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Red doors for asylum seekers: MPs grill one of Britain’s richest landlords

“An unseemly and unsavoury” business? Stuart Monk of Jomast fails to impress.

'All the complaints?' Stuart Monk of Jomast, Home Affairs Committee, January 2016

Last week a Parliamentary committee asked one of Britain’s richest landlords to hand over the complaints his company had received from its asylum-seeker tenants. “All the complaints?” replied Stuart Monk, owner and managing director of Jomast. “There’ll be a lot, there’ll be an enormous number.”  [video here: 5.31pm to 5.33pm]

After the Times revealed that G4S and Jomast, its subcontractor for asylum housing in England’s North East, had painted the doors of asylum seekers houses red, resulting in racist attacks and arson, the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee summoned the companies to Westminster.

Stuart Monk, whose family has an estimated wealth of £175 million, represented Jomast. G4S put up Peter Neden, the company’s regional president for UK and Ireland, and John Whitwam, managing director, immigration.

Committee chairman Keith Vaz MP summed up the session, an embarrassing one for Stuart Monk, by telling him: “I found your evidence today unsatisfactory.”

Monk was adamant that as a businessman he was providing “a product suitable for asylum seekers”. He claimed in providing asylum housing Jomast had “a track record second to none”.

Members of the Home Affairs Committee were less than impressed. Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham, said that the Jomast business model was pretty clear — “buying cheap property in the most deprived part of communities, making a profit from deprivation and people’s need for refuge”. Umunna called it “an unseemly and unsavoury” business.

So what is Jomast’s true record?

Times lead story, 20 Jan 2016Jomast was established as a family regeneration and property development company in 1972. The company, which claims to be “a leading name in private sector housing provision and one of the largest private landlords in the UK” was accused by The Times of creating “apartheid on the streets of Britain” by painting asylum seekers doors red in its asylum housing in Middlesbrough.

Jomast had built its domination of the asylum housing market in the North East by 2010 through takeovers of smaller contractors, and outbidding most of the local authorities and contractors like Clearsprings in the region, undercutting their bids for extension of the asylum housing contracts.

The North East was the earliest wholly privatised asylum housing market region in the UK and Jomast wanted to bid in 2011 for a part of the proposed £600 million UK wide Home Office asylum housing contract. It’s known as COMPASS (Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services).

Andrew Norfolk’s revelation in the Times about those distinctive red doors was not the first time the voices of asylum seeker tenants had been raised in protest against Jomast and its degrading housing. 

In 2010 Jomast had added its own ‘mother and baby market’ to the national asylum housing market with the development of a former police hostel it owned in Stockton. By 2012 the hostel accommodated thirty-two women and thirty-eight babies and toddlers. Despite the protests of health workers, social workers and the Safer Stockton Partnership committee Jomast won approval from the Stockton Planning committee.

The hostel was in blatant disregard of key provisions in the Home Office policies on dispersal — that there should not be concentrations of asylum seekers in particular neighbourhoods and that women asylum seekers and their children should not be housed and concentrated in known ‘red light’ areas of sex work and prostitution.

Catherine Tshezi, who was dumped in the hostel weeks after giving birth, said about her experience there: “This really goes to show that the asylum seekers are not respected. We are all human beings and we deserve respect and dignity.”

The hostel, the first and the only one in the UK asylum housing system at the time, resurrected the world of punitive housing, back to the women-only segregated hostels of Cathy Come Home, and the morally charged unmarried-mother-and-baby units that local authorities developed in the 1950s and 1960s.

In interviews I undertook with women at the Stockton hostel in 2012 they constantly returned to phrases about living in “cells”, in conditions “like a prison”. They said there was no respect for their dignity, privacy or different cultures.

Cha Matty, a former housing worker, one of the women in the hostel who had been there a year with her baby, said she was “shocked and disappointed at how we have been treated by the powers that be. How inhuman they are treating us, and we are just numbers for them in making a profit which is very unfair and sad”.

Cha went on to campaign for closure of the hostel and took her experience to the Children’s Society Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support.

