Written evidence submitted by John Grayson
I am John Grayson B.A. (Cantab) a volunteer independent academic activist researcher, embedded in, and working on behalf of, SYMAAG South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group. My disseminated work with SYMAAG re Home Office asylum housing contracts, over the past ten years, can be found at www.opendemocracy.net and www.irr.org.uk
From January 2020 I have undertaken extensive research with over 100 residents and past residents of Urban House IAC in Wakefield and asylum housing tenants in Mears housing mainly in South Yorkshire but also in West Yorkshire and the North East.
I have therefore researched intensively the impacts of the Mears Home Office ASAC contracts in one of their contracted regions Yorkshire and the North East
I would like to submit observations on my research findings relevant to the current investigation by the Public Accounts Committee:
Vulnerability of people in the early stages of the Asylum system
In January 2019 in announcing the awards of the AASC contracts the Home Office stated
“The new AASC contracts offer a range of improvements and will ensure that vulnerable asylum seekers have access to the support they need and set clear requirements on the standard and condition of accommodation.
Immigration minister Caroline Nokes said: "…… These new contracts will make sure that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect in safe, secure and suitable accommodation. They will deliver compassionate support through a new integrated service and make the asylum system more accessible and easier to navigate."
I found little evidence in my extensive research that since August 2019 when Mears took over in Yorkshire and the North East, that this policy has been implemented. In the Mears ‘Service User Handbook’ for asylum housing tenants the following appears:
If you require any specialist care, you may be provided with a support plan. Your support plan will be reviewed regularly, and other people may attend reviews if appropriate, such as a social worker
Before and during the Covid I worked alongside families with members having multiple disabilities placed in houses with no adaptation. These families had not had visits from Mears staff for upwards of three months in person or by phone.
Very vulnerable Individuals with very poor immune systems were placed in multiple occupation accommodation during the Covid-19 period.
Throughout the Covid-19 period at Urban House I recorded testimony in focus groups and meetings outside the IAC from a number of people with underlying medical problems defined by Public Health England as making people more vulnerable to harm through contracting the virus. These medical problems included severe asthma and breathing difficulties ( I interviewed a mother of a child with this condition),diabetes, kidney disease and a history of recent strokes, I spoke with both women and men with acute mental illness. I was shown evidence amongst this group of severe self harm.
I worked alongside pregnant women in Urban House during the Covid-19 period. There were women who had been victims of sexual abuse and trafficking forced to live in a gender mixed centre and forced to share rooms with women strangers.
Some of these people by using lawyers, we managed to have transferred to a safer environment than Urban House where forced sharing of bedrooms, little social distancing, and unhygienic shared bathrooms and toilets created an inevitable major out break of Covid-19 on 9 July.
I never encountered any evidence of health checks for vulnerable people before they were placed in Urban House or for that matter in the hotels procured by Mears.(By January 2020 there were over 800 people in ‘overspill’ IAC hotels in West Yorkshire from Urban House and around 300 in Urban House There are still around 300 people in West and South Yorkshire hotels) Where there was a history of poor health or even of torture and trafficking, it was ignored and people were placed in Urban House notwithstanding.
The Report of the HAC on 23 July 2020 also noted the absence of any access to primary health care for these large numbers of ‘vulnerable’ people.
Monitoring, Inspection and Accountability
The AASC outsourced contracts were awarded to Mears, Serco and Clearsprings with an inspection and monitoring regime which was basically self-inspection by the contractors themselves.
In my experience of researching the first year of the AASC contracts there is no evidence of this being an acceptable situation.
Even where self inspection is made mandatory for the contracts I found no evidence that Mears, at least in Urban House, made any attempt to monitor ‘Service User’ experience
Here is the relevant section of the Requirements for the contracts:
‘2.17 Service User Experience
2.17.1 The Provider (MEARS) shall proactively monitor Service User experience of Provider services. The Provider shall provide quarterly reports to the Authority on the effectiveness of their approach, and the Authority may review and/or audit the approach at any time and make recommendations to improve its effectiveness and/or efficiency.’
My research with over 100 residents or previous residents of Urban House produced testimonies from the vast majority which involved ‘complaints’. No one I asked had ever been asked to respond to any monitoring by Mears.
