Written evidence from British Refugee Council
The Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contracts (AASC) and the Advice, Issue Reporting, and Eligibility (AIRE) contract presented an opportunity for the Home Office to adopt a person-centred approach towards the design of the new service. Sadly, the Home Office failed to embrace this opportunity; with the new contract continuing to focus on key performance indicators (KPIs), relating to contract compliance rather than focusing on the dignity, wellbeing and successful outcomes for individuals it seeks to support.
The failure to adopt a person-centred approach not only results in people moving through the asylum support system with many of their needs left unmet, it also exposes them to additional pressures and vulnerabilities. Examples of this include people with additional needs experiencing prolonged stays in initial accommodation due to the shortage of appropriate accommodation. This results in a range of knock on effects adding additional pressure and stress to people who are already in a vulnerable position. Examples of this include difficulties in access to legal advice whilst in initial accommodation, difficulties in accessing health care, mental health support and children not being able to access schooling resulting in gaps in their education.
The dispersal system does not take into account the availability of legal aid provision resulting in people being dispersed to areas that have few or no legal aid providers within the local area, resulting in difficulties and delays in accessing timely legal advice.
We welcome the fact that the Home Office are planning to undertake surveys of service users to capture their first-hand experience of the AASC and AIRE contracts, but stress that this should have taken place under the previous contracts with the learning informing the design of the new contracts. The findings and points of learning from these surveys must be open and transparent if service users are to have confidence that their views are being taken into account to drive improvements.
Use of hotels as emergency accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic
The regional asylum accommodation contracts do not require accommodation providers to proactively engage with key stakeholders when using hotels as emergency accommodation. Whilst there are clear requirements for the procurement of dispersal accommodation, which include a need to engage with the relevant local authority and police to identify risks associated with community cohesion and risk of hate crime prior to the procurement of properties, there is no such requirement to carry out these same checks and balances when placing people into hotels.
As a result, vulnerable people have been placed into hotels without any prior communication with the local authority and other key stakeholders. It is particularly disappointing to see that this issue was not addressed in the new contracts since the lack of a protocol had previously resulted in a number of issues and risks in 2016 when hotel use reached a peak under the old contracts.
We are aware of instances in Yorkshire and Humberside where the relevant local authority was not given prior notice of the use of hotels and where had it had that notice, the local authority would have advised against accommodating people seeking asylum.
The difficulties that this approach has created has only increased in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, where many more hotels are being used to house increasing numbers of people, across a larger number of parts of the country. Reporting suggests that local authorities and support agencies are often unaware of the needs of these groups, how long they will be housed, or indeed even basic details like their asylum status.
This lack of engagement has the potential to cause huge damage to the relationships local authorities have with the Home Office, both in terms of any onwards discussions on opening up new dispersal areas as well as discussions related to refugee resettlement.
In 2019 we were aware of at least one local authority who took the unprecedented decision to suspend both resettlement and dispersal, such was their level of anger and frustration over the lack of consultation prior to a hotel being used in their area. The experience in recent months is unlikely to be helping the Government’s ambitions to hugely increase the numbers who are housed in the south of England.
Access to services for people accommodated in hotels
The new contracts fail to address the needs of people accommodated in hotels as the services contracted to take place within initial accommodation centres are not available to the same extent (and often not available at all) in hotels.
We are aware of people accommodated in hotels for months with limited access to information/advice and primary health care, and those with children being unable to access education as they are being told to wait until they are in dispersed accommodation to register with a school.
We know of a number of families accommodated in hotels in Yorkshire and Humberside for 4 months, with the children receiving no schooling during this time, something that would not be accepted outside of the asylum support system.
We are also aware of residents in IA in Yorkshire and Humberside being unable to access health advice due to the limited number of appointments available within the IA. We are also aware of residents having reduced access to welfare officers as a result of being accommodated in a hotel, leaving them at risk of being exposed to a range of welfare issues before being able to receive an appropriate response.
We welcome the fact that the Home Office have recently shared a document outlining the standard of provision and essential services (health, legal, welfare support etc.) people accommodated in hotels should expect to receive, though it is still unclear as to how compliance to these standards will be monitored. It is disappointing that this document has only recently been developed, given the long standing issues relating to inconsistent standards and service provision in hotels. The Home Office should now put in place an effective mechanism to monitor the provision of these standards going forward.
Inconsistent approaches to vulnerability amongst those in the asylum system
Whilst the Home Office have developed a ‘vulnerability matrix’ to help define what they mean by vulnerability, the contracted asylum AASC and AIRE providers do not appear to have a consistent understanding of vulnerability. This has resulted in an inconsistent and inadequate operational response.
