“The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there,” neighbours warned. “It’s because we are black, they don’t care,” one tenant said. They’re talking about a hostel that is home to six families and their nine children, most of them babies and toddlers.
Tenants of the six flats in a converted house in Halifax, West Yorkshire, have told me they are frightened. They say the wiring is faulty, the hallways are blocked, and there’s repeated leaks and flooding. They’ve shown me the evidence. They worry about risk of fire, and how they might escape.
I first learned about the hostel a little over two weeks ago, on Friday 9 June. A charity worker who supports one of the tenants asked for my help. She said tenants had struggled to get anybody to act on their concerns about fire safety and repairs.
Some feared speaking out, worried that this might affect their claims for asylum. All of the tenants are asylum seekers.
G4S hostel: 17 asylum-seekers live in six flats above shops (images by John Grayson)
The worker told me: “At 8.15pm on Tuesday 6 June I went to the flats. I noticed there was no indicator light on the alarm control panel. I contacted the regional manager for G4S, who called a repair man. He arrived just before 9pm, and began installing smoke alarms in the hallways. I am really worried about how safe people are in there.”
A visit to the hostel
I visited the hostel on Saturday 10 June and spent four hours inspecting, taking photographs, listening to tenants’ concerns.
The hostel is part of a converted townhouse, just off Halifax town centre, in the borough of Calderdale. The flats sit atop an electrical shop and another shop, apparently abandoned.
Directly above the shops are two flats. Another floor up, three more flats. Up another flight of stairs, at the top of the house is Flat 6, with more stairs leading up to a mezzanine within the flat.
The hostel is owned by a private landlord and managed under a UK government contract by G4S, the international security company. A subcontractor procured the property. The client is the Home Office. Calderdale Council and West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Services also have responsibilities towards tenants.
One dangerous consequence of the privatisation of asylum housing, apparent in this case, is the fog around who is responsible for what.
Here’s what some tenants told me. For their protection we’re calling them Mary, Brian, Eric, Helen, Tasmin, Joanne.
Water rushes through the ceiling
“One day in January the electric main board was flashing ‘fire in room 3’ and we dialled 999,” Mary said. “The fire engine could not find the address. I was jumping up and down in the street waving my arms to get them to the flats. It took them forty-five minutes to get here from our call. They said that a leak from a boiler in the flat above had caused the alarm.”
Water rushes through light fittings (screenshot from tenant's video)
Brian worked as a builder in his home country. He worries about the risk of electrical fire.
“Water pours in everywhere,” he said. “This happened last week.” He showed me a video on his camera. I could see water rushing through the light fittings.
Joanne pointed to exposed wires hanging from the ceiling on one of the landings.
Evidence of water ingress, ceiling repairs
“Perhaps the wires are not live there,” Joanne said. “But they frighten the older children who hear us talking about the water and the electrics causing fires.” Signs of water penetration and ceiling repairs were all around.
Eric said his G4S cooker had fused the electrical circuits throughout the building. He showed me the replacement two-ring hob that G4S had supplied for himself, his wife and their baby.
Joanne took me to the only external door at the rear of the hostel. Because so many families with young children live here, the hallway is full of buggies.
Shoddy electrical work behind a cooker“This is our only escape, we have to leave the buggies here, the stairs are so difficult, there is no fire escape,” Joanne said.
A neighbour who knows the flats had told her: “The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there.”
All the tenants said that over eight months, time and time again, they had contacted the G4S helpline pleading for better and safe conditions for their children.
Mary said: “They never do anything, even for the big things, heating and flooding. They don’t care. It’s because we are black, they don’t care.”
She told me about when the downstairs corridor flooded: “There was water full of oil and waste from the drain outside.” She showed me video on her phone. The water was ankle deep.
The flood water was ankle deep (screenshot from tenant video)
Tasmin pointed to wet plaster in a corner of the kitchen units in her flat.
“Always water comes in,” she said. On her phone were pictures of the debris left when the wall unit crashed down, she said, narrowly missing her six-year-old daughter.
Tenants told me about other worries.
“Early one morning I heard noises in my living room which woke me and I found a man from G4S there,” one lone mother said.
“He said he had used his own key to get in. My daughter was terrified, she has bad memories of men hurting me in the past. For months the door on my toilet and bathroom would not shut. G4S never did anything. I could have been in the toilet or showering when that man came in.”
Buggies crowd the escape route (John Grayson)
She went on: “The local women’s centre suggested to G4S that I get a chain on my door. They refused, but the women’s centre threatened to get the work done themselves, and G4S put a chain on the door, and one on the door of another woman here — but still refused to fit chains on the other four flats.”
One of the support workers told me: “Three months ago, in March, St Augustine’s community centre sent complaints about the hostel to G4S, but nothing was done about them.”
