence and training operational and management staff have in gender and preventing violence against women. Will the Minister reconsider implementing a gendered review of asylum support? Will he publish different statistics for women asylum seekers? Will he look into how women have been treated, particularly in respect of privacy issues?

There is no list of registered social landlords, but there is an issue relating to whether accommodation meets the regulations under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010. We assume that Orchard and Shipman is not registered under the housing regulations and is therefore not a registered social landlord. That leaves the question of who, under the 2010 Act, has general consent to provide housing services. The regulation of asylum seeker housing seems to be non-existent. I wrote to the Scottish Housing Regulator, who could not tell me who was a registered social landlord under the current Act.

Does the Minister have a list of registered social landlords in Glasgow who provide asylum accommodation? Does the Home Office ensure that social landlords provide housing quality that meets the regulations of the 2010 Act, or does it have a different standard? What expectations does the Minister have to ensure that any accommodation provided by Orchard and Shipman meets the standards of the Act?

COMPASS—commercial and operational managers procuring asylum support services—contracts are priced by UK Ministers at such a low level that only large private-sector companies with no footprint or interest in areas of asylum dispersal can afford to bid for them. It is now clear that the Home Office has three current contractors over a barrel and are keen to extend them into 2017-19. I am aware that one contractor has already asked to extend a contract to 2018. Orchard and Shipman has reported that its Glasgow subsidiary is deriving profit from its asylum seeker contracts and many of us have an issue with that. Serco Group announced to the London stock exchange in February 2016 that central Government justice and immigration contracts were marked out as priorities, both globally and in the UK.

We believe that a different approach would benefit local statutory bodies and communities, and those in the accommodation. The Home Office should seriously consider at least a substantial revision of the outsourcing approach to the provision of housing. The Home Affairs Committee’s asylum accommodation inquiry is one place where I hope that that argument will be taken on. However, it will not be effective if the Home Office decides, inappropriately, to extend the COMPASS contracts to 2019 before the Committee reports and its recommendations are considered. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there will be no extension of contracts until then.

There is clear evidence in our great city of Glasgow of asylum seekers and EU nationals being in fear of their future following the Brexit vote 10 days ago. We are dealing with our fellow human beings, who are fleeing oppression and persecution. Many of them are women fleeing sexual violence. Many, like us, had professions and careers, but are now seeking sanctuary and safety. We have a duty of care to our fellow human beings, and we must treat them a lot better than we do. I hope we can treat asylum seekers as we ourselves would like to be treated if we were in their situation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Because of the Divisions, and because the previous debate finished, technically, 22 minutes early, the Minister has until 4.53 pm, although he does not have to use all that time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing the debate. I have met him to discuss specific concerns, and the invitation to do so again remains open to him. If he has received specific complaints or concerns from his constituents, or from charities or non-governmental organisations operating in Glasgow about standards of accommodation or related services, I certainly extend my offer for him to contact me and to raise any matters directly, as I have indicated.

I again underline my willingness to continue discussion and dialogue outside the debate this afternoon. If issues are being brought to his attention directly, I want to know whether individual cases are being raised in relation to property standards or otherwise, so that we can ensure that they are dealt with effectively and promptly, not just in terms of the contracting arrangements we have with Serco, but equally to enable asylum seekers using accommodation in Glasgow to be reassured about the seriousness that we attach to complaints when they are made.

May I make a general point about intimidation or hatred towards anyone as a consequence of their background, faith, colour or creed? I take a very uncompromising approach to that: it is utterly unacceptable. We are working with the police here and with Police Scotland to ensure that we have a clear understanding of incidents that may occur. Equally, we want to give a strong reassurance about the approach that this Government take, working with the devolved Administrations and in particular the Scottish Government, who have the devolved responsibility in relation to crime. All right hon. and hon. Members present in the debate would want to give the very strong response that, whatever our feelings about the result of the referendum, that does not provide any excuse, any succour or any opportunity at all to sow division or hatred in the United Kingdom or the countries that make up the UK. We all stand united in confronting and combating any of that, wherever it may occur.

I thank the Minister for those comments; I agree with him wholeheartedly. Is it the Government’s intention to meet organisations such as the Ethnic Minorities Law Centre in Glasgow, which represents EU nationals and asylum seekers? They are reporting to me, as a Glasgow MP, the fear that asylum seekers and EU nationals have. Given the message the Minister is sending, it would be very useful if the Government wrote to such organisations or met them. I hope he will consider that.

If the hon. Gentleman has details of groups or organisations that are making those representations to him, I will certainly be pleased to follow up on that. There are regular visits to Scotland by representatives of UK Visas and Immigration, which has the lead responsibility on these issues. I had officials there last week in relation to a number of these issues. However, if the hon. Gentleman is picking up specific concerns and if there are groups that he thinks there would be a shared value and benefit in meeting in order to understand those concerns and to telegraph the clear message that I hope I have given in this debate, I will of course be very willing and happy to follow up on that. I am grateful to him for his intervention in that regard.

