For five years now I’ve exposed the dangerous consequences of the UK’s ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed rush to privatise housing for asylum seekers. I’ve told of children exposed to health risks in rat-infested homes, a cockroach in the baby’s bottle, lone women intimidated by their landlords.
This home is one of the worst. It’s a terraced house in the East Midlands of England, just off Leicester’s city centre. I call in one frosty morning in early January. Paul comes to the door. He is an asylum seeker from the Middle East who speaks fluent English.
Living with bed bugs
“The house is full of bedbugs, in David’s bedroom, another guy’s bedroom and all in here—.” Paul points to the settee in the lounge.
The room is full of bedclothes and personal belongings. “G4S never clears away what they take from rooms when people leave,” says Paul. “We don’t like throwing the things away, people might come back.”
Four men live here. David speaks to me in Arabic, Paul interpreting. “I have been here over a year and the bedbugs have got worse,” says David. “I had to throw my mattress in the yard and I sleep on the floor. I try and stop the bugs coming in through the floor boards by taping up the room.”
Outside David shows me piles of rubbish – infested mattresses, bedclothes, broken furniture.
“Ring G4S all the time,” he says in broken English. “Never come.”
Paul fetches some dead bugs he has saved. David shows me the bites on his arms and stomach.
I ask Paul how long he has been in the house. “Four months,” he says. Paul came to England in a refrigerated lorry— “It was very cold, four people on the lorry had to go to hospital.”
He claimed asylum: “They took me to detention centre, Campsfield. I was there two months, then Birmingham. One month in Kensington hotel.”
I had been to the Kensington, a rundown place G4S used alongside Birmingham initial accommodation centre, for people waiting to be housed.
Paul goes on: “Two months in Birmingham centre, then Stoke.”
I ask him about the Stoke house.
“Really bad,” he says.
After a further two months the Home Office claimed that Paul had been fingerprinted in Hungary on his journey and thus had to be deported back there. He was rearrested and sent back to Campsfield where he spent a further two months. Then in October 2016 he was moved again to the Leicester terraced house with the bed bugs.
David shows me his leg and a badly scarred knee.
“I get this from torture in my own country,” he says. “I cannot walk very far but I have been given a bus pass.”
The heating has failed many times and the radiator in Paul’s bedroom has broken away from the wall. His window doesn’t shut.
“The walls were falling on me,” Paul said, pointing to cracked plasterwork he had repaired with tape.
A G4S maintenance worker had inspected the house on 12 December and passed on an urgent text message to G4S, demanding remedy. One whole month later David told me nothing had happened. I went back to the house a few days ago. Friends had come to help get rid of the sofa and the lounge had been cleared, but not by G4S. The bed bugs were thriving. Paul showed me fresh bites on his arms.
Victoria Derbyshire — a bad day for contractors
Lately the lives of asylum seekers housed in the UK by commercial contractors got rare prime time attention on BBC television. The occasion was publication of a damning report from the Home Affairs Select Committee who’d found “vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation. . . children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women. . . inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.”
The MPs had urged a complete overhaul of the contracting system.
Committee chair Yvette Cooper appeared on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme alongside G4S executive John Whitwam.
The presenter asked the G4S man: “Would you live in a house infested by rats, mice and bed bugs?”
“No, of course I wouldn’t,” Whitwam said.
He claimed G4S inspections had found defects and addressed them: “The issue is not that things go wrong in a house — they go wrong in my house, they go wrong in every house, but the requirement we have to address them, which we do.”
That was Tuesday 31 January. A bad day for the contractors, but not nearly as bad as it might have been.
The MPs’ report had downplayed evidence of racism and intimidation. Evidence, for example, from the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) who said that “derogatory and racist behaviour” was common among contract staff. Asylum seekers said staff behaviour “made them feel like ‘animals’ and that they were ‘subhuman’.” Others reported that they felt bullied.
The BBC had planned to air testimony from activists and G4S tenants in Yorkshire asserting that tenants who complained had been moved against their will, had been threatened that complaints would damage their claims for asylum.
My colleague, housing rights activist Violet Dickenson, had been invited to take part in the programme as a studio guest. She was looking forward to speaking out about the culture of intimidation.
