Written evidence submitted by Asylum Matters [IOC 304]
Asylum Matters works regionally and nationally to improve the lives of refugees and people seeking asylum through political and social change. Our five regional representatives are based in the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humber, Wales and the West Midlands.
This submission focuses on three key areas:
We bring the committee’s attention to these issues for a number of reasons. The extent of destitution amongst the asylum-seeking population is well documented. For many years, people seeking asylum have fallen through the patchy safety net of Home Office provided support and are forced into destitution and poverty. As they have no recourse to public funds, they are often reliant on charities, faith groups and the voluntary sector for accommodation and financial support. In the context of COVID-19, welcome measures have been taken by both the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office to accommodate people with insecure immigration statuses. However, we remain concerned that some individuals are still falling through the gaps.
Secondly, whilst the Home Office has a duty of care to people seeking asylum and remains the responsible department for the provision of accommodation to people seeking asylum, contracted housing providers rely heavily on the private rented sector to fulfil their contractual requirements. Therefore, any inquiry looking into the impact of COVID-19 on the private rented sector should also include consideration of accommodation provided to asylum seekers under these contracts.
Furthermore, we know that people in the asylum accommodation estate experience very similar issues with accommodation providers as people in the private rented sector do with landlords and letting agencies, from poor quality accommodation, to delays in repairs. It is important that standards required of the private rented sector as a whole, including additional requirements introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, are also applied to the asylum accommodation estate.
Finally, particularly in the context of COVID-19, it is critical for departments to work together to ensure that everyone is able to access safe, suitable and stable housing both during lockdown and beyond. To date, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office have instigated temporary measures that reduced levels of homelessness and destitution amongst migrant and refugee communities across the UK. Beyond lockdown, we urge departments to build on these successes and work together to instigate long-term policy changes that prevent homelessness and poverty.
Preface: People seeking asylum, access to support and accommodation provision
Whilst people are seeking asylum, they do not have access to mainstream benefits, nor are they allowed to work. Therefore, the vast majority of people seeking refugee protection in the UK will receive financial support and accommodation from the Home Office whilst their claim for asylum is being considered by the state.
The type of accommodation provided for people seeking asylum varies depending on the status of their asylum claim. New arrivals, or people newly entering the asylum system, are accommodated in initial accommodation centres (under Section 98 of the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act). These centres are either full board hostel style accommodation, or self-contained flats with communal cooking facilities.
Generally, people are only expected to stay in this style of accommodation for three weeks, before moving into dispersed accommodation if their application for asylum support is successful (Section 95). Dispersal accommodation is often smaller scale HMOs or self-contained flats or houses for families, in communities across the UK. People in dispersed accommodation at this stage generally receive financial support at £37.75 per person per week. Some people seeking asylum may stay with friends and family, and therefore apply for ‘subsistence only’ Section 95 support.
People are generally able to stay in their dispersal accommodation for the duration of their asylum claim. If an individual receives a positive decision on their asylum application, they are given 28 days to move out of the property and access mainstream benefits and housing. If an individual receives a negative decision on their asylum application, they are given 21 days to move out of the property and are expected to leave the country.
Some refused asylum seekers are able to access a specific type of asylum support known as Section 4 if they meet certain strict criteria. Those accommodated under Section 4 are generally housed in dispersal accommodation (although sometimes this is preceded by a stay in initial accommodation) and receive financial support at £36.39 per person per week. However, many refused asylum seekers who are not eligible for Section 4 support are forced into destitution and poverty. As they have no recourse to public funds, they are often reliant on charities, faith groups and the voluntary sector for accommodation and financial support.
The Home Office has a contract with three multinational companies for the provision of asylum accommodation. These contracts are known as the Asylum Accommodation and Support Contracts (AASC). Mears holds the contract for Yorkshire and Humber and the North East, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland; Serco holds the contract for the West Midlands and the North East; and Clearsprings holds the contract in London and the South East, and Wales.
Amongst other things, Mears, Serco and Clearsprings are responsible for procuring, managing and maintaining asylum accommodation in their contracted regions. This involves working with private landlords and the private rental sector to source accommodation. Additionally, the contracts allow for Providers to engage in subcontracting arrangements with other private housing companies, which is the case for the provision of some initial accommodation centres across the UK.
1. Preventing destitution and homelessness in the context of COVID-19
In order to keep people safe during COVID-19, many different actors across government departments have mobilised to mitigate the risk of the virus and enable everyone to follow public health guidelines on social distancing and self-isolation.
On the 26th March, the Minister for Homelessness - Luke Hall MP - wrote to Local Authorities leaders about a national strategy ‘to protect as many homeless people as we can from COVID-19’ which included supporting people with NRPF conditions. Local Authorities, during COVID-19, are now expected to accommodate and support homeless people who have NRPF conditions.
