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Bed bugs and freight sheds: Britain’s welcome to asylum seekers

How do the government and its commercial contractors respond to criticism of standards in asylum housing?

John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

“The man in the family said they had bed bugs everywhere in the house.” A volunteer in Barnsley, in the north of England, was telling me about conditions in a house provided to asylum seekers by G4S, the world’s biggest security company.

The volunteer went on: “The man spoke only a little English but he was really worried about the house and his young wife Jemma (not her real name) and her elderly 76-year-old mother living with the bugs. His mother was frail and slept on the settee or sat on the carpet — with the insects. They had complained to G4S ten days before, and the local G4S worker said they would replace the carpet, but of course the bugs were still around.”

So the volunteer complained to G4S: “More than two weeks after the family had gone to them, a G4S team arrived — and took photographs! They said they would return in another ten days.”

Are bed bugs such a problem? The volunteer explained: “Bed bugs are a public health risk and bites can directly affect the health of a frail elderly woman. I am getting back on to G4S.”

I visited the family myself a few days after that. G4S had at last replaced the carpet, settee, and all the beds in the downstairs flat. Jemma told me: “We have been living with the bugs since December — the flat is now clean, and nice again.”

Welcome to Britain

Over the past few months I have spoken with asylum seeker families in G4S housing in South Yorkshire, who have spent months in homes infested with mice, endured months without a cooker, months with ceiling leaks, and months with water flooding in from front and back doors. I’ve met a mother who is forced to share a bed in a tiny room with her eight-year-old son. This is what the UK government’s ‘reception policy’ welcoming refugees looks like.

Shared bed for woman and son, aged 8

Earlier this year the BBC and The Times reported shocking allegations about another asylum housing provider, Orchard & Shipman, a Berkshire-based property company working under contract to the outsourcing giant Serco in Glasgow.

Asylum seeker tenants have been “kept in dirty and dangerous homes”, the Times reported on 18 February. They had “felt threatened and humiliated”. The allegations include the case of a mother and baby housed in a cockroach-infested property in Glasgow”. The newspaper reports O&S “staff spraying air fresheners at asylum seekers, while laughing and pinching their noses, and an allegation of a man being housed in a property with blood-spattered walls and no lock on the front door.”

openDemocracy contacted Orchard & Simpson for comment. “We contracturally can’t say anything — it would have to go through Serco,” said a spokesman.

Serco told the BBC: “All property is cleaned prior to residents moving in and checked for compliance with the Home Office requirements.

“Every property is also inspected weekly and both Serco and the Home Office conduct random inspections covering at least 20% of all properties every month.

“Orchard & Shipman staff are expected to be courteous and respectful at all times.

“If any resident is unhappy with the behaviour of staff there is a complaints procedure that residents are briefed on. All complaints are fully investigated and appropriate action taken if required.” 

The charity Freedom from Torture recently reported that conditions in asylum housing had not improved since 2013:

“Torture survivors receiving therapy at our centres continue to report unacceptable treatment. This includes allegations of being locked out of their homes, belongings going missing during housing inspections, sexual harassment and physical aggression. In one case, a torture survivor said a contractor even entered their bedroom while they were sleeping.”

A concrete floor in a freight shed

We now know, thanks to a report by Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, that in the early autumn of 2015 when people made it across the Channel they were detained in Longport freight shed near the Eurotunnel terminus. The Report states that

“Conditions were wholly unacceptable. Detainees were held overnight and/or for several hours with no clean or dry clothes, no food or hot drinks, and nowhere to sleep other than on a concrete floor. Many had had long and arduous journeys before arrival at Longport.

Some detainees had not eaten for very long periods and many were hungry. Detainees gestured to us that they were hungry by pointing to their open mouths.

Detainees arrived with scabies, headaches and other conditions related to dehydration, such as diarrhoea. However, toilet and washing facilities were inadequate and blankets were not washed after each use, presenting obvious health risks. From 31 August to 3 October 2015, a total of 569 detainees were held, including 90 children, most of them unaccompanied. The average length of detention was just under four hours… However, the longest single period of detention was for 21 hours 25 minutes and was of a child…The detention of women and minors in this environment created safeguarding concerns.”

The company responsible for security at this holding centre is a Capita company Tascor working as a contractor for the UK Home Office. Capita are the people who last year tagged an asylum seeker woman in Barnsley G4S housing. They’ve been heavily involved in the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ project, texting migrants — and political activists who are longstanding British citizens — telling them to “Go Home” .

According to the industry portal Sourcingfocus.com: “Capita leads the ranking of the British government’s biggest suppliers of the year 2015 with $14.5bn in sales to the UK government.”

A thriving business, or not?

