Outsourcing and housing for asylum-seekers

G4S is not a social housing association, and yet they are responsible for housing many people for whom the state has a duty of care under international law.

On Tuesday the Home Affairs Select Committee on asylum will take delivery of a report which will raise profound questions about yet another sector of the outsourcing industry.

In 2012 G4S, which had no previous experience of providing social housing, won £324m out of a seven year £620m contract from UKBA to provide housing for asylum-seekers. This raised serious questions at the time: G4S is not a social housing association: it’s a security company. Would it have the infrastructure to carry out emergency call-outs, cyclical repairs or maintenance? It owned very few properties itself, so subcontractors were employed, many of whom would in turn be expected to find private landlords.

This system is designed for people for whom the state has a duty of care under international law. Many are women: they might be fleeing war, or may have been trafficked into the country - and in a great many cases will have suffered rape or sexual assault. But the infrastructure is skewed against those who’ve suffered gender based violence.

There’s a simple reason for this. Our system emphasises the importance of a speedy decision. But many women are hesitant to speak out initially about their reasons for seeking asylum, which are often personal, traumatic and distressing to relive. To be blunt: it's hard to tell a stranger you've been raped. Last year I gave an example of how this plays out in some detail. What all this means is that roughly twice as many women as men have their decisions overturned on appeal.

And what happens to those who are waiting for these decisions to be made? The alarm bells began to ring last month, when a leaked email from Stephen Small, G4S’s managing director for immigration and borders, said: “It has become increasingly evident over the past few months that a number of our accommodation partners are finding it difficult to manage aspects of this contract, for example their ability to address the high number of property defects.”

And tomorrow’s report by Kazuri, a social enterprise which helps vulnerable women find homes in the private rented sector, suggests that G4S’s issues run a lot deeper than property “defects”. Here is one complaint from a woman named only as “A”:

“We are living in a property in coventry [sic] being run by G4s, we are family of 4....we have been only given two wardrobes...we asked for more 5 months ago, and whenever we contact our casworker [sic]...he has many excuses... We had so far got rid of 20 mices [sic] in our house....my 2 young  children are so scared....we asked him for treatment of mice...he came 1 day and gave us 1 gluetrap... We have so far spent more thn [sic] 20 pounds on this issue...bt [sic] still everyday we find more.”

So far so bad, but what’s really interesting about this case is that there’s a clear whiff of intimidation about her interactions with staff: “A” claims that an employee told her he hoped her complaints about the standard of the housing “didn’t put them in any trouble.” She says that a number of other women have been too scared to put forward their complaints for the same reasons. The report says that 39 women have contacted Kazuri with complaints about housing defects, intimidation by staff, and even sexual harassment. It seems there is a real cultural problem here. In a parliamentary debate earlier this year, Sarah Teather MP said:

"Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. . . . It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. 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."

At present, the Home Office and UKBA refuse to answer complaints from third parties on individual cases. Advocates and voluntary organisations working with asylum seekers can only use national ‘complaints’ routes, which can take months. And so as a result of A’s letter, Kazuri published a letter to the local council. The situation was resolved in hours, despite an earlier assertion by a G4S worker that this was not a priority case.  

It’s likely one of Kazuri’s other complainants is “Sarah”, a woman who suffered years of physical and mental abuse after being trafficked in the UK 13 years ago and whose story was revealed by  Private Eye magazine using the work of the housing researcher John Grayson. She has recently won refugee status and the right to stay with her 11-month old son.

A report on her prepared by a doctor for the Helen Bamber Foundation reveals a pattern of physical and psychological abuse amounting to torture. In recent months her and her baby have been uprooted four times away from medical and social support systems. She even spent four weeks in a damp riddled house with cockroaches and slugs, until local authority inspectors condemned it as unfit.

According to the magazine, the day before Sarah learned she was to be granted refugee status, she also learned she was to be moved out of her latest house because Cascade - the G4S subcontractor - hadn’t paid the rent, so the private landlord wanted her out.

I asked G4S about the issues raised in this report. On the story of “Sarah”, a spokesman said: “The landlord did serve notice on this property, but to our accommodation partner not the customer, although not for the reasons alleged. Negotiations did take place in an attempt to get the landlord to rescind their notice to enable the family to remain at the property and this included an offer to increase the rent paid. However, the landlord rejected all offers. We quickly found a new property for the family, which the customer inspected and approved prior to the move.  We have continued to work hard to support the family.”

In response to the Kazuri report, the company’s spokesman said: “We are disappointed at the inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims made in in this report, which represent a completely unbalanced picture of the service being provided to asylum seekers through our delivery of the COMPASS programme. This report refers to a number of anonymous and unverified complaints, which neither G4S nor our various partners have been shown so, as such, we cannot respond.”

The welfare of the people in our care is our top priority and all our properties must be contractually compliant in terms of safety and decency before people are allowed to move in. We have a dedicated team who are committed to delivering welfare support services to our customers. We always take complaints about our service seriously and we provide a Freephone number, staffed 24 hours a day.”

Joe Crane, Kazuri’s director of policy, said: “Companies such as G4S and Serco who are hoovering up contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds  to deliver services in a way that denigrate the most basic expectations of human rights should be subject to the same stringent regulations as other players in the same market. Why is there no regulation by established bodies such as the property ombudsman or the HCA of large outsourcing companies with little or no experience of social housing and pastoral care?"

Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage