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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times