On 16 November, Angela (not her real name) and her five-month-old baby son moved house. It wasn’t a happy occasion. They hadn’t chosen to move at all. For Angela and her baby are among thousands of vulnerable people being forcibly rehoused as the UK government turns asylum-seeker housing into a profitable business. Angela and her new baby had been settled in their home in a council flat in Leeds where Angela was getting support in the neighbourhood through her local church. But earlier this year the UK government decided to outsource the care of Angela and her baby to security giant G4S and its subcontractors, Leeds-based Cascade Homes Ltd.
When Cascade’s van, bearing Angela and her baby and all their worldly goods, drew up at their new home, they saw a rundown prison house. Iron cage grills covered the street level windows.
The front of the house. Image: John Grayson
Inside the slum property mother and baby were greeted with the stench of rotten damp floors, the smell of cockroach infestation, damp walls and slugs. Filth.
The bathroom floor. Image: John Grayson
G4S claim that all its subcontractors including Cascade inspect properties carefully before moving in asylum seeker families. This house had not been inspected, in fact it had been empty for some time there were (and are) iron defensive cage grills on the street level window and on both back and front doors. The upstairs windows are also security locked and cannot be opened fully. These seem to have been measures taken to stop squatting or burglary. They would impede escape in the event of a fire or some other emergency.
Although the UK Border Agency and G4S offer only ‘no choice’ properties to asylum seekers, Angela refused to accept the house. The Cascade team then took her and her baby and belongings to another Cascade property. They did not say where they were going or tell Angela the new address.
Angela found this property even worse than the one before, with a filthy bathroom and kitchen and mould everywhere.
The bathroom in the second house. Image: John Grayson
Again Angela refused to accept the property. The Cascade workers tried to forcibly prevent Angela and her baby leaving the property and neighbours intervened in the fracas. Cascade then took Angela back to the first Cascade property in a car. It was six hours before her possessions arrived — they included baby milk and nappies and other essentials for her five-month-old baby. Cascade said they would move her again.
Cascade, before they signed up with G4S, were a small landlord company who had in the past provided a few properties to previous asylum housing contracts. They now provide asylum housing throughout West Yorkshire on behalf of G4S. Cascade, pushed by G4S, are desperately signing up properties from other small landlords in Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield – many of them, particularly in Leeds, are from the slum housing market.
Dumped in a dangerous slum
For four days Angela complained to Cascade about the filthy conditions and the hazards they posed to her baby’s health. The back yard was piled with rubbish and the furniture supplied was poor – there was a spring sticking out of the mattress on Angela’s bed. The place was infested with cockroaches and slugs. She did not dare put her baby on the floor.
Rubbish outside on Angela's first night. Image: John Grayson
Then Angela found a cockroach in the baby’s bottle. In desperation she rang agencies that had supported her in the past – Solace, a counselling service for survivors of exile and persecution, and the Helen Bamber Foundation, which supports survivors of cruelty. These organisations got some action from Cascade: workmen laid lino floor covering to hide the rotten damaged floor in the kitchen, by the back door and in the bathroom upstairs – and a pest control man appeared.
I was alerted to Angela’s situation by an asylum seeker active in the notog4syorkshire campaign who had supported Angela. She took me to the house. Although I teach housing studies in a university, and was a councillor and chair of housing in the past, I have never experienced a house in such poor condition, nor such a horrible infestation of cockroaches and slugs.
When I visited on the 6 December I lifted the covering in the bathroom and photographed very wet rotten floorboards. The flooring upstairs was very spongy and, I suspected, unsafe. Nothing had been done about extensive damp patches.
Cascade had sent a pest control contractor who drilled into woodwork and laid traps for the cockroaches. This was around the 20 November. The pest control firm had returned to empty traps a few days before I was there but there were new cockroaches in the traps on the 6 December. One trap had a cockroach in it and it was sited inches away from the baby’s cot.
Angela said that the pest control man had warned that it might be another two or three weeks before the infestation was under control. Around the house there was dirty damp exposed pipe work from which cockroaches and slugs appeared at night. I saw a dead cockroach on the kitchen floor.
Cockroach traps in living room / kitchsn. Image: John Grayson
It had been three weeks since Cascade had dumped Angela and her baby son in the property when I saw her and there had been no action to move her.