I underline the fact that the UK has a proud history of operating an asylum system that looks after individuals seeking refuge from persecution and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while asylum cases are considered. I am very grateful to the city of Glasgow for its participation in the asylum seeker dispersal scheme and for the support it has provided over many years to asylum seekers.

I welcome this debate. There have been a number of debates on issues relating to support for asylum seekers. As I have already said, I certainly want to continue the dialogue and ensure that we are getting feedback from colleagues as well as from non-governmental organisations and others that take an interest and are engaged in these matters.

For those asylum seekers who do not have independent means of support, the Government provide access to support services in accordance with the obligations of the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees—the Geneva convention. The COMPASS contracts provide asylum seekers who claim to be destitute with full-board accommodation, in so-called initial accommodation, while their means are assessed, and then with accommodation throughout the United Kingdom—dispersed accommodation—and a small weekly allowance of £36.95 per person per week for food and other essential expenses while their asylum application is considered.

Our existing policy is aimed at ensuring an equitable distribution of asylum seekers and refugees across the country, so that no individual local authority bears a disproportionate share of the burden.

I will of course give way, but let me just finish this point. Historically, Glasgow has been the only local authority area in Scotland to take part in asylum seeker dispersal. However, we are working with COSLA—the Convention of Scottish local authorities—and local authorities in Scotland to encourage other areas to participate. Similarly, my officials are meeting and working with local authorities across the United Kingdom to broaden the number of areas in which supported asylum seekers will be accommodated. I now give way to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, Glasgow is taking a very large proportion of the asylum seekers—I think it was top of the list for the entire United Kingdom that the Select Committee published in our last report. The Minister’s own local authority and other local authorities in the south of England are just not doing enough. I know that he is encouraging them, but why can they not do more to relieve the pressure on local authorities such as Glasgow?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he has questioned me on this issue in the Home Affairs Committee previously—we have a voluntary arrangement for dispersal in respect of asylum seekers. Yes, we are taking steps to encourage more local authorities to contribute and provide that support. It is important to see this in the context of both the really positive support that many local councils across the United Kingdom are providing for the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme and the pressures on some local authorities in respect of asylum-seeking children. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the separate dispersal arrangements that we announced last week in relation to that. Therefore, different councils are contributing in a number of different ways. It is important to recognise the different ways in which many local councils are providing support for refugees and asylum seekers, whether they be adults or children, with the different challenges that each group presents. It is important that we provide appropriate support for them.

In Scotland currently, the only dispersal area is Glasgow. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West recognises that, and we have had discussions about it previously. A meeting took place in February with other local authorities in Scotland to seek their consent to widen the dispersal of asylum seekers beyond Glasgow. Follow-up meetings have explored these issues further, but I certainly encourage the hon. Gentleman to continue to work with the Home Office and the Scottish Government to ensure that we are working together to encourage more local authorities in Scotland to recognise the need to extend that beyond Glasgow.

I pay tribute to the work that many local authorities are already doing in providing support for Syrians arriving under the vulnerable person resettlement scheme. In some ways, that is unlocking many more local authorities, which recognise the contribution they can make and the role they can play. That is a conversation that I am very keen to continue, to ensure that we are indeed looking at the particular concentrations in Glasgow and seeing how we can work together to extend dispersal into other parts of Scotland.

Accommodation standards were the core part of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. The Home Office is working with its contractors to ensure that all the accommodation provided to asylum seekers is safe, habitable and fit for purpose and that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, taking account of their vulnerability. We are also ensuring that the system is effective and efficient and provides value for money for the taxpayer. I am of course concerned about any allegations of substandard accommodation or misconduct or mistreatment of asylum seekers by our staff or the staff of any contractors. Such allegations are taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly.

The suppliers’ housing inspectors are required to visit each property at least once a month and when asylum seekers first arrive at, or depart from, a property. The Home Office also inspects properties and will inspect one third of the properties in the Scotland and Northern Ireland contract area over the course of this financial year. Where Home Office inspections find that accommodation does not conform to the required standards, contractors are provided strict time limits to remedy the defects.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office can, and does, impose penalties on any provider who fails to meet the terms of their contractual agreement. Between April 2015 and April 2016, four service credits were applied for accommodation standard issues in Glasgow. In those cases, the required improvements were made but not within the prescribed timescales; therefore service credits were applied.

The Home Office has improved its inspection regime over recent months not only to ensure that the accommodation standards are being complied with, but to ensure that asylum seekers have opportunities to raise any concerns they have or report any complaints that our providers have not resolved to their satisfaction. This was a core part of the review that we undertook to ensure that we were getting full feedback from service users and therefore not simply relying on providers to provide that feedback, and also to engage with NGOs and charities. That is something that I remain committed to doing to ensure that we get that further, full feedback.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been most generous and we may well get to 4.53 pm. In relation to inspections, one of the big concerns is that asylum seekers are unable to lock their own accommodation and have privacy issues. That is a key concern, so will the Minister look at that and also ensure that inspections are done in such a way that asylum seekers are not left frightened of seeing someone with a uniform, which will mean something different to them from what it would to us?

