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31.01.17

Handful of councils bearing the brunt as refugees concentrated in most deprived areas

The government’s future accommodation contracts used to house asylum seekers must address the challenges in securing housing in other local authority areas, especially where there is limited availability or where housing is expensive, councils have said in response to a damning committee report.

The Home Affairs Committee today branded the government’s current contract system for asylum accommodation a “disgrace”, with major reforms needed to ensure the “shameful” conditions in which vulnerable people are living in are overturned. For example, it identified major issues with vermin infestation and dirty and rotten furniture across refugees’ dispersed accommodation, as well as a lack of adequate support – for example, heavily pregnant women being placed in rooms up several flights of stairs or forced to share a bedroom.

The committee’s chair, Labour’s Yvette Cooper MP, said the state of homes for some asylum seekers in the country was disgraceful, with the current contract system simply “not working”.

“Even where the accommodation and support are of a good standard, it is still far too concentrated in the most deprived areas,” she added. “It is completely unfair on those local authorities and communities that have signed up and are now taking many more people, when so many local authorities in more affluent areas are still doing nothing at all.

“The current contract system is badly designed and puts local authorities off from signing up. Ministers should learn from the success of the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme which has given local authorities far more control and has also got far more local authorities involved. Similar reforms are needed for asylum seekers.”

But ultimately, said Cooper, if councils still fail to sign up, ministers should be prepared “to use their powers to insist that areas do their fair share”.

When the contracts run out, argued the committee, they should then be replaced with an entirely new system, designed to hand back powers to local areas rather than sticking to this top-down approach.

Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s asylum, migration and refugee task group, agreed that the contract isn’t wholly working, with several challenges left to be addressed with regards to securing accommodation in other council areas.

But against the committee’s claims that so many councils aren’t helping out, he said: “Councils have a strong track record in welcoming asylum seeking and refugee children, as well as their families, and many continue to work hard to support asylum dispersal alongside all the other schemes in current operation.

“Councils are stepping up to the plate with more than 200 local authorities becoming dispersal areas.”

He added that it was pleasing to see the committee’s report recognising the multiple schemes currently out there for supporting refugees, but agreed that it is vital these schemes are “fully aligned and funded” to ensure local authorities and partners can offer adequate support whilst continuing to provide their everyday services.

“Councils are clear that continuing to have voluntary participation in these schemes is the best approach to meeting the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in their communities, and ensuring these communities are fully prepared to welcome new arrivals,” he concluded.

But a Home Office spokeswoman insisted the UK has a “proud history” of granting asylum to those who need protection and continue to be committed to providing “safe and secure” accommodation while applications are considered.

“We work closely with our contractors to ensure they provide accommodation that is safe, habitable, fit for purpose and adequately equipped and we conduct regular inspections to check that this is the case,” she added.

“We have also made significant improvements to the operation of the contracts, including increasing the number of dispersal areas by more than a third.”

The issue of accommodating asylum-seekers has been a thorny one, particularly since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in recent years. In late 2015, the first 1,000 of the country’s refugees were welcomed across 50 councils as part of government efforts to resettle 20,000 people from camps.

But councils have repeatedly called for more clarity over resettling schemes regardless. Most recently, the Public Accounts Committee warned that the government faces a “significant challenge” in hitting its 20,000 target, with councils and refugees alike still unsure what asylum seekers are entitled to under the programme and how it should be funded.

(Top image c. Yui Mok/PA Archive)

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