Brian Wilson: Serco right about one thing in asylum seeker eviction row

Protesters in Brand Street, Glasgow, outside the Home Office. (Picture: John Devlin)
Protesters in Brand Street, Glasgow, outside the Home Office. (Picture: John Devlin)
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Serco has been portrayed as the villain over its plan to change the locks to evict asylum seekers from their homes in Glasgow, but the Home Office, the city council and Scotland as a whole are all implicated, says Brian Wilson

If societies are judged by how they treat their vulnerable, the threat of eviction to asylum seekers in Glasgow by the crude means of changing locks must be the source of legitimate, humane concern.

There are 5,000 asylum seekers in Scotland and one might think our society could work to make their stay here as tolerable as possible. About half will be refused leave to remain, having failed to prove they are fleeing danger as opposed to economic misery.

This week confirmed the chaotic nature of public policy. Those at the centre of the furore might feel that in addition to being refugees from their homelands, they are also political footballs in their place of refuge – Glasgow, Scotland, the United Kingdom.

The Home Office makes the rules and pays the money. They are blamed for cutting off support, 21 days after losing the final appeal to remain. How long does anyone suggest? The buck is passed to those dealing with the reality of people with no wish to return to their countries of origin. Problem not solved.

READ MORE: Martyn McLaughlin: Serco is a byword for failure, but the Home Office is at fault in Glasgow

Serco, the appointed housing providers in Scotland, are cast as villains since it is they who gave notice of intent to change locks albeit in a much more targeted process than headlines suggested. Can they be expected to carry on paying for accommodation when they themselves are not being paid to provide it?

Glasgow City Council say there was no consultation and Councillor Jennifer Layden, convener of the equalities committee, claimed they had been “completely blind-sided by this sudden announcement”. Serco then gave dates of six meetings this year including one, in late June, attended by Councillor Layden, at which the policy was intimated. They can’t both be right.

There is then the awkward question of whether the change is in practice as well as policy. In evidence to a Holyrood committee last year, an organisation called Asylum Seekers Housing Project (ASH) alleged lock-changing and other “illegal” practices by Serco to evict those who remained in accommodation after the Home Office stopped paying.

Shafiq Mohammed from ASH told me they were “very disappointed” the committee “completely ignored” their evidence. In his view, this week’s events are “chickens coming home to roost” for official reluctance to recognise the miserable realities for many who have ended up in Glasgow. The image of multi-cultural inclusivism is, he says, far removed from their daily experiences.

The question that arises is why this is all about Glasgow and the answer is that since the Asylum Seekers Act of 1999 invited councils to volunteer as “dispersal areas”, the only Scottish one to do so is Glasgow. This has made the city familiar with these issues while allowing the rest of Scotland to avoid responsibilities.

READ MORE: MSP blasts ‘scandalous’ plans to change locks on asylum seekers’ homes

ASH would like to see Glasgow cap the numbers it accepts while planning better provision for those who arrive. The Scottish Refugee Council thinks it is time for more Scottish councils to step up to the plate as almost all of them did in response the Syrian Resettlement Scheme when there were incentives on offer.

At present, the Home Office is inviting tenders to run the asylum seekers housing programme in Scotland for the next ten years. It seems a good time for the whole mess to be debated with recognition from all quarters that there are no easy answers. It cannot be left to private companies to enforce public policies. No political party is proposing that everyone who makes it to Scotland or the UK should be invited to stay regardless of reasons for coming.

To that extent, everyone shares the problems and should join the search for optimum solutions in Scotland as elsewhere without it turning into an auction of moral superiority.

At least Serco’s CEO, Rupert Soames – who knows Glasgow well – is right to suggest: “The one positive outcome of the events of recent days is that it has put very firmly on people’s agenda the nature of the crisis.”

For starters, it should be possible for everyone, including the Home Office, to agree that changing locks is no solution to anything.