How Home Office is blocking Glasgow's efforts to provide true asylum '“ Martyn McLaughlin

Campaigners against forced evictions in Glasgow stage a protest in July. Picture: John DevlinCampaigners against forced evictions in Glasgow stage a protest in July. Picture: John Devlin
Campaigners against forced evictions in Glasgow stage a protest in July. Picture: John Devlin
The Home Office's intransigent approach to providing housing for asylum seekers is causing anger and mistrust across the country, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Anyone who has paid attention to the Home Office’s thoughtless and negligent approach to housing asylum seekers over the past decade will not be unduly surprised by the latest damning report from the Home Affairs Select Committee.

The most obvious question to draw from its primary conclusion – that local authorities across the UK are experiencing a crisis of trust in a broken system – is quite simple. What took so long?

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Britain’s dispersal policy has been unfit for purpose for years. The Home Office’s existing ‘Compass’ contract places the responsibility for housing some of society’s most vulnerable individuals with multinational conglomerates, some of whom had no prior experience in the complex asylum housing sector.

In Glasgow, where Serco has been widely criticised, there have been numerous examples of the initiative’s folly: families forced to reside in properties ridden with vermin and damp, or which lacked essentials such as window panes and heating. Serco’s plan the change the locks on the properties of asylum seekers earlier this summer sparked widespread protests and a legal challenge.

Charities and NGOs forced to pick up the pieces have been some of the fiercest critics of Compass, but the new report, published on Monday, shows that councils are fast catching up. With confidence in the entire process waning, MPs have warned that the entire system could soon become untenable.

“Nearly two years after our previous report, very little has improved and mistrust by local authorities of central Government has deepened,” the committee noted. “The Government’s handling of the replacement for Compass has led dispersal authorities to consider withdrawal from participation in the dispersal scheme.”

In truth, the use of the word replacement is a tad disingenuous; renewal would a far more fitting descriptor, given the UK Government looks set to plough ahead with issuing decade-long Asylum Accommodation and Support Services (AASC) contracts. The acronym may be new, but it is Compass in all but name.

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The dissatisfaction over the dispersal scheme is most keenly felt in Yorkshire, but it is proving contagious. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, recently wrote to Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, detailing his misgivings regarding oversight of the dispersal contract, and underlining the need for a fairer distribution of asylum arrivals across the country.

Emphasising the gravity of the problems, Mr Burnham warned him that Manchester’s ten local authorities were now “seriously considering” their continued participation in the scheme. Fortunately, especially for the 4,000-plus asylum seekers in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow City Council is not inclined to follow suit. It was one of the first cities in the UK after London to join the dispersal scheme and for nearly 20 years, it has taken great pride in its participation.

The city, in turn, has benefited immeasurably. In the space of a generation, its communities and culture have been enriched and Glasgow’s reputation as a welcoming city has been enhanced. The SNP administration knows this only too well, and it is keen to continue with the dispersal programme, if not the precise arrangements put in place by the Home Office.

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When Glasgow first became part of the initiative, it was the city council itself which was the contract holder. All these years later, and in light of the disastrous Compass contract, the council was minded to take over the reins for AASC.

After making a formal expression of interest, it received a 32-page form from the Home Office, designed for organisations with direct experience of providing asylum accommodation in the past ten years. It was, said Susan Aitken, the council leader, “almost impossible for us to answer”.

Undeterred, she is among other local authority heads pressing for greater oversight of the new AASC arrangements, albeit to little avail.

The Home Office has repeatedly warned that ceding control of property inspections to local authorities, for example, would compromise its ability to hold accommodation providers to account. It is a claim as laughable as it is absurd.

Such is the Home Office’s commitment to ensuring that asylum housing is fit for purpose, it employs the grand total of nine contract compliance officers, responsible for assessing 11,719 dispersal accommodation (DA) properties across the UK. A single officer is based in Glasgow.

The workload they are able to carry out has produced some damning conclusions. Between March 2016 and January this year, for example, less than a quarter of those properties inspected were found to be compliant with the requirements of the Compass contract. Close to half (43 per cent) were deemed not fit for purpose. A separate inspection report carried out earlier this year by David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, found that the Home Office inspection regime was essentially a system of spot checks, which were neither informed by intelligence, nor subject to follow-up inspections.

The Home Office has shown itself to be unable, if not unwilling, to ensure some of Scotland’s most marginalised and vulnerable people are given proper shelter. If it is allowed to steamroll through its plans for AASC with no meaningful changes, we will all be the poorer for it.