The Home Office have also made changes to enable access to asylum support for people who are destitute and have sought asylum. In part, these measures have included a slight relaxation of the evidence required to prove eligibility for asylum support and a move towards accepting the current situation as grounds for eligibility for Section 4 asylum support for destitute asylum seekers, as with travel rendered impossible they cannot be reasonably expected to leave the UK.
On the 28th March, Chris Philp - Parliamentary Under Secretary (Home Office) confirmed that people would not be required to leave asylum accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those that receive a decision on their asylum claim - be that a grant of leave or a refusal - will be able to stay in asylum accommodation and receive asylum support. This temporary provision expires at the end of June 2020.
These sensible measures have opened up a pathway for some destitute asylum seekers to secure safe accommodation where otherwise they would have been forced into homelessness and poverty.
We welcome the variety of emergency measures taken departments to alleviate the risk to various extents and we hope that some of these interventions translate into long-term policy change. However, we are concerned that some people remain in precarious or unsafe housing conditions, unable to find routes into stable accommodation and support, thus leaving them extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.
We refer the Committee to detailed evidence on these issues submitted by the No Accommodation Network (NACCOM). Our evidence aims to corroborate the central issues raised by NACCOM, and to highlight areas where people subject to immigration control can fall through the gaps of statutory provision provided through Local Authorities or the Home Office:
1.1 Local Authority Provision
Differences in referral mechanisms have meant that some people have been left without accommodation for longer; where some Local Authorities have processed referrals rapidly, others have required intrusive processes to verify rough sleeping, and in some cases, high levels of advocacy from third sector support agencies. For example, some Local Authorities in the West Midlands and Yorkshire only offer accommodation once housing staff have attended the location where someone has advised they are sleeping at an agreed time. As a consequence of these more rigorous eligibility assessments, some homeless people in precarious living situations and at risk of rough sleeping have struggled to access more secure accommodation they are entitled to, where their health would be better protected.
In part, we believe that this variation in approach has stemmed from a lack of clarity around the funding made available by MHCLG to Local Authorities to address this urgent need. While the letter from the Minister on 26th March clarified that MHCLG instructions to LAs to accommodate all homeless people including those with NRPF conditions, it did not specify how this should be funded, instead asking that LAs ‘utilise alternative funding and powers.’ There have also been reports of Local Authorities refusing to accommodate those with NRPF following further ‘verbal guidance from the MHCLG’ received after the initial letter from the Minister. For example, we have heard report that a Local Authority in the North East issued eviction notices to a number of people with NRPF conditions currently accommodated, before rescinding the notices following interventions from the local voluntary sector.
Since the letter from the Minster, we are not aware of any written guidance issued by MHCLG regarding the implementation of this policy. This contrasts with the devolved nations where further guidance has been issued, such as that published by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
1.3 Home Office provision
Despite positive measures to increase eligibility for Section 4 support, we have heard widespread reports of delays in decisions on asylum support applications, as well as delays in access to support once granted. This can leave many in limbo for periods that in some cases can extend for many weeks or even months. Additionally, people applying for asylum support must still prove that they are destitute, or are likely to become destitute, within the next 14 days: this is the statutory ‘destitution test’ set out in asylum support regulations. It has been reported that the Home Office is still making a small number of ‘not destitute’ decisions on support applications.
Whilst difficulties accessing and delays in receiving asylum support have been identified pre-COVID as a pressing issue for people seeking asylum, the current public health pandemic makes it even more urgent that applications for accommodation and support are considered fairly and actioned as quickly as possible.
Worryingly, recent guidance from the Home Office also suggests that people seeking asylum who may currently be living in precarious living situations - such as with family and friends - who apply successfully for asylum support will not be moved into new accommodation “unless the person is street homeless, there are other vulnerability factors, or there is a court order requiring providers to move these people into new accommodation.”
Where individuals have struggled to access Section 4 support, Local Authority accommodation provision may remain the only safeguard against homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we are concerned that in some cases where access to Section 4 support has not been possible, instructions by the Home Office that “there is no need for this cohort to call on any funding outside asylum support” may pave the way for emergency local authority accommodation to be refused on the basis that their ‘on paper’ eligibility for asylum support prevents their entitlement for Local Authority support.
People must not be left at risk of homelessness and destitution due to gaps in the safety net.
1.5 Financial support
While measures to ensure access to safe accommodation have gone some way towards addressing the risks that these groups are facing, a lack of financial assistance as part of a package of support to address destitution means that many people remain trapped in extreme poverty.
Local authorities and asylum accommodation providers (AASC) are now regularly using hotels as part of their accommodation provision. Hotel provision is often full board, and residents - both the broader homeless population accommodated by local authorities and newly accommodated people seeking asylum – regularly do not have access to any financial support.
