When I visited an asylum seeker called Esther and her five year old daughter in their Yorkshire home the other day I counted eight unopened bills for energy and water.
One of the bills from British Gas, for £451.34, was headed:
‘Warrant to change your meter or disconnect’
A letter from the debt collectorThe letter threatened court action on 25 October and forced entry on 7 November. Esther, who has already fought a long battle to live in decent rat free accommodation, was worried.
Why is Esther in arrears?
Her landlord is the international security company G4S. Thanks to a privatisation contract, G4S is one of Britain's largest private landlords of publicly-funded asylum housing. (The others are Serco and Clearel.)
In Yorkshire, G4S provides what Keith Vaz, chair of the Parliamentary Home Affairs committee, has called “squalid” and "appalling" housing conditions for asylum seeker families.
Under the terms of the contract, paying energy and water bills is the landlord's responsibility. After a means test, people awaiting the outcome of asylum claims are given furnished housing including heating and lighting. The landlord gets taxpayers' money from the Home Office, and the landlord pays the bills.
But G4S, ironically the UK's leading meter readers, aren't paying their bills.
In one West Yorkshire case by September this year, G4S and their subcontractor Cascade Housing had incurred an energy company debt of £2800.48 on one flat occupied by a lone woman asylum seeker and her child. I visited the woman late in 2012 and witnessed the appalling neglect of the new apartments by Cascade and G4S.
Communal areas were full of rubbish and fire exits were blocked. Light bulbs in high ceilings had not been replaced, rooms were in permanent darkness, smoke alarms continuously bleeped.
Now in September 2013 the tenant faced fresh worry — a hand-delivered demand from debt collectors. Resolvecall of Manchester, acting for British Gas, threatened court action and asserted their right "to enter the premises if necessary by force" to collect the debt.
On 9 October a charity working with asylum seekers in West Yorkshire reported that the unpaid bills and threatening letters to asylum seeker tenants stretched back almost a year.
A charity organiser said:
“Several people in Cascade properties have for some time been receiving notifications of unpaid gas bills. We have been contacting Cascade and G4S about this since last November. Now it seems that British Gas are installing pay-as-you-go meters in these properties, sometimes with a gap in the provision of gas. One family with a young child was without gas for five days, another family has been without gas for five days... and a property for single people…three days.”
The pay meters were common in asylum housing which Cascade provided in Leeds in December 2012 and January 2013. Landlords keep the meter cards and should visit monthly, having put cash on the cards. This did not happen in Leeds. Cascade staff failed to attend until they were rung up after the electricity supply failed.
Women tenants with pay meters were left for days in freezing weather without heating and lighting, waiting for Cascade staff to top up the meters.
One tenant, Ruth, told me:
“It is an electricity card meter so if it runs out at night or the weekend, we have to live in darkness and without a cooker because we cannot top it up.”
Leeds City council intervened and pushed G4S to abandon the pay meters. But in other parts of Yorkshire Cascade and G4S are simply not paying gas, electricity and water bills and the energy companies are harassing already vulnerable tenants for unpaid bills – and reintroducing pay meters.
In Barnsley a few days ago I visited a G4S slum property which had been occupied by four lone women asylum seekers since March 2013. The house had a pay meter in a damp grim cellar.
Pay meter in a dark cellar
They told me that on two weekends over the hot summer months the money ran out and the electricity was cut off. Housing workers from Live Management (the G4S subcontractor at that time in South Yorkshire) did not work weekends and could not visit to feed the meter. Both the fridge freezers in the house stopped working. The tenants' food was ruined. The women had to replace the food on their meagre funds from the Home Office. One of them receives no cash - only £35 a week on an Azure shopping card.
Esther had another unannounced visit on 30 October, this time a British gas engineer saying he was going to install a pay electricity meter and, in view of the arrears, she had no choice but to accept it. He said he was installing another seven pay meters that day in asylum housing.
The massive and profitable Home Office asylum-housing contracts are paid for entirely by UK taxpayers. It surely is bizarre that G4S are making the everyday life of their asylum tenants stressful and uncomfortable by refusing to hand over public funds to pay fuel and water bills.
This year G4S asylum housing has been condemned by a Childrens’ Society Parliamentary inquiry, by a full scale investigation by the Parliamentary Home Affairs committee, and is under investigation by the National Audit Office and the Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration.
Surely it is time the Home Office was forced to cancel the COMPASS contract and to return coordination of asylum housing contractors to local councils to provide decent housing for those waiting, often for many years, for the outcome of their claims for asylum.