Sarah Teather MP, who chaired the inquiry, described the experience of women and children like Cha and her daughter in the Stockton hostel in Parliament on 27 February 2013:

“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.”

Teather said housing providers demonstrated “abject disregard for basic human dignity”.

At the same time as Cha and another former resident of the hostel were in London giving evidence, their local MP posted on his website:

“Alex Cunningham has today called for the Home Secretary to investigate the handling of contracts for housing asylum seekers by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) which impact directly on people in his Stockton North constituency.”

Cha’s reward for her whistleblowing was devastating – Jomast evicted her and her toddler daughter into local authority bed and breakfast and she lost her own financial support.

Jomast since 2012 has continued to use the hostel and has also converted an adjoining property. Jomast is currently facing opposition in Hartlepool for its plans to convert a property it has bought there for conversion into another mother and baby hostel.

According to council minutes quoted by the Hartlepool Mail, members “highlighted the high rate of sex crimes in the area and felt it was not a suitable premises for the intended use”.

Forced evictions and racist attacks

Stockton was not the only town where the Jomast brand of landlordism shaped the asylum housing market. In Sunderland Jomast decided throughout the summer of 2012 to increase the profitability of its asylum housing leased from other small landlords by forcing some of its existing tenants in larger accommodation to move out, sending them to Gateshead and replacing them with single men forced to share bedrooms.

I spoke to former Jomast employees who told me of eight cases of this kind. I interviewed an elderly disabled Congolese couple who had been in asylum housing since 2008 and supported by Sunderland Social Services in their accommodation for two years. They were given notice and dumped in a Jomast flat in Gateshead twelve miles away where they suffered repeated racist abuse from local teenagers.

In 2012 and 2013 I interviewed a Kurdish journalist who had fled from attackers in Iraq and within a week had been dumped in a Jomast house in an area of known Far Right activity in Sunderland. He and other tenants came under attack from a crowd who broke the door and windows. Jomast patched up the windows but refused to move him.

Back yard (Dorothy Ismail)On a couple of occasions at a Sunderland drop-in centre I chatted with an Eritrean athlete who had fled his Olympic squad and ended up in a squalid, dirty Jomast property visited by drug dealers and sex workers. At the same centre I talked to a doctor who had worked with refugees in South Sudan — she was dumped with her toddler daughter at the top of a run down Jomast house with her daughter’s cot next to a cooker, and a filthy back yard as a play area (picture above).

Early investigations on ‘red doors’ housing

Investigations into Jomast properties in Stockton and Middlesbrough for a BBC TV North East programme, filmed in late 2014 and screened in March 2015, exposed overcrowded damp and rundown houses with forced sharing of bedrooms — and the red doors.

BBC reporters for the first time managed to get a figure for Home Office payments to G4S/Jomast: £9.20 per night per asylum seeker. The BBC team suggested that the return on Jomast investment in the Stockton ‘red doors’ houses (using taxpayers’ money of course) rivalled the returns expected on luxury properties in the Teesside countryside.

John Grayson, BBC TV Inside Out programme March 2015

A Home Office statement given to the programme defended the use of taxpayers’ money saying that “for the price of a takeaway meal” asylum seekers were being housed in Stockton. Andrew Norfolk in his Times article suggests that Jomast are being paid around £8 million by the Home Office this year for asylum housing.

Hovels driving profits

Stuart Monk told MPs last week: “We’ve had an exemplary record in terms of the provision of services.”

But, speaking in Parliament on Wednesday 20 January, Alex Cunningham MP, whose Stockton North constituency adjoins Middlesbrough, said:

“Jomast has a major base in my constituency, and this is not the first time that it has come under national media scrutiny for the wrong reasons. I have visited some of the hovels that have apparently passed the test as ‘decent homes’, driving huge profits directly from Government contracts.”

No doubt the Home Affairs Committee will be inviting Stuart Monk back quite soon. The chair Keith Vaz suggested that they were likely to be launching a full inquiry into the COMPASS contract in the coming months.


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