Whilst the contracts sets out a clear requirement to carry out regular welfare visits to both check the standard of accommodation and the general welfare of those in accommodation, it is unclear how concerns regarding the welfare of individuals are recorded and shared with the Home Office to ‘flag’ particular vulnerabilities.
It is not clear what definition of vulnerability Migrant Help are using to determine whether a service user is eligible for their outreach service. Migrant Help staff have provided different explanations of how they will assess vulnerability at different forums, leaving stakeholders with a confused picture.
Lack of appropriate/adapted accommodation to meet the needs of vulnerable service users
Due to a lack of appropriate/adapted housing within the dispersed accommodation estate, people with additional needs are often stuck in initial accommodation whilst waiting for suitable dispersal accommodation to become available, or are dispersed into wholly unsuitable accommodation. These scenarios can have a hugely negative impact on their health and wellbeing and can increase isolation.
Prolonged time in initial accommodation creates additional complications and anxiety for service users such as having limited access to legal advice because they are advised to wait until they are dispersed to obtain a legal representative or having their children miss substantial parts of their compulsory education. It is unacceptable that the shortages in dispersed accommodation disproportionally affect the most vulnerable individuals.
Inability of the system to appropriately ‘flex’ to absorb peaks in demand
Whilst we welcomed the fact that the asylum accommodation and support transformation programme had recognised the need to increase the financial envelope from COMPASS to the new contracts to make it easier for accommodation providers to procure properties, this additional funding does not appear to have been successful in addressing the supply shortages, as evidenced by the major supply shortages and spike in hotel use during transition.
These failings come despite repeated assurances from the Home Office over the summer of 2019 that they had robust plans in place to meet the anticipated demand for accommodation.
Ultimately, whilst asylum intake is unpredictable and difficult to forecast, this unpredictability is very much a certainty and as such requires a system that is able to flex to meet changes in demand. The raft of issues highlighted in this paper can be rooted back to the flawed design of system that falls apart too easily as soon as pressure is applied to it.
Clearly the unprecedented situation caused by coronavirus – where people with both a positive and negative decision on their asylum claim have not been exiting the asylum accommodation system – has led to an increase in hotel use. But even putting the period from March-September 2020 aside, and recognising that new measures have been needed in that period, it is clear the contacts were not designed to properly accommodate changes in the number of people claiming asylum.
What is needed is some reserve supply in the system, for times when more asylum claims are received.
Systemic dysfunction & delays in the asylum system putting pressure on the accommodation estate
Systemic delays in the asylum support system are a driving factor to the high call volumes experienced by Migrant Help. Delays in the processing of asylum support applications, and the subsequent allocation of accommodation and travel arrangements, require the service user or voluntary sector to make repeated calls to Migrant Help to follow up on applications, given there is no other means of contacting the Home Office.
This invariably means that delays in decision making result in Migrant Help receiving repeated requests for updates on cases and/or requests to escalate urgent cases. This adds considerable call volume to the helpline as one individual case may require multiple calls to resolve an asylum support issue.
In practice, people seeking asylum are left entirely penniless and without accommodation, with no other recourse then to wait on hold for hours with Migrant Help; they may even attempt to get support from multiple organisations top obtain help in chasing their asylum support applications, meaning it’s possible that a number of voluntary sector organisations are expending time and resource to call Migrant Help and then also be on hold, simultaneously contributing to higher call rates.
The assumption that efficiencies would be realised by using Migrant Help as the only and single point of contact for the AIRE contract has been shown to be false. Given the pressure that this brings to bear on Migrant Help, the system needs reviewing, and consideration should be given to splitting up responsibility for different kinds of queries and complaints.
Systemic dysfunction and delays in decision making regarding the substantial asylum claim add further pressure to the accommodation estate, resulting in people being ‘stuck’ in dispersed accommodation for months or years whilst they wait for an initial decision on their case or for their case to be heard at appeal stage.
Despite significant investment and the roll out of a new Home Office IT system, it has been shocking to see the number of cases where relatively simple processes are failing with alarming regularity.
Examples of this are people being dispersed without an active ASPEN card, breakdowns in communication between the Home Office, accommodation providers and Migrant Help when organising travel, pick up points. Aside from the serious negative impacts for the individuals concerned (increased risk of destitution, homelessness etc.), these issues often require repeated calls to Migrant Help to resolve, adding another layer avoidable call volume.
Whilst the Home Office have developed a number of internal structures and processes to improve the level of monitoring and oversight of the contracts, there is little evidence to date that these have been effective in terms of improving contract compliance. The lack of transparency over service standards, KPIs and performance management makes it more difficult for stakeholders to have confidence that the Home Office have effective mechanisms in place.
