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Lacking council resources a ‘risk’ to Syrian refugee resettlement success

The resettlement programme for Syrian refugees may be put at risk because of difficulties finding sufficient accommodation and school places, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

In a new report, the NAO praised the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme’s “all hands on deck” approach, which had allowed it to resettle 1,000 refugees by last Christmas, but said that guaranteed places are still needed to meet the goal of resettling 20,000 refugees by 2020.

The government recently announced that all 20,000 local authority places have been found. However, the NAO report said that this is made up of indicative pledges, with just 3,661 firm offers made so far, of which 3,536 have already been allocated or promised. This meant that there are currently 125 promised places for 1,078 refugees who have been approved for resettlement. However, the resettlement programme team said it was “confident” that the conversion rate of pledges to firm offers would be enough to avoid a shortfall.

Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The programme team achieved a great deal in a short amount of time, resettling much larger numbers of refugees than previous programmes, due in large part to the dedication and goodwill of those involved.

“The characteristics of the refugees arriving in the UK will become clearer over time. With this new information, the programme team must adapt budgets so that no organisation taking part in the programme struggles to participate effectively due to cost pressures.”

The report also raised concerns about the needs of the refugees. The programme has required 655 houses and flats so far and will need 4,930 by 2020. Some local authorities told the NAO they were struggling to establish partnerships with the private rented sector to re-house refugees, particularly with the housing benefits’ cap limiting refugees’ ability to pay for housing.

In addition, local authorities need to provide 10,664 school places for children coming to the UK through the programme, including more than 1,500 places for children with special needs. However, 20.4% of primary schools are full or over capacity. Nottingham City and County Councils reported having to turn away cases because they were unable to provide special needs education places.

It also suggested that local physical and mental health care could struggle to meet refugees’ needs.

Uncertainty over funding to local authorities

Local authorities will receive £20,520 for every refugee over the five years of the programme, but some local authorities said they weren’t sure if the tariff was expected to cover the full cost of the refugees’ needs, or how much they were expected to contribute from their own budgets.

The NAO said there is no overall estimate of the total cost of the programme for different government departments, but it could be as much as £1bn.

Councils also said the existing English language teaching funding was not enough to allow refugees to learn sufficient English, making it harder for them to find work.

Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s asylum, refugee and migration task group, said: “We have previously said that we were confident in ensuring that there would be sufficient pledges to support the Government's aim to resettle 20,000 people by 2020 and the Home Office has now confirmed this to be true.

“The focus must now be on ensuring families are well supported. Councils are and will be helping some of the most vulnerable families fleeing Syria who will need access to ongoing support from local services to cope with injuries, disabilities and to recover from the severe trauma they have experienced.

“Councils have an excellent track record in welcoming asylum seeking and refugee children and their families for many years, and continue to work hard to support the Syrian resettlement scheme alongside all the other schemes in current operation.”

The NAO said the resettlement programme should clarify to local authorities that there are no set requirements for what they should provide for refugees after the first year, to encourage councils to tailor services, and ensure refugees’ opinions are listened to.

In addition, it said that all government departments and local authorities should have plans in place to manage the risks of the programme, and a full monitoring and evaluation framework should be in place as soon as possible.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We ask local authorities to consider carefully whether they have the necessary infrastructure and support networks before a resettlement occurs and we will only resettle individuals to a particular area once we've ensured these arrangements, including school places and housing, are in place.”

(Image c. Yui Mok from PA Archive)

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