But during the weekend before transmission G4S had lobbied the BBC, invitations were withdrawn, interviews pulled. The film clips of asylum seekers and activists (from the film, The Asylum Market, by Brass Moustache, that you can see in full here) were binned. Instead of Violet Dickenson’s live testimony about intimidation, the programme ran a pre-recorded interview with Sharon Holmes, G4S head of business, who dismissed some of the evidence in the MPs’ report as “anecdotal”.
Missing the boat
As for the MPs’ call for a complete overhaul of the contracting system, it was weaker than it appeared. For that ship had already sailed.
Since 2012 Home Office accommodation has been provided to asylum seekers by companies — G4S, Serco and Clearsprings — their subcontractors, and hundreds of small private landlords, through what’s known as COMPASS contracts (an acronym for Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services). The contracts, worth a reported £1.7 billion over five years, had been due to expire in 2017 — unless the government exercised its option for a two year extension.
“Before the Home Secretary signs the next contract, the committee will have things to say,” the then committee chair Keith Vaz MP had told BBC Scotland back in March 2016. “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.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, the report’s publication was delayed. And delayed.
By 8 December 2016, and still no sign of the report, the government quietly issued a written ministerial statement confirming that the Home Office had extended the existing contracts, and that it was going to pay more — though not how much. “I have increased the amount of money that the Home Office pays for the provision of welfare officers and staff property management,” wrote immigration minister Robert Goodwill.
As for five years’ compelling evidence of rats, cockroaches, racism and intimidation, Goodwill wrote mildly: “There has been considerable interest in the accommodation and support that is provided to asylum seekers,” and he had “listened carefully” to concerns.
What does “considerable interest” look like?
It looks like this:
Asylum seekers “are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.”
That was Sarah Teather MP in the foreword to her Parliamentary inquiry report in January 2013: “Racial abuse and victimisation at the hands of members of the public were striking enough, but more shocking for us were the examples of abject disregard for basic human dignity demonstrated by housing providers.”
A Home Affairs committee report later that year noted: “We were very concerned by the description of the substandard level of housing provided to asylum seekers.”
In January 2014 the National Audit Office reported: “Both G4S and Serco took on housing stock without inspecting it . . . many of the properties they had taken on did not meet the contractual quality standards.”
The Asylum Market from Brass Moustache Films on Vimeo.
The Public Accounts Committee followed up in April 2014: “The standard of the accommodation provided was often unacceptably poor and the providers failed to improve quality in a timely manner.” And: “Contractors have remained slow in providing decent accommodation for a very vulnerable group of people.”
Red doors and a Taliban room-mate
In February 2016 Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Cardiff South & Penarth, secured a debate in Westminster Hall: “We appear to have a situation in which the Home Office is contracting a small number of companies to place highly vulnerable people — often, it seems, in crowded or unsuitable accommodation — in a very small number of areas in a small group of dispersal centres and cities, and frequently in areas of low rents and deprivation,” he said.
Andy McDonald, Labour MP for Middlesbrough, reported: “A young man in my community who is gay and who has come to this country is having to share a bedroom with somebody who was once a member of the Taliban.”
Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East, SNP) said: “We have had refugee houses easily identifiable by the colour of the door; stories of humiliation and harassment caused by the requirement for refugees in Cardiff to wear coloured wristbands; and a level of overcrowding that would be more appropriate in the slums of the 1900s, not the 21st century. It is clear to me that the system is broken, not just in one location and not just with one provider. That is why the Scottish National Party is calling for an urgent inquiry.”
But that didn’t happen.
Labour’s Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, said: “There is now a short period until most of the contracts come up for renewal, so now is the time for a review to be carried out so that whatever mistakes were made in the past can be avoided in the future. I think some contracts will expire in 2017, with a possible two-year extension clause, so time is of the essence.”
He said that lately: “I spent the whole day in Oldham, and in the end I came away with the conclusion that the only reason why more than 600 asylum seekers were there was because the unit price per head of accommodating them was lower there than anywhere else.”
Starmer went on: “I lend my support to the call for a review. There is now a window of opportunity.”
As we’ve seen, that window slammed shut in December 2016 when the Home Office extended the contracts.
MPs in the dark
During the Westminster Hall debate, Alex Cunningham, the Labour MP for Stockton North, highlighted the matter of secrecy, how MPs are kept in the dark about how the companies carve up all that public money.
