Written evidence submitted by Cllr Nick Forbes
Meg Hillier MP
Chair, Public Accounts Committee
House of Commons
30 September 2020
Asylum accommodation and support transformation programme inquiry
I am writing as the Chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group to share our views ahead of your Committee’s inquiry into the asylum accommodation and support transformation programme.
We welcomed the extensive consultation undertaken by National Audit Office (NAO) to inform their report on asylum accommodation and support. The LGA, as well as many councils across the UK, participated in this. We note that the Committee has requested further information on the issues raised in the report as part of its Inquiry and we outline these below. We would be pleased to provide further oral evidence to the Committee if this would be helpful.
Redistribution of asylum seekers
Local government would like to continue to work with Government and its providers to develop a more balanced dispersal system that provides effective support for asylum seekers. The report provides helpful context for this work and identifies some of the challenges in achieving this. The need for a place based and more equitable approach to dispersal has been consistently raised by the member-led LGA Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group. As a result, a Home Office and Local Government Chief Executive Group, co-chaired by the LGA with representation from each region and devolved administration, was established in 2019. The ten-year plan for the more equitable distribution of supported asylum seekers, as cited in the NAO report and by the Committee, was developed by this Group.
The findings of the NAO report outline the possible additional costs to the Home Office of this redistribution plan. We hope that during its Inquiry the Committee will also look at costs across the whole system. Councils have continued to stress that a lack of funding for councils is a disincentive to participate in the voluntary dispersal scheme, particularly at a time when councils are facing significant resource constraints. The costs to councils of supporting asylum seekers derive from both meeting statutory duties, particularly around social care and homelessness, and the costs of meeting the additional support needs of this group such as funding local community and voluntary sector organisations. We are therefore calling for the Comprehensive Spending Review to result in per capita grant funding to meet councils’ costs. The LGA’s Spending Review Submission will shortly be available and we are happy to share this, alongside a more detailed review of costs undertaken by the Chief Executive Group if that would helpful to the Committee’s work.
There also need additional funding to build capacity in council areas that are new to dispersal to meet the ambitions of the Change Plan. This would also enable a shift from the model that currently is based on procurement in urban areas. If we are to achieve a rapid increase in areas which have so far had low numbers, we need national and local government to work together to tackle key barriers such as accommodation costs and lack of infrastructure, such as legal advice, that would be needed to support new arrivals in those areas.
Councils continue to work hard to support and deliver the many programmes for refugees and asylum seekers. Any assessment of the costs of these programmes to councils needs to look across the whole system, particularly in their unfunded or underfunded support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers, and individuals and families with no recourse to public funds.
We welcome the recommendation that the Home Office should collaborate with providers to address performance issues. Many of our member councils have raised concerns around the procurement and performance of Migrant Help in particular and the resulting impacts on vulnerable people in their communities.
As part of this robust performance monitoring, there is an ongoing need to ensure joint oversight of the agreed redistribution of asylum seekers with councils alongside providers and the Home Office. Despite the welcome engagement structures developed with the introduction of the accommodation and support contracts, many councils report a sense of being ‘done to’ rather than ‘done with’. This partnership work, based on real time and transparent data flow, should help ensure that dispersed asylum seekers are effectively accommodated and supported.
The Home Office designed and delivered refugee resettlement schemes jointly with local government, including the development of a five-year funding model. This collaborative partnership model based on a shared understanding of challenges and resource pressures would be what councils would like to see in dispersal.
It is important to recognise that the context in which the NAO report was launched has significantly changed, and any assessment of current performance challenges needs to reflect this. The asylum decision-making system is only starting again after being paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant that more people were living in dispersal accommodation for much longer and there was a significant increase in hotel use, with requirements for advance consultation with councils waived. The change plan referred to above has also been put on hold. Councils are calling for more joint, planned work on ‘cessations’ of support that recognises wider pressures on local services and reduces impacts on individuals and communities. Councils are also are keen to work through the early learning on local outbreaks with the Home Office as people move out of provider accommodation into communities, particularly as we enter a potential second wave of the pandemic,
This need for tri-lateral engagement is particularly important as all regions and devolved administrations have recently been asked to provide plans with providers that outline how to significantly increase levels of dispersal given increases in intake. Councils also want to develop joint approaches to worrying reports of an increase in far-right extremist activity focused on asylum accommodation.
I hope the information outlined above is helpful. If you would like to meet to discuss this further, for the LGA to provide evidence to the Committee, or to arrange a meeting in my new role as Chair of the LGA Task Group, please do not hesitate to get in touch with my colleague firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chair, Local Government Association’s Asylum, Refugee and Migration Task Group