“Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. People may be in the shower and if they are Muslim women they may not have adequate head covering. It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.”
That was Sarah Teather MP speaking in Parliament on 27 February. Teather chaired a Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people whose most shocking finding, she said, was the “abject disregard for basic human dignity demonstrated by housing providers”.
I have witnessed that abject disregard and seen for myself the awful damage it does to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Asylum housing is provided by the UK Border Agency for people awaiting outcomes of asylum claims — vulnerable, often traumatised adults and children who have no choice about where they live. In the past UK Border Agency housing contracts were held by local authorities, housing associations and private landlords. But in 2012 the UK Border Agency created a new “asylum market” by awarding £620 million worth of contracts for asylum housing to three companies: Serco, Reliance and the world’s largest security company G4S.
To learn that G4S is the new landlord can strike fear into asylum families. Many have already experienced G4S, having been transported in its vans or locked up in its detention centres. Many more know its reputation — they’ve heard of Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan man killed under “restraint” by G4S security guards in 2010.
Throughout 2012 the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) and a network of campaigners, academics and asylum seeker tenants have documented the disastrous effects of the G4S asylum contracts in Yorkshire on asylum seekers and their families.
In Yorkshire almost half the 2000 asylum seekers in many towns were in council or council-contracted accommodation in 2012 and 881 were forced to move by G4S into poorer quality private rented sector accommodation. This “Transition” process between June and December 2012 was chaotic and a disaster for asylum seeker housing in Yorkshire and the North East. Campaigners have compiled a dossier of evidence, including many personal case studies, and sent it to the Independent Chief Inspector for Border and Immigration and to the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, supported by a number of national, regional and local asylum rights organisations. Both these bodies are planning investigations into Asylum and asylum support in the near future. Campaigners and asylum rights organisations are calling for G4S to lose its asylum housing contracts.
G4S inspected by. . . G4S
In the grand surroundings of Leeds Civic Hall on 18 February G4S director Stephen Small launched a series of G4S “Roadshows”. These PR meetings throughout the asylum housing contract areas are aimed at keeping the profitable contracts for G4S, in the face of a barrage of what Small described as inaccurate “media stories”. G4S owned up to a “few bad cases” of poor quality housing and assured us that inspections were being carried out — by their very own G4S Assessments. From their random sample of 366 properties in Yorkshire and the North East G4S found that 18 per cent of properties in South and West Yorkshire allocated to asylum seekers were unfit. If these figures hold for all Yorkshire properties run by G4S and their subcontractors Cascade and Live Management Group, then perhaps 300 asylum seekers and their families are living in unfit properties.
What’s especially alarming is that the neglect and suffering go on, regardless of public and Parliamentary exposure. During the Parliamentary debate in February, Chris Bryant MP, shadow Minister for Immigration spoke of:
“The hideous conditions in which many people live. We need to do far more in this country to crack down on unscrupulous and poor landlords, who put people into housing that, frankly, is not fit for living. It has been a disgrace that successive Governments have not concentrated enough on that.”
In public, the UK Border Agency supports the G4S record on asylum housing but in fact in West Yorkshire (including Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield), no new asylum seekers have been moved into housing run by G4S and its subcontractor Cascade for the past three months.
Women harassed, complainers punished
On 25 February the Maternity Alliance and the Refugee Council published a Report documenting how the UK Border Agency’s asylum housing policy "puts pregnant asylum seekers at risk" . In Rotherham in August 2012 contractor Target Housing, chosen by G4S to house “service users with complex special needs”,* evicted a pregnant asylum seeker on the day she was to be induced. Another woman, Catherine Tshezi, said: “A couple of days before I gave birth, that's when my support was terminated. I was induced not knowing where I would live when I came out." When Catherine's baby was only 15 days old, they were moved into G4S’s controversial mother and baby hostel in Stockton, a place where Catherine had no friends, support or contacts. Catherine has described being moved as a “total displacement”.
During last month's Parliamentary debate Mark Durkan MP said of asylum housing:
“As well as that being restricted and unsuitable living, it can lead to intrusive situations—officials can just arrive and appear in the properties where people are living. That can lead to situations that are totally inappropriate in the context of family life. Families should not have to deal with that.”
Such intrusions can become harassment, even hate crimes, but where asylum seeker tenants complain of racial or sexual harassment to G4S contractor Cascade Housing they face an inadequate response. G4S and Cascade Homes Group Limited issue “mutual” tenancy agreements, and seek to keep complaints of racial and sexual harassment restricted to housing officers or managers and investigated internally by G4S and Cascade. There is no mention of reporting criminal behaviour to the police. Cascade at the end of February had 700 properties across West Yorkshire and no frontline women housing officers.
Thus in the midst of the current legal climate encouraging victims of sexual violence and harassment to come forward and for them to be taken seriously, G4S and the UK Border Agency want to keep things in-house. And that’s especially worrying in light of the Border Agency’s long-standing and routine dismissal of asylum seekers' allegations of rape.
Women asylum seekers who have complained publicly over the last year about the G4S contracts in Yorkshire and the North East have been subsequently harassed by male staff visiting unannounced. “Ruth” and “Angela” who spoke out about the terrible conditions in their Leeds housing were then relentlessly visited and harassed by G4S / Cascade staff backed up in the case of Ruth by UK Border Agency warnings.
