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

Protesters in Brand Street, Glasgow, outside the Home Office. (Picture: John Devlin)Protesters in Brand Street, Glasgow, outside the Home Office. (Picture: John Devlin)
Protesters in Brand Street, Glasgow, outside the Home Office. (Picture: John Devlin)
Anger over plans to evict asylum seekers must spark a change in public sector procurement, writes Martyn McLaughlin

The entrenched culture of malice and institutional incompetence that has characterised the conduct of the Home Office under the present Conservative Government should have long ago robbed us of the capacity to be surprised by its actions, let alone appalled by them.

But in meekly standing by as one of its most handsomely rewarded private contractors prepares to turf some of Scotland’s most vulnerable inhabitants out on the streets in the name of bolstering its bottom line, the department has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to plumb new depths.

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Amidst a growing outcry from across the political divide, the Home Office has all but washed its hands of Serco’s decision to evict hundreds of failed asylum seekers across Glasgow.

Having decided that it is no longer prepared to cover the housing costs of individuals and families whose applications to remain in the country have been refused, the company is to embark on a widespread programme of changing the locks on properties, forcing people out of their homes.

The course of action has prompted warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis in the city and sparked scathing criticism of the outsourcing company.

The latter element of this response is predictable. This is a company which generates more than £1.1bn in revenue from central and local government contracts throughout the UK, spanning not only the immigration system, but education, the prison service, the defence sector, and healthcare.

The most recent annual accounts of its primary UK entity show it generates an operating profit of £30.5m. Last month, it advised investors that those profits will rise to somewhere between £35m and £40m – the lucrative legacy of what pale wee men in dark suits describe as “transformational change”.

With legal debate – and challenges – likely over the coming days, now seems as opportune a time as any to remind ourselves that the current controversies form part of a larger pattern of failure.

The Home Office enlisted Serco as part of its Compass contract six years ago, despite the fact it had no background in providing asylum housing. Predictably, that inexperience soon manifested itself in the form of desperate accounts of asylum seekers being forced to reside in squalid conditions.

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There have been people decamped to flats with no heating or hot water, and asked to make a new temporary home behind doors with no locks on them. Some properties suffered from severe leaks and infestations, while others eschewed glass panels in window frames, settling instead for the decadence of plastic carrier bags. None of this has escaped the attention of those tasked with scrutiny of the situation. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have handed down withering assessments of how the Compass contract is working in practice, criticising the unacceptably poor standards of accommodation, and a lack of initial property inspections.

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Only last year, no less an authority than the Home Affairs Committee published a damning report on the asylum housing sector. Some of the accommodation being provided, MPs noted, was a “disgrace”, and the committee described it as “shameful” that highly vulnerable people were being forced to reside in such properties. Yet in the rush to condemn Serco’s CEO, Rupert Soames, and his fellow executives, there is a wider point worth bearing in mind, one which will have a greater impact than directing pantomime boos towards a multinational corporation.

Every wretched misstep over the past six years is the direct consequence of the Home Office’s design. It is the ultimate architect of this mess and it, not Serco, deserves the full force of the public’s anger.

It was the Home Office which took the inexplicable decision to not only grant Serco the initial contract, but extend it until 2019, even when all the available evidence pointed to the folly of such a move.

Given Serco’s latest actions, it would be verging on irresponsible if the expiry of that term next September was not viewed as an opportunity to make wholesale changes to contractors, accommodation checks, and working practices.

True to form, the Home Office looks set on taking the opposite approach. Last year, it quietly set up what is known as its Asylum Accommodation and Support Transformation (AAST) procurement team, a snazzy new acronym for an old, misguided idea.

It has invited expressions of interest from major multinational firms to run asylum housing services between 2019 and 2029, with the contracts on offer worth around £4bn.

Glasgow City Council, which has done more than any local authority in the UK to extend a humane welcome to the persecuted and the vulnerable, was informed that its bid would not even be considered.

G4S, another existing contractor which has been roundly chastised for how it has treated asylum seekers, has already thrown its hat into the ring for the AAST initiative. It would be a major shock were Serco not to follow suit.

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So let the protests and the chorus of criticism grow louder, but remember that lasting change will only come by addressing the shambolic process underpinning public sector procurement. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t make for catchy placards, but it’s the issue that matters most.