Another shambles as G4S is entrusted with running asylum seeker housing

While the world’s biggest security firm has suffered international humiliation over its mishandling of the London Olympics, another more modest piece of business has been unravelling in its hands. 

 

Back in June, when G4S was looking forward to making a big impression as lead security contractor to the London Olympics, the company signed off a less glamorous but more profitable piece of business – managing housing for thousands of asylum seekers in the north of England. The seven-year £211m contract with the UK Border Agency’s commercial arm COMPASS was especially welcome to G4S, which had lost a deportation escort contract with the UK Border Agency, after the death of Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010.

But the contract has not been plain sailing for the security giant, who have been harried by campaigners across Yorkshire working with asylum rights groups, outraged that a prison guard and immigration detention centre company can privatise the housing of around 1000 asylum seekers presently housed and supported by local councils.

Two groups — South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and Why Refugee Women? — in May and June criticised  the chosen partner of G4S, private housing company UPM (United Property Management), for forcibly moving a mother and sick baby a hundred miles from Bradford to Doncaster. The UPM flat in Doncaster was condemned by the UKBA itself, but the mother and baby had to endure six weeks there before being rescued by the local children’s services department in Doncaster. UPM was dropped from the G4S contract.

On June 18 a rather rattled G4S announced through the UKBA that it was finally able to take on the asylum housing contract and would have four totally new housing companies as its partners: Cascade Homes Ltd, Live Management, Mantel, and a charitable housing association, Target HA, based in Sheffield. Cascade did have some form in asylum housing, but apparently only briefly subcontracting for UPM and Kirklees council. Live Management, registered as a private company only since January 2012, had no form at all. Mantel, part of a commercial property company, was to play no part in the first stages of the contract. Only Target HA emerged as a housing provider with a history of local authority contracts for housing vulnerable people – in its case ex-offenders.

Target Housing as a fig leaf for G4S

For more than fifty years Yorkshire councils had provided housing for refugees. Now that was being handed over to the world’s biggest surveillance and detention company, with a well regarded local charity acting as front man and figleaf. Just as children’s charity Barnado’s rents its reputation to G4S and the Border Agency at the Cedars family detention centre, providing cover for the continued detention of children, Target Housing was to give a credible face to G4S, as it moved from its profitable asylum markets into the expanding markets for private capital in social housing.

It was a good choice; the CEO of Target was a Chilean refugee, Gino Toro, with personal experience of working for refugee housing associations. In early summer 2011 G4S had organised a competitive bidding process for voluntary sector housing providers. Target, like most voluntary organisations, and many specialist housing associations, had been badly hit by cuts in public expenditure, and a resulting drying up of contracts. In 2011 they had a bad year, they told the Charity Commission:

‘Given the economic climate and funding cuts one of our objectives was to avoid any compulsary (sic) staff redundancies’ (1)

Gino Toro says he won a sub contract from G4S in 2011 to house around 250 asylum seekers, in family groups in Sheffield, Hull and Derby. Target, according to Moro, underbid its rivals to win the contract estimated at £2.5 million. Their present total annual turnover is about £2 million, so the contract was important for Target’s survival.

So Target are now players in a game where privatisation means cutting staff costs and reducing service to ensure profits for lead organisation G4S. Target’s unqualified ‘Team Leader’ for their new asylum contract, will be paid the equivalent of £8 per hour gross, roughly what G4S casual employees recruited as guards for the Olympics were paid. Slimmed down staffing will mean vulnerable asylum seeker families will not get the support the councils have offered them.

The G4S assumption that buying a ‘social housing’ provider would scale down opposition in Sheffield totally backfired. Gino Moro was well known in the Chilean refugee community in Sheffield – a community still based on memories of the politics of the Allende years in Chile, and still active in asylum rights campaigning. The Chilean community website invited comments on the Target contract and started a campaign, with SYMAAG, to get Target to withdraw from the G4S contract here.

G4S sanitises its reputation and wins over the charities

The Target experience demonstrates the way in which G4S can be sanitised, losing its reputation in the ‘tainted trade’ of private security, and accepted as a credible ‘partner’ in providing housing for vulnerable tenants like asylum seekers, and perhaps become a major player in the social housing market (2). 

Gino Toro defended working with G4S because he said other well known associations with refugee housing experience ‘like Metropolitan’ (Housing Partnership) were also involved in releasing refugee housing for the G4S contract. Metropolitan, with 80,000 tenants and clients, is the largest UK regeneration and ‘social business’ housing association. Its origins lie in the Metropolitan Coloured Peoples Housing Association of 1957 which housed Jamaican and West Indian immigrants. Metropolitan has in recent years taken over Safe Haven, previously involved in asylum housing in Yorkshire, and the Refugee Housing Association, and still runs the Sheffield Station Foyer for refugees that was founded in 2005. The chair of Metropolitan is Barbara Roche a former Labour immigration minister.

In their efforts to extend their ‘asylum markets’ and ‘detention estates’ into asylum housing, all the private security companies involved in the £620 million contracts — G4S, Serco and Reliance — set out to encourage voluntary organisations, and charitable housing associations with experience in refugee and asylum housing and services, into partnerships as subcontractors. None of the security companies favoured by the Home Office had any previous experience in the field of housing – they needed to absorb and build in this experience, and credibility, to the contract bids. Reliance, the smallest of the security companies, privately owned by Brian Kingham, a Tory party donor since 2001, simply formed a joint venture, Clearel Ltd, with private company Clearsprings who had held asylum housing contracts with the Home Office since 2000. Clearel have the contract for London, the South West and Wales (3).

