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How low can they go?

The £224 million budget for accommodating asylum seekers is set to be cut following this week’s spending review. Emily Twinch and Martin Hilditch find out how the fall will affect housing providers and those awaiting their fate in their homes.

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When it comes to the impact of spending cuts Howard Ndlovu is on the frontline.

He is one of the people most likely to be affected by a government review looking to reduce the £224 million annual budget for housing asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers.

While that budget may be reduced in the future, Mr Ndlovu, from Zimbabwe, who is based in Birmingham, is not impressed with the quality of housing the existing money is paying for.

Mr Ndlovu, is currently staying in a hostel and says his room is extremely cramped. ‘It would be more suitable to call it storage, to be honest,’ he says.

In previous accommodation with a private landlord, ultimately paid for by the UK Border Agency to provide housing for failed asylum seekers, Mr Ndlovu says he was left without hot water for weeks because the boiler was broken.

‘I [felt I] couldn’t leave the house if I hadn’t bathed myself,’ he states. ‘That meant I was grounded.’

Yousef Ibrarhim, a Palestinian asylum seeker, says his current home is not fit for humans. However, his private sector home, again funded by the UKBA, has proved popular with bed bugs and vermin. He showered with water from a kettle for two months because of problems with the boiler, he states.

So how is the spending review likely to affect people like Mr Ndlovu and Mr Ibrarhim?

The duo are among thousands of asylum seekers who will be affected by any changes. At the end of 2009 there were 11,655 asylum seekers receiving support, including housing, under section four of the Asylum and Immigration Act.

The impact of the changes, however, is still far from certain. Next year the five year contracts handed out to 28 accommodation providers come to an end. This accounts for roughly a quarter of the overall £224 million budget.

Due to the change in government and subsequent spending review, the Home Office has chosen to extend the contracts for a year ‘to ensure business continuity is maintained’. That won’t, however, mean business as usual in all cases.

Birmingham Council last week announced it will pull out of provision altogether when its five-year contract runs out on 30 June next year. It currently provides 190 homes.

John Lines, cabinet member of housing for Birmingham Council, said this would not mean that asylum seekers would no longer be housed in the city. ‘We will continue to work with the UKBA to help them find alternative services, possibly in the private sector’, he states.

Other providers face a less voluntary end to their contracts. By 2012 the Home Office will have carried out a procurement exercise which it says will make the asylum system more cost effective, better quality and more transparent. This is likely to see the budget fall and some providers lose out.

Sources close to the Home Office and asylum charities suggest that any budget reduction could be used to weed out providers of sub-standard housing, of the type that Mr Ndlovu and Mr Ibrarhim complain about.

Joe Connolly, chief executive of section four provider YMCA Glasgow, said that ‘clearly there will be a reduction in the number of providers’.
‘The government is looking for cost savings,’ he said. ‘It will be looking to extend the contracts with organisations that have been delivering quality

One area that might be worthy of scrutiny by the bean counters looking to eradicate waste is the current labyrinthine bureaucracy that has left many of those in the system, including landlords, perplexed and frustrated.

In some instances, for example, the Home Office pays a registered provider for accommodation. The registered provider, in turn, pays a lettings agent, who then pays individual landlords’ rent to provide the housing.

The lengthy chain of command means some of the landlords at the end of the chain are not getting paid or are having to wait for their money.

This gives them little incentive to improve the quality of their housing and has led some to tell the failed asylum seekers they will have to move out because their rent has not been paid.

Dave Stamp, project manager at the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team, said that in such circumstances ‘there is not much attention going on quality control and not much attention to making sure that individual landlords get paid’.

One source, close to a registered provider, also suggested that individual landlords could generally make more renting out homes on the open market than they got from the UKBA, which is bad news for failed asylum seekers.

‘The result is that you are not going to rent out your good properties to asylum seekers,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, regardless of how you look at it, it boils down to money at the end of the day.’

This, of course, has never been more the case than following the publication of the spending review this week, outlining dramatic cuts across government. Speaking before the spending review was published, a spokesperson for the Home Office, states simply that: ‘It should be noted that it is a government aim to improve the value of major contracts across government.’

People like Mr Ndlovu and Mr Ibrarhim will have to live with the impact of the better value contracts. They must hope that the drive to cut costs does not mean more of the same - or worse - in the future.

Adding up asylum

£224 million
annual budget for housing asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers

number of asylum seekers receiving housing support at the end of 2009

number of providers with five-year accommodation contracts which were due to end in 2010

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