A brief reflection on recent history might have warned the UK Border Agency of the chaos that would follow its privatisation of asylum housing. A Guardian investigation in 2005 into the Angel Group’s 800 properties in Yorkshire and the North East exposed conditions remarkably similar to those found in Leeds Cascade Housing properties in 2012.
Back in 2005, one young woman living on a bleak Leeds housing estate told The Guardian: “It was filthy. My partner took one look at it and wanted to leave. It took me two days to clean all the grease off the cooker.”
In another dwelling, with a pile of rubble outside, was a 26-year-old pregnant asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The front room carpet was covered in dark stains. "How am I to bring a child into this place?" she said. "They won't even give me a washing machine."
The Guardian noted:
“Home Office contracts have been enormously lucrative for the private sector.”
The Angel property group started as an asylum housing contractor with single asylum seekers in Kent in 1999. When Angel sold Angel Lodge in Wakefield in the summer of 2012 to Citrus Group and G4S to reuse as the Initial Accommodation dispersal centre for Yorkshire and the North East, Angel was worth £64.4 million. Angel owner Julia Davey was, according to the 2011 Sunday Times Rich List, worth £131 million (£80 million in business assets and £51 million in property and personal wealth).
Housing companies abusing asylum seekers and making a mockery of the asylum housing contracts were exposed by a Daily Mail investigation in 2010 into what it then described as “a little-known industry”.
Tenants' misery, landlords' gain
Asylum housing is still a profitable market. Serco, “the company that runs Britain” according to the Daily Telegraph, holds the new asylum housing contracts for the North West and Scotland in its gigantic UK government outsourcing portfolio. Serco has just announced a rise in pre-tax profits of 27 per cent to £302 million.
Capita, another big beneficiary of public outsourcing, and an important new player in asylum markets, last summer bought Reliance Secure Task Management. Reliance and Clearsprings had the asylum housing contracts for London, the South West and Wales as part of Clearel Ltd. After the sale the Clearel Company became Clearsprings Ready Homes in December 2012. Capita paid £20 million to Reliance’s owner Brian Kingham for his interests in deportation escort services, inherited from G4S, as well as Reliance’s security and asylum housing interests.
On the executive merry-go-round James Vyvyan-Robinson, managing director of Clearsprings has been director of business development for Group4Securicor and a director of Reliance Secure Task Management Ltd. The new accommodation manager of G4S's Home Office contracts is Juliette Halstead who worked for UPM who were dumped by G4S in June 2012; Juliette previously worked for Clearsprings. Gino Toro, CEO of Target Housing Association, moved on in November to become G4S Social Cohesion Manager in the Midlands. Jules Bickers, the G4S main accommodation director, moved on in October to share his experience as adviser and researcher for the privatising London borough of Barnet.
In the North East the G4S subcontractor Jomast Developments, headed by multi-millionaire Stuart Monks, displaced Clearsprings as the sole private contractor in 2010. In the East of England G4S contracted Live Management Group to transfer Clearsprings properties to the new contracts.
G4S has subcontracted Urban Housing Services, part of the Citrus Group, to run Angel Lodge and the Midlands dispersal centre at Edgbaston in Birmingham. Citrus also remarkably runs much better quality and much more welcoming official “absorption centres” for the Israeli government. Citrus is no stranger to privatisation disasters and their effects on vulnerable people. In 2010 the GMB union exposed the fact that the Citrus Group had bought the freehold of a number of Southern Cross care homes with a US private equity company. Citrus companies were receiving an annual ‘rent’ for each elderly person’s bed of £6300 a year. When Southern Cross collapsed in 2011 it left an astonishing multi-billion pound debt and 752 care homes with 31,000 elderly people affected. Citrus moved on and has recently announced it has relet its care homes to another national provider. GMB also revealed that the extensive Citrus group has only one named shareholder one Anton David Curtis.
To misquote JK Galbraith, the G4S asylum housing contracts are creating a great deal of “Private Affluence for contractors and Public Squalor for asylum seeker tenants”. It is time for G4S to go.
Isn’t it also time to challenge the morality and politics of governments using our tax money to create markets for companies and millionaires to buy and sell asylum homes and hostels, care homes for the elderly, childrens prisons, and community homes for children “in care”? The Winterbourne View scandal, that gross abuse of the most vulnerable of learning disabled people, demonstrates the dangers of marketising and outsourcing ‘care’ to private companies. Care is surely the most basic of government functions and a responsibility for all of us. It is a chilling thought that a profit machine called “G4S Care and Justice” exploits vulnerable asylum seekers’ housing and other “care markets” paid for by all of us.
* In Rotherham in August 2012 contractor Target Housing, chosen by G4S to house “service users with complex special needs”: quoted from COMPASS G4S Draft Service Delivery Plan 0.1.1. (Draft) 16 May 2012 p.44
The cross party Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, published its report (summary, full text) in January 2013. The panel, chaired by former children’s minister Sarah Teather MP, comprised Neil Carmichael MP, Caroline Dinenage MP, Nic Dakin MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Lord Avebury, Baroness Lister, the Rt. Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, Nadine Finch, Children’s Rights Barrister, Garden Court Chambers and Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Clare Sambrook