Despite Home Office assurances that robust systems are in place to monitor contract performance, it is deeply concerning that the time of writing the Home Office have been unable to officially confirm a date whereby the and AIRE contracts will be fully compliant with the service standards.
The Home Office have often taken a very dismissive approach when presented with evidence critical of the level of service being delivered under the contracts, including repeated evidence shared by voluntary sector organisations as well as evidence gathered by the Home Affairs Select Committee. There are huge missed opportunities for the Home Office to consider feedback from stakeholders as effective eyes and ears on the ground to provide an early warning if emerging issues, rather than ignoring such feedback only for the issue to then break into the media or become the latest in a line of ‘scandals’ relating to accommodation standards.
Poor specification within the AIRE contract
The poor specification of the AIRE contract limits the type of service model the provider is able to deliver. The continued lack of funding to provide adequate level of face-to-face advice post-dispersal, drives high volumes of service users to voluntary sector organisations who are not funded to undertake this work and often do not have the capacity to do so.
The design of the AIRE contract fails to take into account the vulnerability people seeking asylum are exposed to. Instead, it attempts to offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach with vulnerability and the need for reassurance, explanation seen as an exception. This failure to recognise the complexity of needs and offer a person-centric approach has been evident since the beginning of the establishment of the separate asylum support system. The nature of the experiences and circumstances on which people seeking asylum find themselves means that everyone is likely to need advice and guidance over and above what an ‘average’ UK citizen might require.
Widespread accommodation failings and effects on the AIRE contract
We understand that a significant proportion of calls to the Migrant Help call centre were initially related to issue reporting. The high volume of issue reporting calls appears to have caught the Home Office off-guard, despite the fact that a number of reports had identified concerns over accommodation standards not meeting the requirements of the previous contract. The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration report on asylum accommodation in November 2018 found that of the 8,313 properties inspected by Home Office Contract Compliance Officers over the course of 22 months, only 24% were found to be compliant with the requirements of the COMPASS contracts.
There may have been some under-reporting of accommodation issues directly to providers under the COMPASS contract, and issues related to how providers were recording and acting on reports. However, it was clear that there were significant longstanding issues related to the standard of accommodation, and the subsequent high volume of calls to the helpline is something that should have been foreseeable.
It is also clear that the nature of the procurement process, and the financial limits imposed on providers when procuring properties, invariably means that dispersal accommodation tends to be comprised of low cost housing units that have seen minimal investment with regards to maintenance (over and above bringing them up to the contract standard), resulting in a higher frequency of maintenance issues.
Failure of the positive move-on element of AIRE to focus on outcomes for service users
The design of the positive move-on element of the AIRE contract focuses on the delivery of a number of ‘touch points’ (contact points/calls between the provider and service user) rather than focusing on successful outcomes for individuals.
The move-on element of the AIRE contract is designed to support people to make a claim for welfare benefits as early as possible after receiving status. The aim of the service is to reduce the risk of destitution and homelessness during the 28-day move-on period. The design of the service fails to meet the needs of recently granted refugees on a number of levels, not least because it assumes that completion of the ‘touch points’ is sufficient enough as an intervention to reduce the risk of homelessness and destitution, something for which there is no supporting evidence.
For example, it is entirely possible for an individual to complete all the ‘touch points’ and yet still be in a position where they have not been able to secure their first Universal Credit payment or be seen by their local authority housing office, putting them at risk of destitution and homelessness. The move-on element of the contract should be focused on the needs of the individuals and measured through the delivery of successful outcomes rather than a series of outputs.
The temporary changes made during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a better model to support people who have acquired refugee status onto welfare benefits. Since March 2020, newly-recognised refugees have been able to make a claim for Universal Credit whilst still living in asylum accommodation, and have not had their asylum support payments ended until the first UC payment has been received.
This has happened in a context where all evictions from asylum accommodation was paused, but has shown that there are no real practical barriers to this approach, which has meant that there is no gap in income when someone transitions from asylum support to mainstream welfare benefits. It is disappointing that the Home Office are now reverting back to the ‘business as usual’ approach requiring newly granted refugees to transition to mainstream benefits within 28 days. The Home Office are in danger of missing a key opportunity to review the impact of the temporary Covid-19 measures, given the fact that there is clear evidence that these measures have significantly reduced the risk of newly granted refugees becoming destitute and homelessness as a result of the move-on period.
British Refugee Council (commonly called the Refugee Council) is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, [No 2727514] and a registered charity, [No 1014576]. Registered office: 134-138 The Grove, Stratford, E15 1NS, United Kingdom. VAT reg no: 936 519 988
Page 7 of 7