Written evidence by Asylum Matters
Asylum Matters works regionally and nationally to improve the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum. Our five regional representatives are based in the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humber, Wales and the West Midlands.
We submitted extensive evidence alongside 55 partner organisations and groups to the National Audit Office enquiry on Asylum Accommodation and Support Transformation. This evidence was then repurposed for a public facing report ‘Wake Up Call’ produced in partnership with Refugee Action and 41 other refugee supporting organisations across the UK. This documented severe difficulties experienced during the transition from COMPASS to AAST and with the introduction of AIRE in the latter half of 2019.
This briefing summarises some of the main points from that report and makes further recommendations in the light of the NAO’s findings. It looks forward to another upcoming significant transition in contract provision – namely that of the pre-paid ASPEN card on which many people seeking asylum depend for survival. For more expansive evidence, including case studies, please see the full report from July 2020.
The contractual model
“The Department does not know if other options would have brought better value for money” National Audit Office, 2020
The Home Office opted for a broadly as-is contractual model, largely because it had not left itself enough time before COMPASS expired to consider all options for redesigning the service. Providers themselves told the NAO that one of the problems with contract procurement was a lack of large suppliers with the right combination of “experience in providing housing and services for people with diverse needs”.
Given the long-standing calls from local authorities to be involved in the design and implementation of the asylum accommodation system and the previous recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration on this point, as well as ongoing serious issues with the contracts and the amount of public money at stake, we find it utterly astounding that the opportunity to look seriously at properly funded, community based and managed dispersal using empowered localised provision (and to design a bidding process which could incorporate it), was, very simply, not taken.
Whilst the NAO points out that some changes were made to the contracts, the opportunity to design out some of the most pernicious aspects of the contracts, was, again, just not taken, and the model remained broadly as is. In particular, the continued unacceptable – and in the current context completely unsafe - practice of enforced bedroom sharing between unrelated adults was allowed to remain contractually possible.
Performance management and transparency
Over a year into the contracts, no performance or management information on the performance of AASC providers or the AIRE provider under them is publicly available (other than that published by the NAO). Neither, at this point as we understand, is such information systematically available to vital stakeholders such as Regional Strategic Migration Partnerships. In this context, the meaningful scrutiny of provision by concerned stakeholders is impossible. To our knowledge the NAO report is, in fact, the first time that an accessible run down of the Key Performance Indicators under AASC has been published. The NAO also published some limited information on two Key Performance Indicators under AIRE. However, the full list of KPIs is still not available in an accessible format, and no meaningful data about performance against KPIs in respect of either contract has been made available to stakeholders by the Home Office. Even the KPI frameworks will not include many vital pieces of information as to how contractors are meeting other service standards under the new contracts – such information may form part of Management Information the contractors are required to provide to the Home Office but do not constitute Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Our experience supports the NAO findings on the increasing use of initial / contingency accommodation in the asylum accommodation estate and increases in the length of stay in this kind of accommodation with well documented associated issues. The NAO noted that the performance framework may encourage providers to prioritise the dispersal of new arrivals whose time in initial accommodation had not yet breached performance standards.
In the current context, stays in initial / contingency accommodation have sharply increased further, partly as a result of necessary measures taken by Government in the context of public health. The situation in the initial / contingency accommodation estate is currently fraught, particularly with new inappropriate large scale shared facilities being brought online. In this context, it is more important than ever that accommodation procured is safe and dignified, and that the rights of individuals living in it, and the communities in which they live, are upheld.
The Home Office must:
Widespread and extensive reports of substandard, unsanitary and, in some cases, unsafe accommodation in the dispersal estate have been commonplace for many years. It is very likely that the need to report issues relating to substandard housing was a contributing factor to the initially high demand on the Migrant Help phoneline. The NAO found that on average providers had failed to address maintenance issues which were not emergencies on time – beneath this finding lie many human stories of deteriorating mental health due to living in substandard conditions waiting for issues to be fixed. The NAO did not examine this in detail, but it is a situation which requires urgent action.
The AIRE service – Migrant Help
It is difficult to overstress the all-encompassing effects that the inability to contact the contracted advice provider had in the last months of 2019, when the NAO has reported only one fifth of calls to the only available point of information were answered. People were unable to access financial support they desperately needed, were left in unacceptable living conditions and, in some cases, forced to remain in dangerous situations. Many people seeking asylum and their caseworkers simply lost confidence in the system and stopped calling.
As the NAO reports, performance on the Migrant Help helpline has since improved. However further issues linked to an inadequate service, such as Migrant Help’s role in working with its contracted providers to run a phone based ‘move on’ service for new refugees, and as the NAO points out, completing support applications for destitute asylum seekers and organising inductions for new arrivals, deserve further scrutiny going forward, and further action by the Home Office.
All of the issues raised by the NAO in respect of the reasons for failings on the Migrant Help phonelines: namely that the Home Office did not have a model for predicting demand; the fact that there was limited testing, with no route to an alternative service; the fact that the IT systems of the AIRE and the AASC providers did not effectively ‘speak’ to each other, and that Migrant Help cannot access basic case information held on Home Office databases hold important lessons for another vitally important upcoming transition – that to a new provider for the ASPEN card.
The upcoming ASPEN transition - lessons to be learned.
Sodexo has been the Home Office supplier of asylum support payment services since 2000. In 2016 they launched the ASPEN card; a ‘smart’ prepaid Visa debit card provided to all people on asylum support. If the effective distribution or functioning of these cards is compromised, as it was in many cases during AAST, the people who live on the money provided, and would otherwise be destitute, simply lose all means of subsistence support.
A change of provider for the pre-paid cards used by people seeking asylum was due in May 2020, but our last information was that this had been delayed until February 2021. It is essential that the Home Office gets better at communicating and working effectively in partnership with Local Authorities and the voluntary sector, to ensure that the serious problems experienced in the transition from AASC / AIRE are not repeated in this new transition.
Contact: Julia Savage, North West Campaigns Project Manager firstname.lastname@example.org
 National Audit Office report on Asylum Accommodation and Support July 2020, Para 2.2, 2.3 and Figure 3
 ibid, Para 2.5
 See in particular: Home Affairs Select Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Twelfth Report of Session 2016-17 HC637, in particular in particular para 48; also ICIBI - An inspection of the Home Office’s management of asylum accommodation provision: Feb – June 2018; and Home Affairs Select Committee, Asylum Accommodation, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017-19 HC1758;
 AASC Statement of Requirements Annex C
 National Audit Office report on Asylum Accommodation and Support July 2020 Para 3.16
 This included a stay on evictions from asylum accommodation from March 2020 – which has now been lifted.