The Committee recommends the transfer of inspection duties currently carried out by the Home Office to local authorities, including the ability to impose sanctions.
Mistrust of central government
Nearly two years after the Home Affairs Committee's previous report on asylum accommodation, very little has improved and mistrust by local authorities of central government has deepened.
The Committee warns of significant risks to asylum accommodation provision if the Government doesn't urgently engage with local authorities who are considering withdrawing from the dispersal scheme due to the Government's handling of the replacement for the current contract.
As the Government prepares to finalise the tender of asylum accommodation contracts, worth £4 billion over 10 years, it must quickly do more to support local authorities carrying a disproportionate share of responsibilities, and to improve take-up in other areas of the country.
The report expresses concern about the Home Office’s failure to respond to the Committee's previous recommendations, and the deepening systemic mistrust affecting engagement between the Home Office, the ICIBI and NGOs in the asylum accommodation process.
Member of the Home Affairs Committee, Stuart McDonald MP commented:
"Two years on from the last Home Affairs report into asylum accommodation, there has been very little evidence of improvement. Local authorities have lost confidence in the system because the Government has failed to listen and respond to their concerns. Glasgow, Manchester, Wolverhampton and communities across the UK have done so much to support those seeking asylum in the UK. Yet, the Government has done little to support them.
In the final weeks before contracts for asylum accommodation worth billions of pounds are agreed, the Government must ensure they provide for a long-term, workable partnership with local authorities. The local authorities who step up and continue the UK's proud tradition of providing asylum must not be placed at a financial disadvantage because of it. Equally, the responsibility must be shared more widely, and distributed between more authorities, to correct the unfairness of the current arrangements.
We must remember that this is fundamentally about providing safe accommodation to individuals fleeing desperate circumstances. On too many occasions the quality of housing provided has fallen far below what is acceptable. The new asylum accommodation contract must be the beginning of comprehensive reforms that bring an end to the constant examples of mouldy, damp, vermin infested conditions that asylum seekers experience now."
Providing accommodation that is fit for purpose
A failed inspection and compliance regime has led to cases where people have been housed in completely unacceptable conditions. Vulnerable people, including pregnant women, torture survivors and individuals suffering from PTSD, have been housed in badly maintained, damp and vermin infested properties. This must end.
In spite of repeated evidence from NGOs, local authorities and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, the Government has done little to ensure that contractual requirements are met. Responsibility for inspection should be transferred, along with sufficient resourcing, to local authorities, including the ability to impose sanctions.
Understanding the pressures on local authorities
The cost of asylum accommodation does not end with housing provision. Local authorities must also provide public services, such as safeguarding and education, and manage the effect on the wider community. This additional requirement has been felt most acutely by the small number of councils that have a disproportionately large amount of asylum accommodation in their areas.
Local authorities have a clear interest in the way that the future asylum accommodation contracts are managed but have been largely excluded from the process of developing the new contracts. More equitable treatment must be given to authorities that participate in the dispersal system, and adequate support must be provided to mitigate unfunded cost pressures.
The Committee are deeply concerned that the Government's handling of the replacement for the COMPASS contracts has led dispersal authorities to consider, as a last resort, withdrawal from participation in the dispersal scheme. With a significant percentage of service users located in these regions, withdrawal of these areas would impact heavily upon vulnerable individuals and on the wider operation of the dispersal policy. It is essential that this outcome is avoided.
There is little time left for the development of an effective strategic partnership between the Government and local authorities before the transition to the new contracts. The Government has acknowledged the "huge role" played by local authorities in supporting asylum accommodation, but has not yet backed up these words with any meaningful support or concrete changes to their current approach.
The next few weeks provide a final chance to remedy this grave situation. The Government must understand the concerns of local authorities and provide improved funding support to address the full range of impacts of asylum accommodation on a local area. They should draw on the experiences of local authorities to better manage the distribution of asylum seekers and ensure they are more fairly distributed among a larger number of areas. As a crucial first step, the Government should consult with local authorities on the proposed asylum accommodation contracts before they are finalised.
A botched transition would have immediate repercussions for some of the most vulnerable individuals in society and, if it were to result in the withdrawal of authorities from the dispersal system, could present a significant risk to the Government's ability to meet its statutory responsibilities for the asylum system.