Another tenant recalled a visit from the Home Office: “G4S took them only to the flats where they knew the tenants could not speak good English and were frightened to complain. When I asked why they did not come to my flat, they said the Home Office did not have time.”
If you won’t listen to the tenants. . .
G4S knows me and my work. I’m a housing academic. I work alongside refugees at South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, SYMAAG.
Since G4S won the Home Office asylum housing contract five years ago I’ve published quite a lot about them.
On Monday 12 June I contacted G4S and Calderdale Borough councillors and told them that the hostel was unsafe.
My intervention prompted an emergency inspection by council officers and West Yorkshire fire service on the Tuesday. On the Wednesday, a G4S welfare officer called in. One tenant suggested an emergency fire drill: “We have never had one, and it would show we cannot get out of the building safely.”
The G4S welfare officer allegedly refused, saying: “That’s up to G4S, not me.”
Hostel rear view (John Grayson)
Heidi Wilson is Calderdale Council’s head of environment and housing services. After the inspections she told me that the council took reports of risks to tenants “very seriously” and was “giving them a high priority”. They had given G4S a list of actions and a “short time frame”. Should G4S fail to make the necessary improvements the council “would certainly consider enforcement action”.
A dangerous place for babies
When I called in to check on progress on Thursday 15 June, I found G4S workers making repairs that had been first reported months ago. I was told that the Home Office was going to send someone to inspect the place.
I climbed all the way up to the top of the house to see Helen. She lives up there with husband Brian and their three year old son. Another stairway led to the small mezzanine where their son had had access to a floor-level window. On Tuesday the council had noted the “poor guarding to the window”. So G4S workmen had boarded up the stairway.
Brand new noticeboard, erected 15 June 2017 (John Grayson)
Helen told me: “The G4S boss when he came up here yesterday said: ‘This is a dangerous place for babies.’”
As I left the property I saw the G4S supervisor putting up a noticeboard by the front entrance, near the alarm control panel. He had pinned up no-smoking signs, a warning about the absence of fire extinguishers, a fire safety log book and a floor plan. Someone had taken a fat red marker pen and marked out a rough escape route on the plan.
All the information was in English. Most tenants are still learning the language.
At last, an escape plan (John Grayson)
I set about researching fire safety, emailing and phoning the tenants and G4S with more questions.
It wasn’t easy. Fire safety regulations are fiendishly complex. G4S’s own spokesman confessed to having difficulty.
G4S appeared to be in breach of fire regulations.
Before the hostel opened last year, it seems, they should have arranged for a fire risk assessment by a qualified fire safety practitioner — as required by the Fire Safety Order 2005.
From what I could see, G4S had an obligation to test the alarm every week and hold a monthly fire drill. Tenants told me these things hadn’t happened.
Tenant: It’s because we are black, they don’t care.
The regulations require that testing dates are recorded in a log book displayed in the building. The log book on the newly erected notice board contained just one entry — for a test dated April 2017.
All escape corridors and landings should have smoke alarms and emergency lighting. But the hallway smoke alarms were fitted on Tuesday 6 June 2017, eight months after the hostel opened.
Every kitchen should have a fire blanket. And they do. I asked one tenant, who is fluent in English, to open the packaging. She said: “The instructions are confusing. No one has ever told us about fire safety here. There are no instructions on the fire blanket or anywhere else in any language — except difficult English.”
My reading of the regulations suggests that G4S has a responsibility to inform and regularly update tenants on fire safety — and to provide safety information in appropriate languages.
Neighbour: The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there.
All of these things seem anyway like basic common sense if you are housing multiple families with small children in a four or five storey house.
As landlords of asylum housing for babies and small children, G4S has particular obligations.
The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 (Section 55) requires that immigration and asylum functions be carried out with respect for the need to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.
After the Calderdale council inspection on Tuesday 13 June, one tenant told me: “The council man said the bedroom with my children should not be used. He said the window was too small to let light in for them.”
I asked G4S to respond to the issues raised in this article. On 15 June a G4S spokesman said the building had a valid electrical certificate and was “compliant with fire safety standards”.
About the flooding, G4S said: “There has been a very recent issue with damp after the landlord installed a new concrete walkway outside the property which is not draining effectively. We are in discussions to have a drain fitted. A roof leak has also recently been rectified and the landlord will be making good any cosmetic damage that arose.”
And the intrusion? G4S said: “Our protocol is that when our staff visit a property they knock twice (leaving a gap in between). If there is no answer they unlock the door and call out to announce themselves. If there is still no answer they then proceed into the property, calling out that they are from G4S. We are entirely confident that this procedure is — and was — followed at this property.”
At the company’s request — (the spokesman sounded quite flustered) — we delayed publication of this piece to give G4S time to provide further comment.
On Tuesday 20 June, I tuned in to BBC Radio Sheffield, for Toby Foster’s breakfast show. He had an interview with John Whitwam, the ex-army officer who is G4S managing director, immigration and borders. Whitwam told listeners that G4S had about 18,000 asylum-seekers in 5,000 properties. “There is a great deal of scrutiny,” he said. “These properties are probably the most inspected in the UK.”
