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Revealed: Government to legalise ‘hazardous’ accommodation for asylum seekers

Housing and migrants charities blast ‘shameful’ plan to relax licensing rules around HMOs for people fleeing danger

Andrew Kersley
27 April 2023, 10.00pm

Housing in London. The government wants to exempt providers of accommodation for asylum seekers from licensing rules


Victor Huang/Getty

The government has quietly published plans to effectively legalise “hazardous” accommodation for thousands of asylum seekers in England.

In a move labelled “shameful” and an “assault on human rights” by housing and refugee charities, a new draft law proposes removing landlords’ obligation to get a HMO (house in multiple occupation) licence if they are providing accommodation to vulnerable asylum seekers.

Campaigners say HMO licences are the primary way authorities currently ensure homes filled with large numbers of people they were not initially designed to fit do not become a major fire risk. They are normally required for all private rented properties that house five or more people from multiple households and are granted by councils if inspectors are satisfied that the building meets government guidelines, including that it isn’t dangerously overcrowded, in disrepair, damp or mouldy.

Removing the licence requirement is seen as a way to speed up the process of landlords offering up asylum accommodation, without having to wait for an inspection to be completed. It will also make it easier for them to claim public cash for doing so.

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Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said the government was “using a hammer to crack a walnut”.

By creating a workaround for private landlords housing asylum seekers for the government, the concern for many charities is that the changes outlined in the proposed Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) Regulations legalises the use of accommodation for asylum seekers that would otherwise be deemed unfit for habitation.

Private landlords who fail to get a HMO licence for their home face fines of tens of thousands of pounds and enforced rent repayments.

“These licences are probably the central part of council enforcement of housing standards,” says John-Luke Bolton, a caseworker for housing charity Safer Renting. “The government is basically saying [for asylum seekers]: ‘We’re going to house people here. It is a property that isn't necessarily fit for human habitation, but we don’t care.’”

As an illustration of this, a report by the charity Migrant Voice recently revealed that asylum seekers in non-HMO accommodation are facing dire living conditions as they wait for their claims to be processed. That included being forced to live in windowless rooms smaller than prison cells for over a year or sharing larger rooms with as many as 10 strangers and spending days in their underwear because they only were given one change of clothes, conditions that were leaving asylum seekers “despondent and suicidal”.

Campaigners fear these conditions could be replicated in HMOs when the changes go through.

The government currently houses tens of thousands of asylum seekers in a network of B&Bs, social housing and privately rented homes while their applications for asylum are processed. Those private landlords often work through intermediaries like outsourcing giant Serco, which boasts of having a portfolio of more than 7,000 properties for asylum seekers.

Often asylum seekers are left in this accommodation for years – more than 40,000 people seeking asylum in the UK have waited between one and three years for a decision on their case, according to the Refugee Council.

Concerns have repeatedly been raised about the quality of the accommodation used to house vulnerable asylum seekers and their families.

“That the government is seriously considering further lowering standards is extremely concerning,” said Mary Atkinson, campaigns and network manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “Without HMO licences, people seeking sanctuary will be at risk of being housed in accommodation that is unfit for human habitation.

“This is yet another shameful example of this government’s sustained assault on the human rights of people who are seeking safety in the UK.”

The Home Office denied claims that the proposed change in the law would lower housing standards for asylum seekers, arguing its contracts with the private companies that supply private housing for asylum seekers have “rigorous” standards.

But they could not say, when asked by openDemocracy, how they would ensure these standards are met in the absence of council licensing and inspections.

As the new proposals are a type of legislation called a statutory instrument, they will not be voted on or scrutinised by Parliament in the way other newly proposed legislation would be. It is not yet clear when it will come into force.

Neate told openDemocracy: “Licensing for HMOs was brought in to keep people safe. Licensing was specifically introduced because of the higher risk of fire in these types of properties. By doing away with these protections in order to flex minimum space standards, the government is putting thousands of people, including children and older people, at serious risk.

“People seeking asylum are already much less likely to report bad or dangerous conditions, and these proposals mean that local councils won’t know about the hazardous homes in their area if they don’t need to be licensed.”

The government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers has been increasingly in the spotlight in recent months, largely due to controversial plans by home secretary Suella Braverman that include housing asylum seekers on barges or deporting them to Rwanda.

This week openDemocracy also revealed that the Home Office had U-turned on its commitment to find homes for Afghan refugees in the UK.

Last month, a fire at an illegally overcrowded flat in Shadwell where 18 people were crammed into bunk beds left 41-year-old dad-of-two Mizanur Rahman dead. There has been a long history of similarly deadly fires at illegal HMOs. A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are provided with free, furnished accommodation.

“Recent legislation on HMOs does not remove minimum accommodation standards. It exempts accommodation providers from needing a licence for a HMO in line with existing exemptions for registered providers of social housing.

“All accommodation providers will have to continue to meet or exceed the ‘decent homes standard’, including meeting all statutory and regulatory requirements relating to room sizes, facilities and fire safety.”

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