On 25 June this year G4S executive Stephen Small was being grilled by members of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee about his company's role in the privatisation of housing for asylum seekers in Yorkshire.
About the same time Esther (not her real name) and her four year old daughter were wakening up in their G4S Yorkshire asylum house to the scampering of rats in their ceilings, roof space, basement, living rooms, and bedrooms.
You'd think a former Rentokil executive would recognise a rat. Small and his G4S workers in Yorkshire certainly should have been able to deal with the rats in Esther’s house – and the four foot high grass in the garden and the rubbish where the rats were thriving.
Instead, Esther's house, riddled by rats, stayed that way for months. All the way from June to October complaints to G4S and their subcontractors Cascade — from Esther, from volunteers who tried to help, went ignored or prompted only token action.
Seven years of waiting for asylum
Esther has been waiting for seven years for asylum in the UK. Pregnant in 2007, she was locked up in the Bedfordshire detention centre, Yarl's Wood. Esther was sent to an Initial Accommodation Centre in Yorkshire and finally to good quality local council accommodation where she had contacts and friends around. Then in 2012 the Home Office privatised asylum housing in Yorkshire, and G4S was given the contract, part of what promised to be the largest ever awarded by the Home Office, £1.8 billion in total.
In November 2012 Esther was moved with her four year old daughter out of council accommodation to a house owned by a local private landlord, who had contracted it to Cascade, the G4S subcontractor in West Yorkshire. The house was filthy. The bathroom sink and bath were unusable, stained and coated with grime. For weeks Esther and her daughter had to use a bucket for washing. The front door was broken and did not lock. For three weeks in an unfamiliar neighbourhood Esther had to barricade the door at night for her security. The mattresses were stained and dirty and had to be replaced. For a month constant complaints finally got cleaners from the landlords to make the bathroom fit for use.
The landlord supplied only a brush and mop for Esther to clean the carpeted house. Purchasing a vacuum cleaner is way beyond her means. As an asylum seeker she is not allowed to work and is trapped in the nightmare of Section 4 ‘support’, with no cash and dependent on her Azure shopping card which gives her and her daughter just £70 a week.
Six months complaining for action on the rats
In May 2013 Esther complained to Cascade about the long grass in her garden, and the rubbish left over the winter. In late June 2013 rats were running around the basement in the house, in the living room and in ceiling and roof spaces. Esther’s little daughter remembers them running past her. Esther contacted Cascade about the rats and the grass and rubbish and for a month nothing was done. On 30 July Esther sent a text to the manager of Cascade asking when the grass was going to be cut which said
"House full of rats…please consider my request it is been months asking nothing done thanks"
On 16 August Esther complained again that the rats were still in the house, and in the grass which was now four feet tall. She was told photographs would be taken and pest control alerted. Esther continued to call Cascade and by the last week in September one of her volunteer supporters complained direct to G4S and was told that the problem was on the system but that these problems take 4 to 6 weeks to sort out
. . . In fact Esther and her four year old daughter had now lived for three months with the rubbish, the grass and the rats.
Rats but no privacy……
They also had to live throughout their six months ordeal with unannounced visits from men from Cascade – not about the rats but other matters. A couple of weeks before I visited Esther one worker banged on the door and shouted to be let in. Esther has a mobile and had texted the landlord about complaints but Cascade workers failed to make an appointment by mobile or e-mail, just turned up with their keys at the ready.
Esther told me that the loud banging brought back memories of detention. Neither G4S nor Cascade over the past year have ever sent a female housing worker to contact Esther – they still do not employ such a worker in this part of Yorkshire – despite the fact that G4S/Cascade staffs have been accused of harassing vulnerable women tenants in the past.
So why did Stephen Small of G4S tell this to the Home Affairs Committee on 25 June:
“It would appear …that there is a consistent practice of our housing officers entering properties regularly unannounced and without any notification. We just do not recognise that whatsoever…..We plan our visits…When we arrive at properties as we have made an appointment to do, we will do the usual thing, knock on the door ring on the bell, to have someone answer.”
On 26 September and 3 October a volunteer called G4S, warning the company that the matter would be brought to public attention and the local MPs would be informed.
G4S said the rubbish had gone and pest control had been alerted. The volunteer told them bluntly on 10 October that nothing had been done and there was still rubbish in the garden dating back to November 2012.
A full eight days later and six months after Esther first complained, there was a reply from G4S, apologising for the delay and confirming the grass cutting was being completed and the pest control worker had visited and traps laid.
The Home Affairs Committee reports and falters
A week earlier on Friday 11 October the Home Affairs committee’s long awaited report on the Asylum system was released. Committee chair Keith Vaz MP, introducing the Report, said:
“We were alarmed to discover that thousands appear to be living in squalid run-down housing as part of the COMPASS contract supplied by the private contractors G4S, Serco and Clearel. These companies must be held accountable and deliver a satisfactory level of service.”
The committee raised concerns about the "appalling" housing conditions faced by asylum-seekers. They:
“were very concerned by the description of the substandard level of housing provided to asylum applicants. Furthermore the length of time that witnesses report it taking to get problems resolved is unacceptable.” (Para 93)
Unfortunately for Esther all the committee came up with on squalid housing, and the lack respect for asylum family privacy, was a recommendation to publish Home Office house inspection reports, and that guidelines and advice to contractors should be strengthened when the contract is renewed — that is, in four years time, in June 2017. Not much help for Esther and women like her.
I call in on Esther on 22 October, almost a year after she moved in. The house is clean and cheerful, except for the rat poison containers in the kitchen, living room and bedrooms. There is a hole in a window frame in Esther’s bedroom where a dead rat was removed a couple of days earlier. At least now, Esther says, “the horrible smell has gone”. Esther points with relief to the trim gardens where the ‘jungle’ of grass and weeds and rubbish, had been cleared. She feels her neighbours might feel better now living next to an asylum seeker.
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