Why did UK commercial contractors G4S and Jomast paint asylum seekers’ doors red? Why did they ignore complaints for years?
The plight of asylum seekers living in substandard accommodation rarely excites national media attention here in the UK. But Wednesday’s front page story in The Times about asylum seekers’ front doors being painted red by their private landlord has been followed across the national media and provoked questions in Parliament.
Vulnerable tenants in deprived areas of Middlesbrough told Times reporter Andrew Norfolk that their distinctive red doors made them targets for racist abuse. “They described incidents including the smearing of dog excrement against doors, and eggs and stones being thrown at windows,” Norfolk wrote.
The landlord is Jomast, the influential Teesside property company that is sub-contracted by the security giant G4S to supply housing to asylum seekers across England’s North East.
The client is the UK Home Office and the arrangements are known by the acronym COMPASS — Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring of Asylum Support Services.
When G4S became one of the government’s preferred bidders five years ago the company claimed: “We are confident that our approach would improve the provision of accommodation for asylum applicants and their families.”
But it hasn’t worked out that way, as I’ve reported over years . . . on children exposed to health risks in rat-infested homes, lone women intimidated by their landlords, a cockroach in the baby’s bottle and more.
The Times reported that both Jomast and G4S denied that most asylum seekers in Middlesbrough had red doors. G4S director John Whitwam was quoted as saying that there was “absolutely no such policy”. But, of 168 Jomast properties identified by The Times, 155 had red doors.
In a contradictory statement issued on its website this week, G4S claimed to have received “no complaints or requests from asylum seekers” regarding the red doors, and acknowledged that “the issue of front door colours was first raised with us in 2012”.
In fact the issue of red doors has been raised repeatedly over years, by asylum seekers, by campaigners and by members of Parliament.
Suzanne Fletcher told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday how she had alerted G4S to Jomast’s red doors policy years ago. Fletcher, a retired councillor who works alongside asylum seekers and community volunteers in Stockton-on-Tees, said (here, about 1 hour 25 minutes in): “We set up meetings with G4S, constructive helpful meetings was the idea. In September 2012, I’ve got the notes here, we asked G4S if they would do something about the red doors, and they said they had no intention of doing anything about it.”
Fletcher alerted the National Audit Office and the Home Affairs Committee. Here’s her written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in April 2013. “We have documented the problems, held an open meeting with G4S and UKBA, and held a number of meetings with G4S on the problems,” she wrote. “Solutions have been promised to many of the problems, but very little, apart from the G4S grant for kitchen equipment has materialised.”
Under the title “Relationships with the neighbourhood” Fletcher continued: “Despite instructions in the COMPASS document about reducing the possibility of conflict in the neighbourhood, the landlord has painted the doors of each of their properties housing asylum seekers red. This clearly says ‘this is where asylum seekers live’. It should be part of the contract that such clearly outwardly visible signs should not be allowed by housing providers.”
Suzanne Fletcher briefed Ian Swales, then the Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar and a member of the Public Accounts Committee. This week Swales told the Teesside newspaper The Gazette: “I raised it while G4S were there talking about the issue of housing for asylum seekers. You could hear the intake of breath because of the shock in the room.”
Here’s the transcript from that evidence session at the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday 5 February 2014. Representing G4S was executive Stephen Small, the company’s ‘Managing Director, Immigration and Borders’.
Swales asks him: “Do you think that painting the doors a different colour — in this case, red — so that the whole neighbourhood knows who the asylum seekers are is likely to make that accommodation more safe? Is that a good idea?”
Small, who had been recruited to his sensitive role at G4S from the pest control company Rentokil, replies: “The fact is that our supplier, Jomast, supplied services to asylum seekers in the previous contract as well as with G4S. I cannot comment on the doors being painted red, but I will take that point away.”
The former MP Ian Swales told the Gazette this week: “If you mark people out in that way, you signal them to extremists and vandals. Anyone with any sensitivity would realise it would be an issue.”
