G4S asylum-housing fiasco descends into farce

Things aren't going well in the UK's new asylum housing 'market' that is dominated by the world's biggest security company. Now G4S threatens to evict an asylum-seeker because G4S has failed to pay her rent. Are public services safe in its hands?

On the 4th of May, Angela (not her real name) opened a letter from her landlord which revealed that there were massive rent arrears on her home. Angela is an asylum seeker who lives with her 11 month old son. The letter said that there was £1634 owed in rent. This is true. But it's not her fault. Angela’s rent is, or should be, paid for her by a housing company called Cascade Homes. Cascade is supposed to pay the rent to the landlord’s letting agent, Whitegates. Cascade then should claim the money back from G4S, the world’s biggest security company.

Regular readers may recall that G4S won a government contract last year to house asylum seekers in Yorkshire. I have followed this story closely. I am an activist and researcher and I work alongside asylum seeker tenants in Yorkshire and the North East. Over the months together we have revealed how companies to whom G4S subcontracts the work have repeatedly failed to provide housing fit for human habitation, how their staff have been accused of harassing vulnerable tenants.

With arrears of this scale, not surprisingly the landlord wanted payment or repossession of the property. G4S’s answer was not to pay the debt and continue the tenancy. Instead G4S harassed Angela into moving for the fourth time in a few months, leaving mother and infant son bereft of their medical and support networks.

Angela had been moved to this new Cascade address under the supervision of Leeds City Council in December after experiencing Leeds Cascade Housing properties. She had spent a horrific month in a damp, filthy property infested with cockroaches. Under the asylum rules she had no choice but to stay there, but Angela spoke out and forced G4S and Cascade to move her to a decent property in a neighbourhood where she could keep her links to her church and support networks.

Even in her new property the harassment went on. Male housing workers arrived unannounced demanding to be let in. As recently as 26 April a Cascade worker simply let himself in without any prior arrangement when Angela was out.

Then on Wednesday 1 May Angela got a phone call from a G4S/Cascade male employee who said he was Duncan Wells: he told her that she must move immediately to an address in Pudsey miles away from her present neighbourhood. Wells said he would come to see her on Tuesday 7 May when he would bring ID and take Angela to the new address so that she could see the property.

This was deeply distressing news for Angela. The new address was miles away from her church, support services and a childcare centre she had just arranged for her infant son.

Duncan Wells is the ‘Social cohesion manager’ of G4S for asylum housing in Yorkshire and the North East and should be well aware of grave criticisms in Parliament of the threats to the privacy of asylum seekers in their homes. A Parliamentary inquiry into these matters, led by Sarah Teather MP and supported by the Children's Society, reported in January. During a House of Commons debate on the inquiry, on 27 February, Teather said:

"Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. . . . It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors."

Wells told Angela that she had to move because "the landlord wanted the house back". Angela discovered that this wasn't the whole story when she opened the letter left by her landlord listing the arrears on the house. When, in a meeting with Wells, Cascade housing workers and local campaigners Angela disclosed the letter, Cascade at first tried to deny the arrears. Later, they had to own up to the truth, which was more embarrassing still. There had actually been £1000 arrears on the property and a repossession threat before Cascade moved Angela in.

The worry and distress went on and on. The landlord still wanted the property back. Contractors arrived to start work in preparation for a new tenant. Angela had relentless knocks on the door and calls for her to leave the property, and still not even a written notice to move from Cascade.

Nine days after the phone call, a Cascade worker arrived with a letter giving Angela and her son seven days notice to move and promising a decent house, close enough to enable her to stay connected to her medical and other support networks. On Monday 13 May, twelve days after the phone call from Duncan Wells, and after twelve days of distress and harassment Angela was offered a property which she has seen and accepted, and she will move in there on Thursday 16 May.

G4S had no experience of housing management when it was given a slice of the national asylum housing £620m contracts in June 2012. The private security company had of course a stake in other parts of the ‘asylum market’ with a rocky human rights record in managing immigration detention centres and deportation escort services. Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan father of five, died after being "restrained" by G4S escort staff during an attempt to deport him in 2010.

In Yorkshire and the North East, G4S's worrying reputation motivated resistance from asylum tenants and their willingness to speak out about appalling conditions. Chris Bryant MP, shadow Minister for Immigration, speaking in February's debate, referred to "hideous conditions" in asylum housing. Last year a Zimbabwean asylum seeker in Sheffield said —  "I do not want a prison guard as my landlord".

The Home Office, with its 2012 privatized asylum housing contracts, has produced cut price contracts for slum housing based on a "new delivery model" which is hopelessly inefficient. The model is based on three or (as in the Leeds case) four tiers of landlords, each one slicing off a share of the profits. In Leeds and West Yorkshire, G4S is in overall charge, with actual housing provision subcontracted to Cascade Housing.

A few of Cascade's 700 West Yorkshire asylum housing properties are owned directly by the company. Most are subcontracted from very small private landlords. In Angela’s case Cascade used a lettings agency to rent the property from a small landlord. This added yet another layer of complication and cost and stretched even further the distance between Angela and the state which owes her a duty of care.

Within this ‘flexible’ delivery model the real losers are asylum seekers and their families. G4S and its subcontractors like Cascade have simply failed to find decent properties for asylum seekers. G4S’s own figures released in February suggest that in Yorkshire up to 300 asylum seekers have been placed in ‘no choice’ housing which is unfit, and breaches their contract with the Home Office.

After the conditions in Leeds asylum housing were exposed by asylum seekers and campaigners in December 2012 the Home Office suspended Cascade from the contract by refusing to disperse new asylum seekers to their properties. A G4S letter leaked to campaigners in March suggested that Cascade was in real difficulties delivering the contract following the withdrawal of G4S subcontractor Mantel in the West Midlands. Cascade Housing’s credit rating from www.192.com fell from 49 (credit worthy) in September 2012 to 5 (caution – credit at your discretion, one category above liquidation) on 1 May 2013. Cascade is not paying its bills and its asylum seeker tenants are being put at risk of harm.

Angela’s case also raises issues about the costings and payments to G4S. If Cascade had paid off the rent arrears for Angela’s home it would have been a payment of £475 per calendar month around £15.61 per night for mother and small child.

How much income have G4S and Cascade received from public funds for Angela's home whilst refusing to pay the lettings agent and the landlord? Let's make an estimate.

Payment for dispersal asylum housing has for many years been on a ‘nightly’ basis. In 2011 Leeds Council was part of a consortium that bid £12 to £13 per person per night – losing out to a G4S bid that was reported as between £6 and £12. Cascade may have been losing money on Angela’s house – hence their reluctance to pay.

The G4S asylum housing contracts in Yorkshire and the North East have descended into chaos and farce. The real losers are vulnerable asylum seekers like Angela, harrassed and abused by housing companies, and constantly uprooted and moved by the Home Office and G4S.

The other losers are of course taxpayers who provide public funds for G4S to wreck the everyday lives of mothers like Angela. The Parliamentary Home Affairs committee inquiry into asylum support is due to hear evidence on the G4S asylum housing contracts in the near future. Having observed this unfolding disaster, and having worked with others to try to protect vulnerable people from its harmful effects,  I urge the Committee to recommend that the G4S asylum housing contracts (and the Serco and Clearel contracts in other areas) should be cancelled and transferred to not-for-profit providers in the housing association and voluntary housing sectors.

Very few articles I have researched and written over the past year or so have had happy outcomes. As I completed this one, Angela rang to say another letter had arrived. This time a letter to say that she had been granted right to remain – a refugee now, not an asylum seeker.

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).