Home Affairs Committee

Housing Conditions For Asylum Seekers

Based On Evidence From Stockton On Tees

My name is Suzanne Fletcher MBE. I am a retired borough councillor, and when on the council specialised in housing issues, and was chair of the Housing Select Committee for a time. I represent the voluntary sector on the Housing and Neighbourhood Partnership (part of the local strategic partnership). I have been working with Thrive, a community organising charity, and DASUK, which is a group of asylum seekers working under the umbrella of the North East Regional Refugee Forum, after hearing about problems they were experiencing.

We have documented the problems, held an open meeting with G4S and UKBA, and held a number of meetings with G4S on the problems. Solutions have been promised to many of the problems, but very little, apart from the G4S grant for kitchen equipment has materialised.

In summary, the evidence shows that there are shortcomings in the provision of accommodation with little reference to the needs of asylum seekers, and is poor value for public money.

Background

When I first started working on this issue in January 2012, all the accommodation for asylum seekers was owned and managed by Jomast. Generally housing for single people was in terraced houses where each person had a bedroom, and shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Families lived in a house. There was a hostel for women and small children where each had a bed sitter, and shared kitchen facilities and bathrooms on each floor. The hostel has a lounge area on the ground floor, a grassed area outside that is unusable, and there is an office at the front where Jomast staff work.

G4S was awarded the contract for housing in the area and eventually they gave Jomast the sub-contract to manage the housing provision.

The Compass document “Standards required for asylum seekers” has been studied by me, and for each of the issues below, cross referenced on how it contradicts standards in the contract. However there are some areas where the Compass document is not specific enough, or does not cover the needs.

General Issues

1. Lack of respect for privacy

Was the first issue brought by the group. There were many incidences of Jomast’s staff or workmen walking into properties or rooms unannounced and causing distress to the occupants, especially to women from other cultures. This issue needs to be dealt with by better training for employees and enforcement of the contract.

2. Lack of understanding of the needs of people from different faiths, culture, ethicity and language.

(a) People from different backgrounds, with no common language, are being expected to share rooms in the shared houses. This causes considerable difficulties for each person with different ways of living, especially round religious rituals. With no common language there can be no explanation between them. The situation continues until one or other of the residents is moved because of settled status or is removed back to country of origin; it is not temporary because of a shortage of accommodation that day. People of different cultures and ages together in one room causes problems when, for instance a younger person wanting to stay up late and talk on the phone or have the light on makes it difficult for an older person needing to sleep. Sharing by people of the same sex, but nothing else in common is not covered in the Compass document, and needs to be. Although 2.6.3 does say that “cultural compatibility of the environment including proximity of other people speaking the same language” should be taken into consideration.

(b) Cooking equipment has to be shared, but there is no understanding that because of religious practices on some, especially but not wholly Muslims, equipment used for cooking meat or non halal meat cannot be shared with those who must not touch such. This is the case both in the shared houses and in the hostel. It leads to a lot of distress, more of which later.

(c) Very inappropriate comments and gestures have been made to residents by employees, having no regard to cultural sensitivities. There are numerous references to the need for training in customer care, and cultural awareness that are not being adhered to.

3. Hostel conditions.

There are numerous issues around the hostel. The second and ground floors have a kitchen, that is shared by those on that floor, but the first floor has to use one on the ground floor. There are some family rooms, 3 on each floor in a separate wing for those with more than one child, with a shared kitchen for each floor. The kitchens are poorly equipped. When I was first involved there were just 4 pans for 7 or 8 women, one chopping board, and a dearth of other essentials. This was for women that did cook properly from basic ingredients. Non meat eaters, halal only eaters, and meat eaters had to share this small amount of equipment. Obviously there were a lot of tensions. The kitchen equipment was eventually resolved by pressure being put on G4S who made a grant of £500 to Thrive to equip the 5 kitchens. With careful shopping around this has been done. However there are still broken grills for the ovens, dials that have to be turned with pliers, no mops for spills on the floor, and a host of other problems. There are issues around the wrong sized bedding, some very poor quality beds leading to back problems, not enough high chairs, split unhygienic upholstery in kitchens, lack of carpet cleaning, and others. All of these had been raised by the women with Jomast and nothing has happened. I have written to G4S and nothing has happened from that either. The Compass document is unclear about these issues, just talking about there needing to be adequate kitchen equipment, for instance. G4S say that it has met inspection standards, however I doubt if anyone just walking round the hostel, and listening to some of the women would say that conditions were adequate. One woman who got leave to remain and moved to a local homeless hostel could hardly believe how wonderful it was and said it was like arriving in heaven, in comparison with the asylum hostel.