He went on: “I want to make clear I have never believed that Jomast or G4S have marked these people out deliberately, but it is completely thoughtless.”
The evidence of years of abuse and neglect of asylum tenants suggests that, far from being a callous oversight, the decision to paint asylum seekers’ doors red, and to keep them that way despite all those objections, chimes with the apparent policy to make Britain a hostile environment for asylum seekers.
For the past three years asylum seeker tenants in G4S housing have, despite fear and intimidation, spoken out in protest at the degrading treatment they have received from the UK Home Office, G4S and their subcontractors.
I have written about these protests and reported on housing conditions that parliamentary committees have condemned as “appalling”, conditions for which both G4S and Serco (the other main contractor) have been fined by the Home Office.
In 2013 I wrote about Jomast’s degrading treatment of women asylum seekers and their toddlers in hostels which the women described as a form of detention, “living in cells”, blighting their children’s early years.
“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.”
Cunningham went on: “While the Minister inquires further into this latest scandal, will he also order a further review in real detail of the standards of Teesside accommodation, including houses of multiple occupation in my Stockton North constituency, and get a better deal and better value for money for both tenants and the Government?”
Jomast is one of Teesside’s most powerful companies, with major contracts to redevelop Stockton town centre and other sites on Wearside and Teesside. It’s run by Stuart Monk, whose family has an estimated wealth of £175 million.
In response to criticism this week, Stuart Monk said: “Our accommodation is inspected frequently by the Home Office and has been found to meet or exceed the required standards.
“As many landlords will attest, paint is bought in bulk for use across all properties. It is ludicrous to suggest that this constitutes any form of discrimination, and offensive to make comparisons to a policy of apartheid in Nazi Germany.
“However we have agreed to repaint doors in a range of colours after these concerns were brought to our attention.”
When Andrew Norfolk sought my assistance I briefed him. Andrew trudged the streets of Middlesbrough achieving what very few journalists could have done — winning the trust of asylum seekers and allowing them a voice to let the light in on the degradation and violence they were experiencing as a result of the red doors policy. He told me recently that it was a “huge learning experience” and that he had been overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth of the asylum seekers he had worked with.
The Daily Mail, Express, Mirror and Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, the BBC, Sky News, ITV News, and the Huffington Post all followed Andrew’s story. The doors are to be repainted and the immigration minister James Brokenshire has roused Home Office civil servants to begin “an urgent audit of asylum seeker housing in the North East”.
There is categorically no G4S policy to house asylum seekers behind red doors.— G4S (@G4S) January 19, 2016
All this comes at a crucial point. Late last year the Home Office revealed to the Financial Times that it is in negotiations with G4S, Serco and Clearel, the contractor for the South and Wales, about the option to extend the contract for at least two years beyond 2017.
Last year Glasgow City Council and Sheffield City Council passed resolutions demanding a review of the COMPASS contracts.
Today, Graham O’Neill, policy officer at Scottish Refugee Council told me: “Scottish Refugee Council and others have been calling for organisations and individuals across the UK to provide evidence to Keith Vaz, as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee by 19th February on the COMPASS accommodation contracts delivered by G4S, Serco, and Clearel, in order to persuade the Committee that a UK-wide, independent inquiry is now essential. The red doors scandal, and the dysfunctional oversight it shows, adds to the case.”
Sheffield asylum seekers and refugees in SYMAAG (South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group) the organisation I chair and do voluntary research for, opposed the notion of G4S taking over the asylum housing contract in Yorkshire back in 2012. We interpreted the move correctly as the Home Office extending ‘asylum markets’ and their ‘hostile environment’ from detention centres, run by contractors G4S and Serco, into asylum seekers’ homes.
As one Zimbabwean asylum housing tenant in Sheffield said in 2012: “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord”. After the Times revelations it is surely time for the government to take asylum housing away from their disgraced commercial contractors.