Blog: Asylum seekers in Scotland - what’s the background to the Serco contract issues?

CIH senior policy adviser John Perry takes a more detailed look at the background to the recent Serco contract issues in relation to accommodation for asylum seekers.

Despite all the fuss about migration levels, the numbers applying for asylum in the UK are at historically low levels. They ran at over 100,000 annually in the early noughties, then fell to around 30,000 per year and are back near that level again after another short peak linked to the migrant crisis in the rest of Europe. Most people who apply for asylum in the UK are turned down, but the proportion ultimately successful is rising, from consistently under a third a decade ago to over 40% now. The low numbers could have eased pressure on asylum accommodation, where applicants can live while awaiting decisions on their cases, but the Home Office is its own worst enemy in this respect: it has a backlog of nearly 15,000 unresolved cases over six months old (and some very much older than that).

Asylum seekers don’t have to accept accommodation, but those who would otherwise be destitute can apply for it. Before 2000 there were few if any asylum seekers living in Scotland – then Glasgow was chosen as one of the accommodation ‘dispersal areas’ after a change in government policy towards moving asylum seekers away from the south-east of England. At the time, the idea was to use surplus council flats (the same happened in other places, mainly in the Midlands and north of England). The Home Office set up contracts with local authorities to administer ‘dispersal’ and provide housing. From the start, this was on a no-rent basis – the person housed would get a flat, some furniture and white goods, and a very basic subsistence allowance (now £37.75 per week). Councils like Glasgow – still the only one in Scotland – could use surplus funds from the contract to fund community services. Glasgow set up a series of neighbourhood networks to support communities where newcomers were being housed.

After some big problems at the start, and the terrible murder of Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag in August 2001, Glasgow gradually built a reputation as one of the cities where asylum seekers had been welcomed and which had developed a range of services in response. I can recall meeting, at a Glasgow church hall ten years ago, a group of older local women and younger asylum seekers enjoying a computer class, everyone helping each other out. But much of this work, in Glasgow and other places like Bolton and Swansea, became more difficult for councils to fund after 2012. This was because the contracts were handed over to three private firms – Serco, G4S and Clearsprings – who have run them since then, even though neither Serco nor G4S had any experience of asylum support. Funding for integration work all but disappeared. The contracts, under the title COMPASS, have all been problematic in different ways – for example, among many other controversies there was one in Middlesbrough when houses used for asylum accommodation turned out to be identifiable by their red front doors. The Scottish Refugee Council and the Red Cross documented the problems that emerged in Glasgow.

With nearly 40,000 asylum seekers still receiving assistance (the biggest number being in Glasgow itself), the system is being revamped yet again. The new contracts, ten-year deals priced at £4 billion and now named ‘AASC’, have already been delayed because the Home Office failed to get enough tenders. Because of this hold-up, we don’t yet know whether and how the new contracts will learn lessons from the COMPASS ones (for example, those set out by the Home Affairs Committee in 2017 when it reviewed how they have worked). The worry is that, once more, the main priority will be to accommodate asylum seekers at the lowest possible cost. The latest contract documents even missed out any requirement on bidders to work with local authorities, an omission described by the Home Office as an ‘oversight’. Will asylum seekers obliged to make at least a temporary home in Glasgow get a better deal in future? – we don’t yet know, but the signs aren’t encouraging.

Should you know more about the housing and benefit issues affecting asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants? Take a look at the housing rights website for Scotland, and get all the detailed help you or your customers need.

  • This article was originally published on the CIH Scotland website.
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