Whitwam said the G4S helpline took 4,000 calls last month. Toby Foster cut in: “5,000 houses, 4,000 calls! Nearly every house is ringing you every month!”
Whitwam replied: “These aren’t all complaints.” And then: “That’s not to say many of them aren’t.”
I was still waiting for the company’s response to my queries on Tuesday evening, when a tenant called to say that an extractor fan had fallen off the wall in Flat 2. She said she was only slightly injured, but her four year old child was hysterical.
John Whitwam on BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme 31 January 2017
On Tuesday evening, Brian was back in touch. He said the G4S welfare officer had been round to tell them: “The Home Office are coming tomorrow, you have to say everything is fine in the flats.”
On Wednesday afternoon Brian called again. He said the woman from the Home Office had been round, she’d done more talking than listening and assured them that if there’s a fire, they’ll have plenty of time to get out.
On Thursday another tenant called to say that workmen were, at last, fitting smoke alarms in tenants’ rooms.
A curious response from G4S
Also on Wednesday came the company’s detailed response to my queries.
It was odd.
G4S offered a series of curious assertions that neither confirmed nor denied tenants’ allegations about fire safety, but, rather, bypassed their concerns.
For example, G4S noted: “Smoke alarm and fire alarm tests as recorded in our monthly property inspection report.”
On the absence of fire drills, G4S claimed: “Drills are not mandatory for private dwellings.”
G4S: These properties are probably the most inspected in the UK.
And: “All fire safety information is provided as part of the induction when asylum seekers move into the property and information in 71 languages is available in the home.”
About the absence of fire log books, G4S claimed: they “are sometimes taken away and used as notebooks by residents.”
And the apparent failure to arrange a fire risk assessment on the building until after I got involved? G4S claimed: “All fire alarm systems are checked monthly.”
About the Fire Service inspection of 13 June, prompted by my interventions, G4S claimed: “All adjustments recommended have now been completed. Any observations made by the fire services regarding door fittings or openings were rectified within two days.”
About the alarm control panel that had either been turned off or was defective, G4S said: “We require service users to report defects to control panels and we operate a 24 hours turn around policy to fix or replace such systems.”
G4S has claimed repeatedly that it loses money on asylum housing. The company, which had no prior experience of housing asylum seekers, won the Home Office contract after a computer-based reverse auction. G4S bid £8.42 per family member per night (according to contract details revealed in a High Court judgement here). At that price, packing 17 people into the Halifax hostel brings the monthly take to around £4,300.
Who’re you gonna call?
Until last Thursday, Calderdale Council’s website told asylum-seekers in the borough that their housing was provided, not by G4S, but by another company, Cascade Homes. The council supplied a phone number tenants could call if they needed help and advice.
I called the number. An angry man picked up. He said he was fed up with getting calls and he had nothing to do with Cascade.
Calderdale Council's misleading advice to asylum-seekers (screenshot 20 June 2017)
I told the council about that — they corrected the online advice. They said Cascade no longer managed properties in Calderdale, only procured them. G4S confirmed: “Yes, all properties in the Halifax area are provided by Cascade.”
I was sorry that Cascade had been given any role to play.
Over years I’ve reported on their shoddy behaviour. How Cascade asylum properties in Leeds were infested with cockroaches and slugs. Male staff harassed women tenants. Cascade failed to pay energy bills and council tax bills.
My evidence has been cited in Parliamentary inquiries and debates. Speaking in the Commons on 27 February 2013, Mark Durkan MP said: “What is especially alarming is that the neglect and suffering go on, regardless of this kind of public and Parliamentary exposure. There has been little impact on the everyday practice of G4S and their subcontractors.”
In February 2014 G4S announced that they had dropped Cascade.
‘I watched that place burn’
While we were working on this piece, on Wednesday 14 June 2017, fire gutted a tower block in West London with appalling loss of life.
The block was called Grenfell Tower.
The residents were mostly people of colour, and poor. The first victim to be named was Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee.
Grenfell tenants had warned repeatedly that the flats were unsafe. Their warnings were variously dismissed, ignored, and met with legal threats.
“White tenants said their concerns were ultimately ignored, but officials were more likely to listen to them,” British journalist Dawn Foster wrote in the New York Times. “Black and South Asian survivors told me they felt the implicit message from everyone they contacted before the fire for help with the building was ‘you are a guest in this borough, and a guest in this country, you have no right to complain’.”
Back in the Halifax hostel, the tenants have come from East Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Up in the top flat, Brian told me how Grenfell had shocked him: “I watched that place burn,” he said. “I thought I couldn’t get out of this flat if there is a fire.”
- Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light at openDemocracy.
- To follow John on Twitter: @SYMAAG
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