1. Following our colleagues at Scottish Refugee Council (SRC), the ASH Project would like to take the opportunity to comment on Mears’ Supplementary Written Evidence [COR0181] to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
2. Specifically, we address references to ASH at paragraph 3 on p. 1 (our emphasis in bold):
“Mears informed ASH, the Scottish Refugee Council and the Red Cross, inviting them to provide advice on the arrangements. ASH and the SRC have visited the hotel accommodation.”
3. The ASH Project was first informed of the hotel moves on 27th March 2020, when [staff member] (Mears) telephoned Sheila Arthur (ASH Project Director). [Mears staff member] called Sheila Arthur a second time concerning hotel accommodation on 2nd April 2020. Over the course of these two phone calls, [Mears staff member] advised that:
4. Sheila Arthur understood these calls to be informative only. We understand now that moves to the hotel had taken place just prior or concurrent with [Mears staff member’s] communication. We believe that Mears’ phrasing “inviting [ASH, SRC & BRC] to provide advice on the arrangements” is suggestive of extensive consultation with third-sector organizations, where said groups would have the opportunity to provide recommendations and see these implemented. For clarity: ASH was not invited to provide any advice on the hotel arrangements prior to or during these moves. Significantly, we understand from the Asylum Health Bridging Team that they were not informed of the decision to move service users into the hotels and no vulnerability assessments were undertaken.
5. The next update on the hotels from Mears came via bulk email sent by [second staff member] (Mears) on 8th April 2020, subject heading “AASC Update”. Though a list of recipients was not available, the email was not specifically addressed to ASH and contains general information about the AASC contract as whole. We understand it to have been sent to all major stakeholders and third sector partners. Within this, there is a section on ‘Hotels’, which states that “All Service Users have been moved into other appropriate accommodation”1 and gives updates on operational issues, such as the provision of food and toiletries. Again, this was informative and there was no request for input or advice from recipients.
1 Though ASH was later informed by [Mears staff member] that the last move-ins to the hotels took place on the 17th April 2020.
6. Subsequently, ASH requested to visit the hotels on the 17th April 2020. Mears agreed to our request and arranged for the 30th April 2020 at [two hotels]2. [Two staff] attended and were given a tour of the hotels by [second Mears staff member], who provided information about the hotels generally and more specifically about the service provision at the hotels visited. Feedback from ASH on this visit was not requested by Mears either during or after the visits. Suggestions made by [second Mears staff member] during the visit could unfortunately not be followed up afterwards. For example, [second Mears staff member], advised during the visit that any Section 95 or Section 4 supported service users now accommodated in hotels must have been moved in ‘by accident’.3 He advised that ASH should bring any such service users to his attention and they would be moved back into self- contained flats. Following this advice, ASH emailed [second Mears staff member] directly to request that three S95/S4 supported service users be moved to self-contained flats. At the time of writing, these three service users have still not been moved.
7. We hope that the above evidence provides clarity to HASC on ASH’s communication with Mears prior to and at the start of their hotel accommodation of asylum seekers during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’d like to take this opportunity to raise some highly significant and relevant concerns about the living conditions face by asylum seekers in the hotels at this current moment:
2 In hindsight we would have requested a visit to the [third hotel], since we have received so many complaints about this particular hotel. However, since outreach with those in the hotels was difficult and not facilitated by Mears, much of April and early May was spent establishing contact and a picture of the situation in thehotels.
3 Indeed, correspondence from Mears CEO John Taylor to MP Alison Thewliss on 7th May 2020 makes no mention of S95/S4 supported service users and implies that only those in IA accommodation were moved into hotels.
Multiple service users have reported losing significant amounts of weight. [Report of individual case]
8. Many of those who are accommodated in the hotels are extremely fearful of speaking out or complaining, because of the impact they believe this may have on their asylum claims. This fear can be so powerful that service users ask us not complain to Mears or request relocations from Migrant Help, let alone take up these concerns with legal representatives or journalists. This makes supporting and helping people in this scenario extremely difficult. We understand this fear to be significantly increased by the constant invocation of the ‘Home Office’ by Mears and Hotel staff. We have received multiple reports from those supported under that S95/S4 who were moved from flats that they were given half an hour to pack and told that they were being moved ‘on orders from the Home Office’. Similarly, those who have tried to raise complaints and issues directly with Mears and hotel staff have been told that nothing can be done, because all decisions are made by the Home Office.
9. The Home Office has subcontracted asylum accommodation provision to private provider such as Mears precisely so it doesn’t have to undertake such operational work. By allowing its staff and subcontractors to cite ‘the Home Office’ as behind all decisions, Mears is cultivating substantial fear amongst those vulnerable people it is contracted to care and provide for. A significant side effect of this is that Mears then reduces challenge and criticism of its operations, as claims cannot be substantiated by those who have been made to feel too frightened to speak out. We hope the HASC can appreciate the extremely difficult position third-sector and community organizations such as ASH are then put into. We know there are severe problems that need to be addressed but we cannot directly raise these, because the wishes and well-being of the service user must be paramount.
10. We hope this supplementary written evidence from the ASH Project is useful for and informative to the Home Affairs Select Committee.