Thus, it appears that no ‘outputs’ were ever produced for the Home Office to respond or take action over.
‘2.17.3 Where the Authority consider the outputs of the proactive monitoring of Service User experience to indicate a systemic issue or persistent shortfalls in service delivery against the specified standards on the part of the Provider, the Authority may require the Provider to develop and implement a Remedial Plan, in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 7 (Contract Management).’
The role of Migrant Help holder of the AIRE contract
Migrant Help had an office in Urban House and had a central role connecting the residents with the Home Office for necessary paperwork for NASS support to allow them to move on to asylum housing. Support is means-tested, and Migrant Help assesses and processes applications. For most purposes Migrant Help was the Home Office in Urban House
Migrant Help is also a crucial link in the official contract complaints procedure. Again, the Home Office Requirements :
‘188.8.131.52 With particular reference to complaints, the Provider (Mears/Urban Housing) shall:
notify the AIRE Provider (Migrant Help) of any complaint where the Provider is informed of a complaint directly by Service Users, on the same day on which the Provider is made aware of the complaint, in accordance with the requirements set out in Annex H of this Schedule 2;
inform the Service User and AIRE Provider of the outcome of the action in response to the complaint, and any subsequent action to be taken …’
Between January 2020 and the Covid-19 outbreak of 9 July 2020 there were an unusual number of complainant actions by residents in Urban House – individual hunger strikes, collective food strikes over a number of days, large scale petitions about food and poor hygiene and the long periods of waiting in Urban House (these were up to six months in some cases). In January, a sit in outside the Migrant Help office regarding conditions and delays in receiving NASS support confirmation and placement in asylum housing. A few days before the outbreak there was a ‘human rights petition’ circulating which had attracted sixty signatures.
Migrant Help had closed its office at Urban House after the 22 March lockdown and never returned. Thus, Migrant Help were only available by phone. To my knowledge none of the complaints of residents were sent by Urban Housing Services LLP to Migrant Help and then to the Home Office .In fact on at least two occasions I was told about the management at Urban House specifically refused to accept petitions and gave them back dismissively to the organisers.
Formal Inspections of Urban House IAC by the Home Office
I submitted an FOI request on 11 February 2020 for details of any inspections of Urban House by the Home Office from January 2018 to February 2020.
On 10 March I was promised a reply by 8 April because
‘The information which you have requested is being considered under the exemption in section 43 of the FOI Act, which relates to information with the potential to prejudice commercial interest.’
I finally received the Home Office reply on 18 August 2020.There were only two Annual reports not the three I expected. One for March 2019 and the other for January 2020 I was also sent what appeared to be one line confirmations that G4S, and then Mears had undertaken compliant quarterly inspections. The content of these inspections was redacted.
Both Reports were in part formulaic repeating word for word the previous Inspection. They were appeared to be building inspections by Home Office housing inspectors mainly concerned with renovation and building work in the Centre. There was no evidence that any actual residents had been interviewed. Remarkably in the January 2020 Report not a word appeared about the fact that the IAC was full and had 800 people in overspill hotels.
There was no attempt to evaluate actual treatment or experiences of residents and certainly no mention of monitoring of vulnerable residents or health checks before placement. No mention of a large scale sit in about conditions in Urban House in December 2019 appeared which Urban Housing Services LLP and Mears should have reported to the Home Office. The reports did mention that all 125 rooms for residents were shared.
Recommendations from my research:
1 Independent annual inspections of the IAC estate should be introduced and published to evaluate achievement of targets set in the AASC contracts. The office of the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration would be the obvious choice for such inspections.
2.KPI’s and/or Home Office operational guidance notes should be introduced to the management of the AASC contracts to enable the Home Office to evaluate contractors’ achievement of targets in safeguarding and promoting the interests of children, vulnerable adults, pregnant women, victims of trafficking and torture in IAC accommodation.
3.Primary health care should be available to all residents of IAC’s. Health checks and written reports should be mandatory for all residents spending more than four weeks in an IAC
The contracts are the largest ever awarded by the Home Office – literally billions of taxpayers money over the next ten years. At present monitoring, accountability, and transparency in the management of the contracts is in my view, woefully inadequate
John Grayson September2020