I am very happy to look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted. If there are concerns about security, assurance or safety, those are of course the sorts of issues that I would want to know are being investigated, so that those in receipt of accommodation have confidence in their surroundings. Equally, I will certainly reflect upon his point about the manner in which investigations and inspections are conducted.

One of the points I was concerned to ensure we reflected upon properly was the manner in which inspections are conducted, so that service users can be confident that they can report problems to those who are inspecting without fearing some comeback to themselves and so that there is no barrier to that taking place. That is why I made the point about talking to NGOs and charities. Sometimes service users do not have that confidence, for whatever reason—whether that be from past experiences of contact with authority figures in their own countries that they have fled from—but if there are issues and they feel confident to be able to report them, we can get the appropriate feedback to understand whether issues are emerging. On that point, it is important to stress that the Home Office has established an advisory board with key NGO stakeholders to better capture the views and concerns of the asylum seekers we accommodate.

The hon. Gentleman raised the point about hotels as well. Under the COMPASS contracts, providers are able to use contingency accommodation to cope with high levels of demand. Again, I have made it clear to providers that this is only ever acceptable in exceptional circumstances and asylum seekers must be moved to appropriate longer-term accommodation as soon as possible. If there has been that accommodation in hotels in Scotland, it is possible that the movements he described may be to move asylum seekers to longer-term, more dispersed accommodation, which is obviously something I would want to see, in terms of overall stability for them. We have been working with the providers on that and have seen recent improvements.

Will the Minister look specifically at the issue in relation to women asylum seekers? I am thinking about asylum seekers who are unable to get what is known as an HC2 form for healthcare and getting access to a GP. This is a real issue for women asylum seekers, particularly those coming into the country fleeing sexual violence, for example. I would be obliged if the Minister looked specifically at that issue.

If there are some further specifics, I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman wrote to me or provided the details. I was aware that towards the end of 2015 there were some temporary issues with attendance at NHS appointments, following the closure of the initial accommodation block and an increase in the number of service users. My understanding was that these issues had been addressed and all asylum seekers are triaged by the NHS for health screening when they arrive, but if there are emerging issues or if there is a specific point about the form that he highlighted, I would be very pleased to look into that for him.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time; he is always generous in these debates in taking interventions. Taking him back to his point about hotels, of course they sometimes have to be used in emergency situations. Does he agree that it is preferable in those circumstances that the entire establishment, or a wing of the establishment, is used, rather than parts of an establishment? There is evidence that it causes an enormous amount of resentment on the part of the normal paying customers in a hotel when asylum seekers are present. Indeed, the asylum seekers themselves feel disadvantaged, because they are getting different meals to those who are normal hotel-goers. This should be exceptional, but there is a crisis in asylum accommodation and it does have to be dealt with.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. There are examples where we have sole-use hotels, as well as examples where rooms have been taken as part of the continuing use of the hotel. My focus is on seeing those numbers come down and moving to a position where there is not a need for reliance on hotel accommodation, and is therefore on looking at that overall capacity issue. That also comes back to his point about widening and looking for new areas to establish dispersed accommodation and working with providers to find ways to get further access. A significant amount of work has been taking place on that over the course of this year, and there is continued work engaged on that.

Where there is a need, at times, for hotel accommodation to be used, whether that be shared-use or not, it is important that providers do that in a respectful way, ensuring that no issues of stigma are attached. I am obviously familiar with the discussions that the right hon. Gentleman and I have had on other things relating to issues of stigma. Again, I take a firm view on ensuring that we do all we can to prevent any of those matters from arising. That is a clear point that we have underlined to our service providers on the approach they take. I suppose what I would say to him is that I recognise the points he makes about sensitivity and the appropriate use of accommodation. We take that into careful consideration and we make those points to the providers.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West also highlighted the potential extension of the COMPASS contracts. Officials are continuing to carefully consider the extension of existing contracts in accordance with their terms. The timing of any decision to extend the COMPASS contracts is subject to ongoing commercially sensitive discussions with providers. In deciding whether to extend the contracts, the Home Office will take a number of things into account, including the performance of the contracts and the value for money they offer to the taxpayer.

The Government are committed to doing everything necessary to protect the rights of asylum seekers and provide them with the safe and secure accommodation they deserve. Any complaints relating to the standard of accommodation will be investigated promptly and necessary remedial action will be taken. In closing, I reiterate my thanks to Glasgow for the proud role it has played in welcoming and supporting asylum seekers over many years.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of services for asylum seekers in Glasgow.