Home Office cuts to accommodation contracts next year could see hundreds of asylum seekers forced from their homes into the private sector. Martin Hilditch investigates
Up to 1,000 asylum seekers in the west midlands are about to see their lives change forever.
For some the difference will be almost imperceptible - a new landlord for their existing home. The majority, however, face losing their current home and moving to new accommodation.
Depending on the success of the quest to find new housing some could even be forced to move far from their current estate or even out of the west midlands altogether.
The cause of the upheaval is a major cut to the funding of accommodation for asylum seekers. It’s a story the Home Office was reluctant to tell. It took a freedom of information request from Inside Housing to reveal that it has slashed the 2011/12 budget for accommodation contracts from a provisional spend of £164 million in 2010/11 to £135.5 million in 2011/12 - a 17 per cent cut.
This cut will see six of the current housing providers in England and Scotland lose their contracts when they end this year, including a consortium in the west midlands, made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley and Wolverhampton councils, which currently houses 1,000 people.
The cuts have prompted a complex programme in which providers in some areas must balance mitigating the human cost with significant financial pressures. So how will they and their residents cope?
The west midlands certainly faces something of a logistical nightmare. The consortium’s £6.1 million contract finishes at the end of June. For the most part that means the 1,000 asylum seekers it houses will have to move out of the council-owned homes in which they currently live. Priority Properties North West, an existing private sector provider which has taken over the £6.1 million contract, will have to find them new accommodation in the private sector within the region.
The consortium’s councils are involved in the process because they have a responsibility to ensure the properties are suitable and the relocation of asylum seekers does not cause community tensions to increase. They are also keen to make sure that families do not have to move areas, so children’s education is undistrupted.
David Barnes is director of the West Midlands Strategic Migration Partnership set up by umbrella body West Midlands Councils to support migrants and coordinate dispersal in the region.
‘It is one of the most complex dispersal programmes we have had,’ he states. ‘The reason for that is we have got a significant number of cases to be resolved in a much shorter period of time than we would normally have.’
Mr Barnes is clear about the number one priority. ‘It is not about heads on pillows, it is community cohesion. We are desperately trying to uphold the principle of minimising disruption and desperately trying to make sure that families remain in the area. If you have to relocate it is relocating in the area. That is presenting us with difficulties.’
The councils also have a financial incentive to find asylum seekers alternative housing by the time their contract terminates at the end of June. With UK Border Agency funding coming to an end, councils will have to subsidise any asylum seekers who are still in their properties themselves.
The pressure is on. Get it wrong and there will be a human cost for the asylum seekers and a financial cost for cash-strapped councils.
‘We don’t want to be in a position where we are indirectly subsidising transitions into the private sector,’ Mr Barnes adds.
Liverpool Council is another of the six providers which will not have its contract with UKBA extended. Its £3.5 million contract ended this month and has also been picked up by Priority Properties North West. At its peak two years ago the council was providing 280 bed spaces for asylum seekers but more recently the numbers dropped to between 70 and 130.
Chris Ferns, development manager at Liverpool Council, says he has some sympathy with UKBA’s approach. ‘The people taking over our bit of the contract operate across the north west and they would have some capacity to operate some scale efficiencies that we can’t provide,’ he states.
Mr Ferns says disruption to asylum seekers in the city has been minimal because the council already housed them in private sector accommodation. The majority of people will be able to remain in their homes, he says.
‘A lot of our landlords have novated to the new provider,’ he adds. ‘If people have school-age children one of the priorities has been to keep them in situ. One of the things you had to say in your contract proposal was how you would minimise disruption.’
Even if disruption is kept to a minimum, many asylum charities are concerned at the shift to solely private sector provision of asylum seeker accommodation in three areas: Liverpool, the west midlands and the north east, where another consortium of councils, NECASS, lost its £6.9 million contract.
Dave Stamp, project manager at asylum charity ASIRT, says it is concerned about the standard of accommodation provided by private organisations. He suggests mixed provision helps to drive up standards because councils are more involved and interested in housing conditions and issues affecting asylum seekers.
‘From our understanding, cost has been the determining factor in the latest contracting round,’ he states.
Peter Widlinski, information and communications manager at charity North of England Refugee Service, adds: ‘We have no problems with the private sector providing accommodation but there needs to be a mix of providers. If local authorities have that contract [providing housing] they keep more informed and in touch with asylum seeker issues in their area.’
Private providers awarded UKBA contracts say they are unable to comment under the terms of the deal.
A spokesperson for UKBA states that it is ‘confident’ that the cuts in accommodation contracts will not affect the quality of its service to
‘The number of people supported in asylum accommodation has reduced significantly [from 29,150 at the end of 2009 to 22,650 at the end of 2010] and by also reducing the number of contracts the UKBA can cut the overall cost, allowing resources to be directed where they are most needed,’ he adds.
Despite the reassurance the first six months of 2011 have marked a period of significant uncertainty for many asylum seekers. And even in the best-case scenario hundreds face moving from the accommodation, for better or worse, they have come to regard as their home.