Whilst we are aware of local authorities and AASC contractors providing toiletries, sanitary products, cleaning products and other essentials in kind, it is unclear whether this is the case in all hotel provision and whether peoples’ needs are fully met. We maintain that without access to sufficient subsistence support, people who are accommodated in temporary accommodation risk being unable to meet their basic living needs.
2. Temporary, emergency and asylum accommodation standards
During the course of the pandemic, grave concerns have been raised over the suitability of various forms of asylum accommodation provided by the Home Office which render inhabitants unable to maintain social distancing in their own home due to the nature of the accommodation. While the provision of asylum accommodation is under the jurisdiction of the Home Office, much of the accommodation provided is drawn from the broader private rented sector across the UK. It is imperative that all private rented sector accommodation, inclusive of asylum accommodation, is made safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have submitted a comprehensive report on asylum accommodation to a parallel inquiry into Home Office preparedness for COVID-19, and we encourage the committee to read that submission alongside this document. However, the primary concerns we have include:
A number of the concerns held about property standards in asylum accommodation pre-date COVID-19. Third sector organisations and local authorities have previously highlighted accommodation issues with the Home Office - particularly in relation to bedroom sharing and the use of large-scale HMOs to accommodate vulnerable people seeking asylum. However, it remains that accommodation providers are contractually allowed to place accommodated asylum seekers in shared bedrooms with people they do not know, as well as use large scale HMOs.
Where Local Authorities, private sector landlords and tenants have been reminded of their respective responsibilities to maintain the enforcement of property standards where possible in private rented accommodation, it is unclear whether this guidance is being followed by asylum accommodation providers.
3. Preventing destitution and homelessness beyond lockdown
Positive measures introduced to keep people safe during the pandemic must be maintained following lockdown. This is vital not only to keep those individuals safe who have been accommodated in the midst of the pandemic, but also to protect public health as we adapt to the possibility of living long-term in a society in which social distancing is a cornerstone of national safety.
Temporary measures that have protected people seeking asylum from evictions and provided accommodation and support to all those who require it (regardless of NRPF conditions) has reduced homelessness and destitution among migrant and refugee communities. For decades, policy-imposed exclusion from statutory support has left the welfare of vulnerable people dependent on the ability of charities and communities to meet their basic living needs. Before COVID-19, this placed an impossibly stretched sector under immense pressure to protect these members of society.
We cannot, and should not, return to a situation whereby destitution and homelessness was routine for people with insecure immigration status in the UK. Without a commitment from Government to a forward-thinking, collaborative approach, underpinned by a review of the hostile environment policies that make homelessness and destitution unavoidable for many, we risk facing mass homelessness on a scale never seen before. The pressures this would place on the individuals concerned, local government, the voluntary sector, and our communities would be unsustainable, and the consequences could be momentous.
It is crucial that progressive measures introduced to keep people safe are maintained following lockdown. We encourage all relevant government departments - including the MHCLG - to commit to ambitious, cross-governmental discussions about how to keep everyone safe following the COVID-19 pandemic.
 For reference, we direct the Committee to the following reports: British Red Cross (2017) Can’t Stay. Can’t Go. Refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned, available on the BRC website; Destitute Asylum Seeker Service (2019), Pillar to Post, available here.
 People can apply for permission to work if they have waited over 12 months for a decision on their asylum application. If they are granted permission to work, they can only take up employment in jobs on the shortage occupation list.
 Individuals do have the opportunity to appeal a negative decision and remain in their asylum accommodation whilst that appeal is outstanding.
 Full policy, including criteria, available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/asylum-support-section-42-policy
 A comprehensive list of COVID-19 related asylum policy changes can be found on the Refugee Council website, here: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/latest/news/changes-to-home-office-asylum-resettlement-policy-and-practice-in-response-to-covid-19/
 This incident is also referenced in NACCOM’s evidence submission to the HCLG Select Committee.
 COSLA (2020) Covid-19 Response Planning: Supporting Migrants with No Recourse to Public Funds, available here
 See Asylum Support Appeals Project factsheet on Section 4 Support: http://www.asaproject.org/uploads/Factsheet_2_-_Section_4_support.pdf
 See Asylum Support Appeals Project factsheet on COVID-19 and asylum support: http://www.asaproject.org/uploads/Factsheet_20_-_Covid-19_and_asylum_support_updated_17.4.20.pdf
 See Refugee Action & NACCOM (2019) Missing the Safety Net, https://naccom.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Missing-the-Safety-Net-report-FINAL-September-5th-2019.pdf
 See factsheet here: https://www.wmsmp.org.uk/covid-19-resources-and-guidance/
 As above