Written evidence from Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
A fundamental observation of the design of the contract is that the Home Office did not view Local Government as a key co-producer of the specification, and subsequent procurement. This poses a fundamental question of the acknowledgement, or indeed understanding, as to whether the role of local government with regards to community cohesion is well understood within the Home Office leadership team. Many of the observations below would have been mitigated had a co-productive approach been valued.
Feedback from LA and VCS workshops to provide steer for the design of the new contracts appears to have been disregarded; despite discussions around potentially different models of delivery, and what LA / VCS experiences have been, the bottom line being the amount of funding available to allow for effective service delivery.
Awarding the contract to the lowest bidder may initially appear to be an efficient use of public funds but was soon found to be merely ‘short-termism’. The resulting problems, costing LAs, particularly, in financial terms and, also, in terms of community cohesion, the decline in the physical environment, and blame being apportioned on LAs.
Regarding lessons learned it is surprising that, for example, the advice / support provider failed to recognise that waiting times, already unacceptably high, would somehow reduce on implementation of the new contract. Further, not realising that service users would report multiple property issues during a single phone call, thereby creating longer than anticipated calls, is naïve and should have been picked up during any handover discussions with the outgoing provider, if indeed any such discussions took place.
The incoming accommodation providers similarly failed to have the capacity to hit the ground running, and, also appeared naïve in their understanding of this service user group and of the neglected state of the properties they inherited from the outgoing provider, suggesting a misjudged ‘we know best’ approach.
The commercial approach taken is difficult to comment on as the exercise was undertaken in a way which firmly excluded LAs; particularly disappointing as LAs had expressed interest in partnering with potential providers, being best placed to hold detailed awareness of their communities and so to be able to deliver a more ‘wrap-around’ model.
Nevertheless, the situation with ‘no compliant tender’ and the resulting speed, and secrecy, with which a second commissioning exercise took place speaks volumes as to commissioning practices within the Home Office, as LAs were not appraised of the situation until afterwards.
The incoming providers, for both accommodation and advice / support, undertook a lengthy PR mission to reassure LAs that lessons had been learned, that they had robust plans in place to recruit additional capacity to deliver an enhanced service that would go above and beyond meeting service user needs, and would satisfy all LA concerns by implementing a partnership approach.
Unfortunately, reality proves over and over that this ‘unrealistic vision’ is far from the case and, when accommodation occupants are frequently heard to voice their wishes that G4S had held the contract, (as reported via our VCS partners) things are indeed in a poor state.
The transition period was unfeasibly short following the unplanned additional commissioning exercise and the continued chaotic nature of service delivery is proof that transition should have been extended to take account of this.
Issues during transition included the refusal of the Home Office to admit to holding contingency plans and to share these, assuming any were in place; this is equally damning, whether because of no consideration being given to the need for contingencies or that they should be kept from supposed partners.
The lack of timely information and the extreme risks associated with transition, in some cases marked as ‘black’, such was the severity, placed a large extra burden on LAs as we sought to devise and agree our own contingency plans in the event of several hundred people becoming homeless on a given date. This threat was caused by a failure of the incoming provider to agree a deal with the previous provider’s sub-contractors’, thus creating the real possibility that some properties would be lost at the point of transition. Fortunately, this didn’t transpire; however, the very late resolution of this matter left many LAs with little confidence in the transition process and with increased costs incurred in planning for the worst.
The huge risks highlighted during transition and the lack of reassurance from the Home Office and providers caused much nervousness amongst LAs, including those not currently involved in dispersal. Our repeated concerns and the dearth of answers merely prompted accusations of bullying by LAs.
The accommodation appears to be managed reactively rather than proactively, although there are signs that, after 12 months, the contractors appear more able to conduct the required housing standard checks and respond to property issues.
However, we have taken enforcement action, in the form of civil penalties amounting to almost £5k, against the accommodation provider due to the shocking standards in some properties. As another LA had also taken similar action, this allowed us to seek to have the provider included on the National Rogue Landlord database; after legal advice, we decided against this action but made strongly worded representations to the provider that we would not hesitate to do this in future. Further, our understanding is that another LA in this region is considering a prosecution, rather than using civil penalties.
The advice / support provider has had to undergo a huge recruitment campaign to support the levels of calls being received; this has placed an undue burden on already overstretched and underfunded VCS services and could be interpreted as evidence that a call centre model is not always financially viable; face to face support allows for issues to be dealt with much quicker and often with greater care and quality.
Despite recent improvements to the advice and support provision, we are aware that there are still delays in applications for additional financial support being processed and in responses to emails sent to the Escalations Team.
The haste to transition to the new contracts and the resultant problems is a cause of financial and reputational damage to the Home Office, the providers and to LAs.
The current use of hotels across Yorkshire and Humber to support new arrivals in initial accommodation is reflective of wider issues in the AASC contract and the available resources for the provider. The costs of full-board accommodation in major hotel chains, with no apparent end date in sight, raises questions about how financially viable the service model is and, whether allocating a more appropriate resource envelope to allow providers to manage spikes in intake, through a more comprehensively funded IA centre, would have been a more sensible, long-term solution.
We acknowledge that, whilst the covid pandemic could not have been predicted, the accommodation provider failed to develop and execute any plans for dealing with outbreaks, failed to communicate with LAs and, potentially, failed to safeguard their own service users and residents in areas where initial and dispersed accommodation is provided. As at late-September 2020, we are still waiting for sight of their plans. Of specific concern is that individuals known to have tested positive for covid-19 were moved to new accommodation without informing the incoming local authority, nor was proper consideration given about how further spread could be avoided; practices which are completely unacceptable and in breach of the government’s own covid -19 guidelines.
The risk of increased COVID transmission amongst asylum seeking groups and the inevitable resultant spread into the wider community has been greatly exacerbated by a lack of ‘joined-up’ cohesive plans and actions, created by a system that is predominantly finance led.
These factors, coupled with the new provider being unable to procure additional properties in the region shows a lack of contingency planning and sensible investment from the Home Office.
A significant number of local landlords whose properties have been included on the accommodation contracts for many years have refused to sign the new contracts offered by the incoming provider; they have stated that these are heavily ‘weighted’ against landlords and are, effectively, transferring costs and risks to them. This could be read as the accommodation provider seeking to recoup costs, or make a profit, from landlords.
We acknowledge the agreement for the regional dispersal of supported asylum seekers to be in line with regional population and note that the recent request to LAs to accommodate unaccompanied asylum seeking children comes with the ‘threat’ of mandating the taking of UASCs; we would question why this has not also been applied to the dispersal of adult asylum seekers. Instead, we have endured very many years of hearing Home Office officials talking about the number of meetings they’re having to try to persuade LAs to become dispersal areas, to absolutely no avail.
We have experienced much misinformation and ‘buck passing’ before, during and after contract transition, as we try to establish an ethos of partnership working; this, however, has simply led to more frustration.
During recent meetings with the Home Office and the accommodation provider, it has become apparent that a much more aggressive and hostile stance is being taken, particularly by Home Office representatives. This totally disregards any attempt at building a partnership and gives a very strong signal of barely tolerating LAs and the SMP and conveys utter disrespect and a complete lack of understanding of the role of LAs.
In summary, we do not have confidence in the providers, or the Home Office, to effectively manage the accommodation and support of those seeking asylum, in an equitable and timely manner, and remain disappointed at the perceived lack of partnership in the procurement and delivery of these multi-billion pound contracts.