In the shadows of high security Wakefield Prison, Angel Lodge has stood dormant for the past 18 months. This sprawling site is remembered amongst asylum seekers and campaigners as a notorious initial accommodation centres for those who seek sanctuary in the UK.
From today, Monday 15 October, new asylum seekers will once again have some of their first experiences of life in the UK dominated by the looming presence of a high-security perimeter fence.
Initial accommodation centres (also known as Section 98 support) provide housing for asylum seekers at the very beginning of the asylum process. Since 1999, asylum-seekers – after filing their claim for asylum – have been 'dispersed' to accommodation in the Midlands and the North of England due to housing shortfalls in London and the South East. Leeds has become one of the main dispersal areas over the past decade, with Yorkshire in general supporting more than 20 per cent of the UK's asylum applicants between 2002 and 2008.
Angel Lodge originally opened in Wakefield in 2007 managed by the Angel Group, a self-styled "dynamic and influential leader in urban development and accommodation provision across the UK and Worldwide." The centre closed in March 2011 amid controversy regarding multiple fire safety failings and shocking living standards.
Wakefield Magistrates' Court was told that the only way to raise the alarm at Angel Lodge was to shout 'fire', even though most residents could not speak English. Requests from the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority to fix the faulty alarm and holes in bedroom doors had been ignored since 2006. Sarah Dimmock, representing the authority in court, said: “Normally only one member of staff was on duty a night for 220 residents and had a fire occurred, the fact that the alarm was not working would have been disastrous.”
Campaigning asylum seekers and previous residents of the centre have spoken of overcrowding, minuscule rations and curfews that left individuals locked out of the building after 10pm, only to be rescued from a night on the streets by prison staff from the neighbouring HMP Wakefield.
Yet the UK Border Agency stated that the closure of Angel Lodge did “not reflect in any way dissatisfaction with the accommodation and support provided to applicants by the relevant accommodation provider.”
In March 2012, the Home Office and UKBA awarded huge trans-regional contracts for the provision of housing for asylum seekers across the country to three multi-national security companies: Clearel (London and the South of England); Serco (North-West and Scotland & Northern Ireland); and G4S (North-East, Yorkshire & Humberside and the Midlands & East of England).
These new contracts, managed through the Border Agency’s COMPASS project (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services) signalled a new wave of privatisation within immigration and asylum services that companies like to call ‘asylum markets’.
Through its ‘Care and Justice Services' division, G4S, the world’s largest security company, manages detention centres across the UK, contributing to its £1 billion worth of UK government contracts.
G4S’s has earned a rocky human rights record, beyond and within the UK. After Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga died under ‘restraint’ by G4S guards during a forcible deportation attempt at Heathrow Airport in 2010, the company lost its UKBA escort contract (— to Reliance Security, who, chillingly took on G4S staff, including the three guards involved in Jimmy Mubenga’s death).
Since being awarded the contracts for the provision of asylum-seekers social housing, G4S have once again repeatedly failed to maintain decent standards.
On Friday 24 February, South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group met with Andrew Gray of G4S and the Border Agency’s Anita Bell and reminded them of the toxic reputation of Wakefield's Angel Lodge and its previous owners. Both Gray and Bell assured the campaigners that neither Angel Lodge nor any other Angel housing stock would figure in the new housing contracts.
After plans for a new Initial Accommodation centre in Leeds were shelved, G4S and the UKBA quietly reneged on their assurances. A leaked email from the UKBA in August revealed that G4S was embarking on procuring Angel Lodge despite its lamentable reputation.
The dash to open Angel
Lodge brings to mind G4S’s notoriously chaotic mishandling of the London Olympic
security contract. Yorkshire’s
long-standing initial accommodation centre — Clare House in Huddersfield —was
scheduled for closure by Friday 12 October, and centres around the country are
full to capacity, yet G4S could not confirm Angel Lodge’s opening date until
just five days ago.
Amid the rush, is G4S capable of providing well-trained and competent staff fit to work with vulnerable asylum seeking adults and children? Is the building ready? Apparently not. Only days before the opening, gas, electrical and fire risk assessments had yet to be completed. Even cooking facilities are not yet in place; hot food must be brought in from outside.
Back in March, the Border Agency reassured critics that "contracts for asylum services have been awarded to providers that demonstrated they could meet our high standards of support and ensure the welfare of individuals."
In the case of G4S, this doesn't seem to have worked out in practice.
As John Grayson reported on OurKingdom, G4S initially subcontracted United Property Management (UPM) as property providers in Yorkshire and Humberside. UPM were responsible for a rehousing a young mother and child in accommodation that the authorities deemed “not fit for purpose”. Under pressure from campaigners, G4S dropped UPM.
Early this year, the Border Agency was making assurances that the new housing contracts would not affect the government’s dispersal policy. The tail would not wag the dog. Amid its own “COMPASS Corporate Partner FAQ” the Border Agency asked: “Will the number of service users dispersed to each region go up or down under the new contracts?”. The Agency’s answer? “This is out of the scope of COMPASS. UKBA will continue to disperse to all of its regions in line with current processes.”
G4S's inability to secure suitable housing in South Yorkshire has scuppered that. By 26 July, the Border Agency admitted in an email to health professionals that due to “operational issues, particularly with regard to the availability of accommodation in the south of the region [...] we are primarily dispersing people to the north of the region.”
The company's shambolic management of these housing contracts has even forced Councils across Yorkshire to continue housing the 1,200 asylum seekers in the region until 2nd November.
As for the future of G4S's management of Angel Lodge, South Yorkshire, campaigners are watching.