Asylum detention and reception centres, and housing, are now routinely sold and resold by corporations and companies totally financed from European taxpayers. The Swiss company ORS Service and its reception centres, camps and military bunkers in Switzerland, Austria and Germany have been sold three times since 2005 to private equity companies.

Equistone Partners Europe Ltd, a London-based private equity firm linked to Barclay’s Bank that manages $4 billion of funds, bought the business for an undisclosed sum in 2013, touting the acquisition in their annual report as a new opportunity with “promising organic and acquisitive growth potential”.

Dead mouse, G4S asylum housing, Sheffield 29 March 2016In the UK, security companies G4S and Serco, and the private housing company Clearsprings are currently negotiating with the UK Home Office to extend their hold on the £620 million COMPASS asylum housing contract they acquired in 2012 – the largest ever private contract given by the Home Office. They are doing this in a growing climate of media and public hostility to the creation of ‘markets’ in sectors of care and protection which have traditionally been the responsibility of government.

In rare front page coverage of an under-reported scandal, G4S and its subcontractor Jomast was accused of creating “apartheid on streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers’ doors red and thus identifying them and leaving them open to attacks.

G4S, struck by a BBC Panorama that broadcast apparent bullying, verbal abuse and physical assault by its workers in a child prison — Medway Secure Training Centre – has decided to sell its government contracts.

Recent reports in the FT suggest that outsourcers running UK immigration centres are losing money. Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco and grandson of Winston Churchill, argued on Radio 4s The Bottom Line in June 2015 that Serco was set to “lose £115m over the next five years” on their share of the COMPASS contracts, and that they had “raised £700m from shareholders to meet these costs”. When John Whitwam, G4S head of COMPASS and their managing director of immigration and borders, answered questions at the Home Affairs Committee hearing on the ‘red doors’ on the 26 January, he also claimed that G4S was losing money on its asylum housing saying: “This is a loss making contract…no profits at all.”

So who is making money out of the UK’s ‘reception’ policies?

Mitie (Management Incentive Through Investment Equity) claims to be “the largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”, and it now manages the controversial Harmondsworth and Colnbrook immigration detention centres. In August 2015 MITIE reported an increase in annual profits which the company attributed to the new contracts. The Home Office is handing Mitie £180 million for an eight-year contract to run these centres.

Mitie’s Harmondsworth detention centre, the largest detention centre in Europe, was visited by Peter Clarke the UK prisons inspector in September 2015. He found that

“Many men were held for short periods but well over half were detained in the centre for over a month and some for very long periods. Eighteen detainees had been held for over a year and one man had been detained on separate occasions adding up to a total of five years.……Some of the newer accommodation was dirty and run down but the condition of some parts of the older units was among the worst in the detention estate; many toilets and showers were in a seriously insanitary condition and many rooms were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. ……Many rooms designed for two were being used for three detainees and some for four, with insufficient furniture. ……Staff told us that there had been insufficient clothing available and some detainees were in ill-fitting clothes; shoes had been in short supply for several weeks and some detainees had only flip-flops.”

In October 2015, shortly after accepting a Conservative peerage from David Cameron, Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith gave an interview to the Financial Times. She fondly recalled her years at Serco, and the early 1990s when Margaret Thatcher handed public contracts to commercial contractors. “It was a young industry,” McGregor-Smith told the FT. “It was exciting; there was a sense of limitless potential.”

The newspaper reported that McGregor-Smith took £1.5m a year — “more than 100 times the earnings of many of her 70,000 cleaners, carers and security guards, a lot of whom are on the minimum wage”. She took umbrage at the FT reporter’s interest in that.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive, Mitie (Ed Robinson/OneRedEye for Mitie)

Rupert Soames of Serco claims that privatisation is profitable. In June 2015 he told Radio 4’s The Bottom Line that the outsourcing market “makes Britain now to public service provision what Silicon Valley is to IT”.

In November 2014 Serco were given a further eight years and £70 million by the Home Office to renew their contract to manage Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire despite allegations about abuse, sexual exploitation, rape and self-harm.

In March 2015, following revelations of abuse and neglect of women at Yarl’s Wood, the Labour Party’s then shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper declared: “This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the home secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”

The Home Office commissioned Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, to lead a Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons and his report was published in January 2016. Shaw visited the family detention centre known as CEDARS, that is run for the government by G4S and the children’s charity Barnardo’s, and reported: “My overriding impression was of a misdirection of public money that could be better used for other purposes. The centre has had no residents on either of the two occasions I have visited.”

He wrote: “the cost per family must be many tens of thousands of pounds, yet up to half are actually released rather than being removed.”

He went on: “The current use of the centre is simply unacceptable at a time of financial austerity,” and urged its closure or change of use.