4. Induction to the property and area.

Many of the asylum seekers have not been properly inducted in how to use appliances in the property, or be shown or given information about the area. Information brochures have been prepared by G4S, but these have not been given to most asylum seekers. Local information was gathered, after discussion with G4S, by local voluntary organisations, and put together by North East Refugee Service, and sent to G4S. This information does not appear to have been distributed anywhere though. Information given by Jomast recently had very out of date information about the location of a mosque for instance. I was told that “they find out where things are themselves”. The Compass document states in detail that such information should be given out to asylum seekers, but it appears that nobody is monitoring that it actually is, or checking on its accuracy.

5. Relationships with the neighbourhood.

Despite instructions in the Compass document about reducing the possibility of conflict in the neighbourhood, the landlord has painted the doors of each of their properties housing asylum seekers red. This clearly says “this is where asylum seekers live”. It should be part of the contract that such clearly outwardly visible signs should not be allowed by housing providers.

6. Health issues

With so many women and children living in such close proximity in the hostel, infections are rife, and many children are continually in the need of medical attention. There have been many instances of pregnant women being dispersed to the area in the late stages of pregnancy who have not had the relevant information about the availability of medical services for them. Such women have been housed on floors where nobody else speaks their language. Moves for women with complications in pregnancy asked for by the medical profession, in correspondence that I have seen, has been ignored by the housing provider and UKBA. There are other instances of people being housed inappropriately for their medical condition. This is despite numerous references to health needs being made in the Compass document. There appears to be no monitoring of how well it is being done. The use of the hostel for so many women and young children needs to be reassessed.

7. Complaints procedure

Although there are well documented policies on complaints procedures in Compass, matters are different on the ground. Because information packs are not being given to Stockton asylum seekers, they have not had access to the phone number to be used for reporting issues to G4S central complaints line. The information packs do not have the alternative number to call that will be cheaper for a mobile phone. There are no landline facilities for any of the asylum seekers to use free of charge, so all calls cost money. Many of the people speak very little English when they arrive in the UK, making it very difficult to explain a problem by phone. Even if they have good English for everyday purposes, it is still difficult for them to explain an issue that is around any technicality, for instance. There was no mention of a complaints process in the contract that is signed by them, when I was shown one recently. Complaints given to the housing provider are very often felt to be ignored, and I have not met anyone at all who has any experience of the system explained in the Compass document of there being a written record and the service user being told how it will be addressed within one working day. In theory asylum seekers can go to the North East Refugee Service in Middlesbrough. However this is several pounds each way on the bus, and a walk of at least 15 minutes to the NERS offices. This is particularly difficult for those that are heavily pregnant, have small babies and/or toddlers, or have health issues. It is essential that there is a way for asylum seekers to raise issues of concern that does not cost them so much money, is accessible to all regardless of health and language, and that proper procedures are followed.

8. Consultative committee.

The asylum seekers themselves made the positive suggestion that there be a consultative committee of service users so that problems, complaints and ideas could be shared and discussed in a positive atmosphere. G4S did agree to this a year ago, but nothing has happened. Compass does say that there should be a process and system for managing contact with service users and provide a central point for reference, but there is nothing. There is a Multi Agency Forum, chaired by an employee of Jomast. 2 asylum seekers were allowed to go to one meeting, as was I as a representative of the Housing and Neighbourhood Partnership. However, seemingly unilaterally, Jomast decided that we were not to be allowed to attend the meetings. They blamed G4S for the decision, but a representative of G4S had told us he was happy and thought it right we were there.

My recommendation, on behalf of Thrive and the asylum seeking community locally is that work is done, in conjunction with the voluntary sector, on the Compass document to ensure that it does cover the needs of decent housing provision for asylum seekers; that new conditions are applied retrospectively; that there is adequate monitoring that looks at the true situation rather than ticking boxes; that new and better ways for complaints to be made about housing issues are brought in; and that there are genuine consultative groups to better engage with the asylum community.

At all times we have done our best to work constructively with agencies on bringing about positive change, but we have now reached a stage where this is not progressing at all.

As one asylum seeker said, and all agreed “all we ask for is to be treated with dignity and respect”.

I am very willing to come to the Select Committee in person to answer any questions they may have, and will be able to update the Select Committee on the on going situation with housing of asylum seekers locally.

Thrive and DASUK

April 2013

Prepared 11th October 2013