Angela’s property was in the heart of a predominantly Asian area of Chapeltown / Harehills. Angela is African and she had regularly suffered noisy racial harassment at night with people banging on the window grills. The UKBA contract with G4S specifically bans allocating asylum seekers to ‘vulnerable premises’ in high crime areas where racial incidents are likely.
Asylum seekers are invisible to local services
I feared for the health and safety of both Angela and her baby son. I contacted Leeds City Council to try to trigger an alert for the safety of the baby. The social worker I spoke to was negative and unhelpful and spoke of “mother’s responsibilty” and “landlord’s responsibilities” – not a Children’s Services’ responsibility, for the child at risk. When I pointed out that in a similar case involving an asylum seeker and her at-risk baby, Doncaster Children’s Services had immediately responded to a housing case, the Leeds social worker simply said different local authorities had different policies. When I handed the phone to Angela he advised that she contact Environmental Health about the property.
When I assisted Angela in contacting the Environmental Health Department the two council officers who responded were even more negative about the plight of mother and baby. The officers were adamant that they would not even accept an alert or case from an asylum seeker direct. They would only respond if contacted by a UKBA case owner officer (the civil servant who holds case files for asylum seekers).
Rights and ‘no choice asylum support’
Angela was angry and adamant throughout that G4S and Cascade and now the Council shoud not treat asylum seekers in this way. “We are human beings’ she said, “we have a right to be treated as human beings. Other people have some choice in housing, why not asylum seekers?”
Angela defied the image of ‘asylum seeker as victim’ she had tried to mobilise her own networks of support and fellow asylum seekers. I set about mobilising what I thought would be useful solidarity networks to challenge G4S and Cascade.
I sent G4S (who had full contractual responsibility for Cascade’s action) an angry and detailed protest about the case.
G4S's chief property inspector was dispatched to Angela’s house on Tuesday 11 December. The civil servants and case owners at the UKBA who had processed the protest complaint on Friday 7 December were obviously appalled at the situation with their asylum housing contract holders, and sent in their property inspector even earlier on Monday 10 December.
Leeds city ward councillors and senior Labour group members (Leeds is a Labour controlled city) were contacted over the weekend and they ensured the first team into the property were the city council Environmental Health officers on Monday morning. They, unsurprisingly, told Angela that the house was unfit to live in. The notog4syorkshire network in Leeds and other areas of Yorkshire offered support and detailed data on background to the use of slum properties in Leeds by landlords like Cascade. The pressure was building and we managed to brief a solicitor from Irwin Fletcher who interviewed Angela.
A reporter from The Independent showed interest in the case and she began to research a story (now published, here). The new Leeds anti-racist David Oluwale News Paper offered to carry the story. Angela’s case was submitted on 7 December as part of the written evidence of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) to the Children’s Society Parliamentary Enquiry on asylum support for children and young people.
The sordid practices of G4S and their subcontractors had been exposed, an asylum seeker had been willing to ‘go public’ on the reality of the G4S privatised housing contract in Leeds to defend herself and her child. Politicians and civil servants in Leeds became aware (perhaps for the first time) of what G4S taking over the asylum housing contract from the council actually meant. On Tuesday evening 11 December G4S rang Angela and said they would move her to a ‘better’ area of Leeds and she could view the property before moving. Leeds City council rang her straight afterwards and said that if the house she was offered by G4S was unacceptable she should ring them immediately. On Wednesday Angela went to the new property, told me it was ‘OK’ and she was scheduled to be moved at 6pm Wednesday evening.
Angela’s case perhaps demonstrates, as many of us already knew, that there are networks of solidarity and resistance at a local level which bring together asylum seekers, campaigners and politicians to expose and challenge the barbarity of public policies towards asylum seekers and their children in the UK. It also perhaps demonstrates that it is possible sometimes to challenge and to win, and to openly assert that asylum seekers do have rights – if we fight for them, together.
On Thursday morning as this piece was being completed I heard that as a result of another woman asylum seeker speaking out and resisting being placed in dirty dangerous accomodation in Leeds, councillors and officers of the City Council had insisted that G4S rehouse four women asylum seekers. The City Council also announced that they have forced G4S “to undertake a full review of the property portfolio in Leeds to ensure they meet the contract standards”.