Glasgow City Council knew about Serco refugee eviction plans ‘for months’
The Home Office contractor issued the first in a series of lock-change orders at emergency accommodation throughout the city in July. Around 300 families, lone men and women, many of whom are fleeing war or persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, faced being made homeless as a result.
The residents, who the Home Office had determined will not be granted refugee status, were to be given a week to leave the properties.
Serco was forced to “pause” its lock-change policy the following month ahead of a court challenge following pressure from campaigners, charities and housing associations.
At the time Glasgow City Council condemned the contractor’s action as “wholly unacceptable”, saying it will “trigger a humanitarian crisis in Glasgow” and create “imminent risk of significant harm to a vulnerable group”.
The local authority insisted it had been given no meaningful warning about the change.
In a strongly-worded letter co-signed by an array of cross-party councillors and MPs, Cllr Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, urged home secretary Sajid Javid to intervene.
But documents released under freedom of information law and obtained by investigative platform The Ferret reveal that Serco discussed its plans to carry out lock changes with senior managers at Glasgow City Council as far back as April – more than three months before the proposed roll-out.
The documents, requested by Scottish Labour, show that Serco emailed two council managers more than a week before the roll-out with a final version of a ‘move on protocol’, which included plans to issue lock change notices with seven days warning.
Internal council emails detail Serco’s correspondence with experienced managers at Glasgow City Council over several months.
The emails start on 9 April, with one sent from Serco’s customer relations director to two managers – one working for Glasgow council, the other for the council’s Health and Social Care Partnership.
It alludes to a meeting held on 29 March and says: “I know we are all due to meet again on 23 April, however, ideally I would like Serco to take some proactive steps in piloting lock change notices in advance of that.”
The email continues: “I am keen to avoid members being blindsided on this in the spirit of partnership working”. In response a meeting was set up with Councillor Jennifer Layden, convenor of the equality and human rights committee, and scheduled for the end of June.
Subsequent emails from Serco continue to raise the issue of lock changes, under which refused asylum seekers would receive seven days notice of eviction.
An email from a Glasgow council manager on June 14 said: “I think you go forward with what we discussed at our last meeting. You have a contractual obligation to the Home Office to move people on from their Home Office accommodation on their termination date (to free up accommodation for others).
“Unfortunately for people with a decision (i.e on their application for asylum being refused) that will mean they are facing homelessness and destitution and they will probably have NRPF . At the end of the day that I do not think is an issue for Serco. If people in general have an issue with that they will need to direct it to the right people (immigration minister).”
Glasgow City Council denies councillors had any knowledge of plans. It claims it worked with Serco on how to support asylum seekers no longer entitled to Home Office accommodation, but not on lock changes.
A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman told The Ferret: “The information was not escalated. Politicians were unaware of the lock changes. That is why they ‘went tonto’ and reacted urgently to stop Serco going ahead with their planned lock changes as soon as they found out.
“It is simply untrue to suggest that Glasgow City Council officers or members were working with Serco and the Home Office to implement lock changes. We were working with the Home Office on how social work, within the constraints of the law, would be able to support vulnerable asylum seekers who have had a negative decision.
“Serco emailed Cllr Layden on July 19th to inform her of their planned lock changes. This was when the council was in recess and she was on holiday. Her automatic out-of-office email response was on and Serco received a reply telling them she was unavailable.
“Serco did not copy Cllr Layden into the email in which they allege she ‘understood the need for lock changes in negative cases and agreed to manage some of the political messaging around that’. This is something she strongly refutes and when she became aware of Serco’s claims – she wrote to them to point that out in the strongest terms stating ‘I am not, and don’t believe I indicated, that I am supportive of a protocol for lock changing being implemented’.”
Following revelations, Scottish Labour MP for Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney, has written to Cllr Susan Aitken seeking urgent answers to questions raised.
His letter is outlined below in full:
Dear Cllr Aitken,
I refer you to the article by Karin Goodwin and Billy Briggs on The Ferret website and The Times, published on 3 December 2018 headlined “Revealed: Glasgow council managers knew about plans to evict refugees” based on a Freedom of Information request.
As you know, eight days before your administration claimed to have been “blindsided” by the news that Serco planned to change the locks of properties under the Compass accommodation contract for asylum seekers in Glasgow who had received a negative decision from the Home Office, senior officers at Glasgow City Council were sent explicit details of what the “move on protocol” by the firm would entail, and they also included Cllr Jennifer Layden in that correspondence.
The first message uncovered by the Freedom of Information request was sent on April 9, the email also refers to a previous meeting on March 29.
Can you confirm when all meetings between Serco, Councillors and council officers took place to discuss this policy, who was in attendance and provide minutes of those meetings?
Of greatest concern, however, is the passage which says: “On 29 June, Serco wrote to the council with an update. The email said: “The meeting with Jen Layden went well earlier this week, and politically she understands the need for Serco to explore lock changes for negative cases – she has agreed to assist in managing some of the political messaging on that if required.”
Can you confirm what management of the “political messaging” took place and perhaps explain why Cllr Layden claimed to have been “completely blindsided” by the news when it would appear she had been privy to the plans, having apparently agreed Serco’s “move on” protocol which included lock changes.
Indeed, in an attempt to distance herself from the ensuing political backlash once the story had broken in the press on 29 July 2018, Cllr Layden even co-signed a letter with Glasgow MPs to Home Secretary Sajid Javid expressing “deep concern” about the policy she had been involved in shaping in the preceding months.
Of course, in political terms at City Chambers, the buck stops with you. Tasks can be delegated, but responsibility cannot. So can you clarify whether you had oversight of the meetings taking place about the policy and if not, why not?
I look forward to your early response.
Paul Sweeney MP