Home Office handling of asylum seekers during pandemic branded ‘wholly unacceptable failure’
The Home Office has been accused of a “wholly unacceptable failure” after rapidly moving thousands of asylum seekers into hotels around the country amid the pandemic.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee lambasted the Government department for failing to keep councils, health services and MPs informed of the plans, hitting out at the lack of consultation carried out with local leaders and the limited information supplied.
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “Quite simply, there was a wholly unacceptable failure of the Home Office to communicate with local authorities and health services as they rapidly shifted hundreds of asylum seekers into hotel accommodation.
“In some cases, people who had contracted Covid-19 were moved to another borough without the authorities being informed. Even at the pace of events there was no excuse for this lack of communication.”
Among examples provided to the committee of incidents was the Home Office’s decision to move asylum seekers who had tested positive for coronavirus out of Birmingham to a hotel in Hammersmith, west London, in August without informing the council.
The pace at which the Home Office had to work does not excuse the “lack of discussion with local authorities and NHS bodies about how to manage this resettlement”, the committee said.
Its report found vulnerable people, including families with children, have been living in accommodation that does not meet their needs, and for far too long.
Around 9,500 asylum seekers are being put up in at least 90 hotels around the UK as a result of the pandemic.
But the use of hotels was high before Covid-19, the committee said, with more than 1,000 people in such accommodation each night since October last year.
The coronavirus outbreak highlighted major concerns over how the asylum system was operating, according to the committee which said elements of new services were “set up to fail”.
The Home Office has a series of contracts with providers to offer housing and support to asylum seekers in the UK while their claims are processed.
According to the committee, the department is now paying an estimated 28% more to new providers than it was under a previous system in 2016 – which had also attracted criticism.
The Home Office must now prove it is getting value for money for both the taxpayer and those who rely on the services, the committee said, warning there is a long way to go before it “delivers what it has promised on accommodation and essential services for asylum seekers”.
Ms Hillier added: “The Home Office has cranked up the payments for these new contracts – now it must prove it can correspondingly crank up performance and deliver at least decent, suitable accommodation and services to people fleeing war and persecution to seek asylum in this country.”
Among a raft of recommendations for improvement, the committee said the Home Office must:
- Quickly and safely cut back on the use of hotels for asylum seekers and make sure there is suitable accommodation available.
- Improve communication with local leaders as a matter of urgency.
- Evidence steps taken to address problems with contracts and show how they are offering value for money.
- Be more transparent and provide more data on how the services are operating.
The findings prompted criticism from campaigners.
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, described the report as “damning” and said it echoed what had been “consistently highlighted for the past year”.
He added: “This botched changeover of contracts contributed significantly to a humanitarian crisis in the middle of a pandemic as people and children are forced to live in squalid houses, dilapidated barracks, or cramped hotels.
“Britain is better than this. It’s time ministers honoured their words and took decisive action to create a fairer and more effective asylum system.”
The Home Office said it was considering the report’s recommendations and would respond in due course.
A department spokesman said it had worked “tirelessly” to try to provide asylum seekers suitable accommodation and using hotel accommodation on a temporary basis over recent months was necessary as a result of increased demand amid the pandemic but longer-term accommodation was being arranged.
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