“We must make the companies involved more accountable to the taxpayer,” Cunningham said. “Private companies that deliver public services, such as G4S and Jomast, are exempt from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has no power to investigate private contractors.” He went on: “It is nigh on impossible to get our hands on the details of much of what private companies are up to with public money. Accountability must not stop where private sector involvement starts.”
Criminal investigation into G4S and Serco
Lack of transparency isn’t the only problem. Both G4S and Serco were caught out “overbilling” the taxpayer under contracts for monitoring offenders — the tagging scandal. Both had charged the Ministry of Justice for applying electronic tags to ex-offenders who were not being tagged. Some were in prison. Others were dead. Serco agreed to pay £68.5m back. G4S tried to get away with paying back £24.1 million but eventually agreed on nearly £110 million. The Serious Fraud Office has had both companies under criminal investigation since November 2013. Information supplied by the SFO prompted the Financial Reporting Council in June last year to open another investigation — into Deloitte’s handling of Serco’s accounts.
During “emergency talks” with the Home Office in December 2015, G4S and Serco used the financial press to air their concerns about the losses they claimed to be making on the Compass contracts. That summer Serco boss Rupert Soames had used an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s business programme The Bottom Line to almost boast that over five years Serco would lose £115 million on the Compass contracts. “The taxpayer presumably is smiling,” he said.
At the Home Affairs Committee hearing on 13 September 2016, Soames told MPs: “The reasons why the contracts are losing money for us are varied. One is that we under-bid. The price was too low. I have to say that a system of reverse Dutch auction conducted over the internet may not be the best way to establish pricing for a contract to provide care to tens of thousands of people.”
He said the other reason was an increase in the numbers of asylum seekers.
David Winnick MP asked Soames for a copy of Serco’s contract with its subcontractor Orchard & Shipman. Soames replied: “No, sir, I do not think that would be appropriate.”
The National Audit Office in November 2013 issued a warning about the “crisis of confidence in contracting out of public services: “There is currently a lack of transparency over the role that contractors play, the business that they do, the rewards that they make and the way that they perform.”
The NAO explained: “It is difficult to isolate the profit relating solely to their public-sector work. They (the contractors) rarely separate out their public-sector work as part of their segmental reporting. The government only has access to information on the profits contractors make where ‘open book arrangements’ are written into contracts.” Such open book arrangements do not apply to the Compass contracts.
Turning the tide
At a public meeting in Sheffield in 2012, when people learned that G4S had been given the asylum housing contracts, an asylum tenant from Zimbabwe stood up and said: “I don’t want a prison guard as my landlord.”
Remember the executive sent to defend G4S’s reputation on the Victoria Derbyshire show? John Whitwam’s expertise is not in housing, nor human rights, nor the asylum system.
He’s a military man. As Lt Col John Whitwam he served as commanding officer, Royal Fusiliers. Then, after a brief go at investment banking — at Barclays, according to his LinkedIn profile, he moved into soldiering-for-profit, as commercial director at Pilgrims Group, before joining G4S, the world’s biggest security company, and becoming “managing director immigration and borders”.
Asylum housing doesn’t belong in the private security industry and its Asylum Market.
Tenants and rights campaigners did find some things to welcome in the Home Affairs Committee report. We in Yorkshire had already pushed our local councils to ban the forced sharing of bedrooms. The MPs recommended: “That forced bedroom sharing be phased out across the asylum estate as a whole and that the use of large scale HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation) be reduced.”
And . . . The MPs recommended that future contracts should involve local councils and the devolved nations, and voluntary organisations in deciding on and scrutinising local, and regional contracts for the provision of asylum housing.
Asylum rights campaigners will seize on these recommendations to turn the tide against privatisation and intimidation, take asylum housing out of the market and put it back where it belongs, in public hands.
Asylum-seekers’ names have been changed.
This article was originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/shinealight/john-grayson/fail-fail-and-have-another-government-contract
See also Kate Smith at The Conversation: “Despite repeated failings, private firms continue to run asylum housing”.
The story of how G4S lobbied BBC to get The Asylum Market documentary pulled is here and you can watch the doc by Brass Moustache Films in full here