Shine A Light

Britain's botched privatisation of asylum housing

UK spending watchdog confirms mismanagement in outsourcing to G4S and Serco. Report casts doubt on public servants' ability to scrutinise powerful contractors.

Clare Sambrook
10 January 2014
cockroach small.jpg

Cockroach traps, asylum-seeker flat, Leeds 2013 (Grayson)

Another day, another example of what happens when government outsources public services to the private sector without proper scrutiny or control.

A report from the National Audit Office today confirms that the Home Office and its contractors G4S and Serco have botched the privatisation of housing for asylum seekers. Vast savings to be made by pushing vulnerable tenants into the hands of commercial providers are not going to materialise.

All this should come as no surprise to readers of John Grayson's articles here on OurKingdom. Grayson, who volunteers among asylum-seekers in Yorkshire, has personally helped vulnerable people caught up in this reckless project, supporting tenants in their efforts to resist eviction, helping people rid their dwellings of cockroaches and rats.

Through his research and writing, Grayson has exposed the dangerous consequences of this ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed rush to privatise. He has told of children exposed to health risks in rat-infested homes, lone women intimidated by their landlords, a cockroach in the baby's bottle.

Grayson's first report appeared here in February 2012, a few weeks before the Home Office signed six new contracts with G4S, Serco and Clearel to provide housing for 20,000 asylum seekers in England. (The contracts go by the acronym COMPASS. The full name, presciently ugly: Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support).

Only Clearel had experience of housing vulnerable people. Among asylum seekers, G4S was best known . . . for the killing of Jimmy Mubenga on a deportation flight.

The Home Office claimed that privatising asylum housing might save taxpayers around £140 million over seven years. The National Audit Office says today it has detected just £8 million saved in the past year. Government's belated realisation that it might be an idea to check contractors' work has exposed the taxpayer to fresh and unanticipated costs:

"The Department has implemented a programme of property inspections, which has confirmed that many properties remain below the required contractual standard, for reasons ranging from minor to major defects. The impact of this additional compliance activity, which the Department had expected the providers to take on, may reduce the savings the contract was designed to achieve."

Both G4S and Serco took on properties without bothering to inspect them, with the (quite predictable) result that "many of the properties did not meet the contractual standards on quality".

The National Audit Office's tone — "poor performance, delays, additional costs" — underplays the character of this scandal. Let's not forget that G4S and Serco are under investigation for fraud relating to overcharging on contracts to tag and monitor ex-offenders including dead ones.

We're told that one in ten tenants was "asked to move" as a result of privatisation, and: "Some of those who were asked to move received mixed messages, and communications were not routinely translated, risking gaps in understanding among those affected."

That's a misleadingly mild interpretation of the forced evictions and bullying that went on. Grayson's articles convey the fear, anxiety and real hardship caused by the neglect and incompetence of the Home Office and its powerful contractors.

Today's report casts heavy doubt on the claimed benefits of outsourcing and on public servants' ability to scrutinise and stand up to big business.

The Home Office failed to apply its "key performance indicator regime", with the result that the companies have suffered no financial penalty for their failures. Belatedly, the department is seeking to claw back between £3 million and £4 million through 'negotiation'.

It is now clear that the 'savings' deployed to justify and promote this reckless adventure were pure invention. Public servants and politicians excluded from their calculations the cost of proper scrutiny and control. Will they be held to account? Perhaps. When pigs fly.

That this mess is being acknowledged at all is due in no small part to John Grayson's bringing it to public attention. What little mainstream media reporting there has been relies heavily on his work. Grayson and his colleagues in South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, among other impressive campaigners, provoked and informed two critical reports last year — by Sarah Teather MP's cross-party panel and by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Today's report reveals not just the coalition government's failure properly to oversee the management of multi-million pound contracts, but also the paralysis of a democratic system in which such scandals are left to dedicated campaigners to challenge and expose.

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