G4S set about its lobbying and PR project by recruiting Rebecca Woodhouse as Senior Bid Manager for G4S Security Services in February 2011. Between 2006 and 2010 Woodhouse had been Business Initiatives Officer for the Metropolitan Support Trust. Previously she had been a support manager for the Refugee Housing Association (Metropolitan Housing Trust) from 2004 to 2006. (G4S says Woodhouse is a bid manager for “G4S security services” and “This area of the business is completely separate to the part of the business involved in providing housing for asylum seekers and Rebecca has never been involved, in any capacity, with that area of work.”)

In Yorkshire and the North East, G4S brought in housing consultant, Andrew Gray, a former president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, to set up its asylum housing sub contractors. Gray was well known in the field of social housing, and added housing expertise, and mainstream respectability, to the G4S contract bid. As the £120 million contract unfolded, G4S then recruited Duncan Wells as its Social Cohesion manager. Wells was the chief executive of RETAS, a Leeds based refugee organisation with an established reputation and strong links into the voluntary and charitable asylum support networks. Tiffy Allen, the national convenor of the extensive City of Sanctuary (CoS) movement, is a former colleague of Wells at RETAS, and, according to campaigners, is currently trying to get City of Sanctuary groups to support Wells to set up G4S consultation forums for asylum support groups.

It is perhaps worth noting that Sheffield City of Sanctuary, which started the national City of Sanctuary movement in 2007, was the organisation which actually instigated the campaign in January 2012 against G4S taking over asylum housing in South Yorkshire, by calling on SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) to lead a coalition of charities into a campaign and a protest demonstration.

This careful public relations and recruitment strategy by G4S, and its tireless efforts to network and appear as a mainstream private corporation simply pursuing contracts for outsourcing asylum housing and services, gradually neutralised any active opposition. A Report sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Trust and Metropolitan, in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Housing entitled ‘Housing and Migration: UK Guide to issues and solutions’, published in 2012, in the middle of the contract furore on G4S, is totally uncritical of SERCO, G4S and Reliance. The Report, written by John Perry, simply states:

“In 2012 a new challenge is to forge partnerships between the private companies that will provide asylum accommodation, local services, and migrant support organisations . . . it is going to be vital to encourage the companies to take a strategic view, recognise the ‘civic’ role they need to fulfil and contribute to successful integration.’ (p.14)

The Yorkshire G4S contract unravels

The campaign success in removing UPM from the G4S contract brought chaos and indecision to G4S and the UKBA in Yorkshire – not unlike the ‘shambles’ of the G4S Olympics contract. UKBA announced that G4S had removed Gray from contract supervision; as they euphemistically put it he was given a ‘different role’.

Despite all their undertakings to keep asylum seekers and families in the same areas where councils have housed them, G4S and the UKBA are now simply tearing up agreements. On June 13 an official UKBA statement was issued saying

“There is no intention during transition to re-house individuals currently residing in Yorkshire & Humberside to the North East.”

On 24 June a family was forcibly moved from Sheffield to Stockton, a hundred miles away, and other single asylum seekers have been moved, or threatened with moves, to Stockton or Middlesborough. Barnsley asylum seeker families have been threatened with moves 120 miles away to Newcastle.

G4S desperation and ‘reverse privatisation’

G4S is becoming so desperate that it is, remarkably, trying a form of ‘reverse privatisation’ by paying local authorities, and housing associations, like InCommunities in Bradford, to allow them to take over and manage asylum accommodation with sitting asylum seeker tenants from previous local council contracts. This is because G4S and their private contractors cannot find any local private rented sector accommodation to put the families in, when they have to leave local authority housing. Campaigners in Kirklees (Huddersfield) say the council there has turned down at least two offers from G4S.

Target Housing, the only social housing provider willing, so far, to openly partner G4S in Yorkshire, is now reeling from exposure in the national housing press, and the local media in South Yorkshire. Demand for them to withdraw from the contract is gathering momentum. The trustees are now being lobbied, leaflets are being prepared and actions scheduled.

With the G4S shambles in the Olympics being reflected in chaos in the asylum housing contracts, the G4S hold on the Yorkshire and North East contract is uncertain. Campaigners are calling for a rapid return to contracts held directly with the local councils throughout Yorkshire, with no G4S involvement; contracts grounded in public service values, welcoming asylum seekers, instead of the profit-oriented values of an international security company exploiting its ‘asylum markets’ with the tacit support of the social and refugee housing establishment.

Notes & references

(1) TARGET HOUSING LIMITED charity number 1017841 Summary Information Return 2011 to Charity Commission

(2) Angelica Thumala, Benjamin Goold and Ian Loader ‘A tainted trade? Moral ambivalence and legitimation work in the private security industry’  British Journal of Sociology 2011 vol 62 issue 2 pp283-303

(3) GMB (General Municipal and Boilermakers Union) ‘Posh Dosh for the Posh Boys: the Sunday Times Rich List and how they support the Tory Party’ May 2012

About the author

John Grayson is an independent researcher and adult educator. He teaches some of the time at Sheffield Hallam University and with the social enterprise the AdEd Knowledge Company. He lives in Barnsley and is an activist and campaigner with SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group).