The Home Affairs Committee supported Shaw’s call in its report on 4 March calling the level of spending per detainee “outrageous and unsustainable.”

In the ‘low security’ markets of asylum housing the Times reckons that G4S contractor Jomast — the company that painted asylum seeker doors red — will trouser £8 million of public funds over the next year for housing 2,646 asylum seekers. Stuart Monk, head of the family firm, has a personal fortune of £175 million. When Monk appeared before the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on 21 January he defended his business, saying that he was supplying a “product suitable for an asylum seeker”.

Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Two weeks later, on 9 February, the committee grilled James Vyvyan-Robinson, managing director of Clearsprings, a company which entered the asylum housing business with its partner Reliance Security in 2012 with a £75 million contract for the south of the UK and Wales.

Clearsprings forced asylum seekers to wear red wristbands to get food in its centre in Cardiff. Vyvyan-Robinson admitted that his annual salary was over £200,000 despite the ‘small amount’ (a two to three per cent return he claimed) the company made on the contracts. Graham King, the founder and chairman of Clearsprings, had taken £960,000 from the company in the last financial year. Vyvyan-Robinson had been with Clearsprings for ten years, before which he served as director of business development for Group4 Securicor (G4S), then Reliance Security.

Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham, at the committee hearings, observed that many people would see asylum contracts as a “bit of a racket”.

Scrutiny and transparency

The Home Office revealed to the Financial Times late last year that it was negotiating with G4S, Serco and Clearsprings about the option to extend the COMPASS contract for asylum housing for at least two years beyond 2017.

These negotiations are taking place behind firmly closed doors. On 20 January SNP Member of Parliament  Stuart McDonald raised the issue of scrutiny, asking: “When will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?”. (20 Jan 2016 : Column 1429 Hansard)

The immigration minister James Brokenshire simply ignored the question.

For months McDonald has been calling for an Inquiry into the COMPASS contracts by the Home Affairs Committee of which he is a member. Glasgow and Sheffield City Councils and the Scottish Refugee Council have all called for an inquiry. SNP members signed an ‘early day motion’ (EDM) in the Westminster parliament on 25 February to this effect.

When the Times exposed Jomast’s red doors policy on 20 January it was Brokenshire who ordered an  “an urgent audit” of Jomast’s properties in Middlesbrough.

Red doors and whitewash

According to the Home Office audit report, the inspection team “discussed incidents of anti-social behaviour and verbal and physical abuse with approximately 60 asylum seekers”. But they accepted the evidence of multimillionaire property develop Stuart Monk, concluding: “It was not a deliberate policy for asylum seeker accommodation to be identifiable by the colour of the doors. This was a consequence of the sub-contractor Jomast painting the doors of many of their properties red, a practice going back 20 years, according to the evidence which Stuart Monk the Owner and Managing Director of Jomast gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 26 January.”

Never mind that the chair of the Home Affairs committee Keith Vaz had described Stuart Monk’s evidence to the committee as “unsatisfactory”.

The audit was not an audit of tenants’ repairs and property complaints about the Jomast Middlesbrough asylum housing stock as one might expect. After all, Stuart Monk of Jomast told the Home Affairs Committee when asked to send the complaints to the Committee “There’ll be a lot, there’ll be an enormous number.”  [video here: 5.31pm to 5.33pm]

Instead, a Home Office team inspected 78 properties over six days and audited paperwork from previous Home Office and Jomast planned inspections. How well did Jomast perform in responding to the ‘enormous number’ of complaints from tenants? We don’t know.

Brokenshire used his Home Office ‘red doors’ audit to suggest more generally that the contractors for COMPASS were ‘on track’. They were now being fined much less for providing unfit properties under the contract. Only £158,000 in 2014/15 compared with £5.6 m in 2012/13. In fact, wherever activists monitor asylum housing they find a shocking world of rats, and asbestos, with tenants being ridiculed and punished by G4S and Serco staff.

The Home Affairs Committee itself issued a report on the ‘red doors’ and ‘red wristbands’ on 4 March that contradicted the conclusions from the audit. It concluded that the: “delivery of the contract has been mostly unsatisfactory to date, with these episodes highlighting flaws in accountability and oversight of the contracts, and a failure to ensure that the way asylum seekers are treated and housed meets basic standards.”The HAC was clear in its report on 4 March that they plan to investigate “the quality of accommodation provided in all parts of the UK under the COMPASS contract.”

Last month Keith Vaz announced that the Home Affairs Committee would indeed start a full inquiry after visiting the “horrific” housing provided by Serco’s contractor Orchard & Shipman in Glasgow.

"Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” Vaz told the BBC.

“So we will conclude our inquiry in plenty of time for the Home Secretary to be able to reflect on it before she signs the new contracts.” 


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