John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Equalities, writes:
In recent weeks, we’ve seen deeply troubling evidence of how Serco, a private company paid by the Home Office to provide accommodation and support in Birmingham to those seeking asylum, has been putting the people in their care and the wider community at serious risk.
It’s yet another example of how this Government’s obsession with putting profit before people is failing the most vulnerable in our society.
Home Office arrangements mean that people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim are provided with accommodation and support through a series of nationally agreed contracts with private companies. In the case of our region, the contract is operated by Serco.
We’ve had concerns over the management of these contracts for some time. Well before the pandemic and the national lockdown, we were seeing vulnerable, sometimes deeply traumatised people, trapped for weeks and months on end in what is supposed to be temporary accommodation – either the initial accommodation centres or in so-called “contingency” accommodation in hotels. This is a wholly unacceptable situation that the City Council and our partners have repeatedly raised with both Serco and the Home Office.
Since the pandemic, things have gotten much worse. We have seen a failure on the part of the Home Office to properly consult with Birmingham City Council and our neighbours over further contingency arrangements – putting the support we provide to the asylum-seeking community under more strain and exposing these vulnerable people to further risk.
And we have seen a failure by Serco to safeguard the people in their care. Our public health teams gave a series of recommendations to Serco designed to prevent a Covid outbreak at the initial accommodation centre they manage in Birmingham. It appears that a number of these recommendations were not followed. There has now been a significant Covid outbreak at the centre and it has had to be closed. That has meant that residents have had to be moved into alternative accommodation in Birmingham and elsewhere.
We have significant concerns over the management of the alternative accommodation in the city and the extent to which the vulnerable people living there and the wider community have been safeguarded. This included the support provided to those having to self-isolate. As a result, we escalated our concerns to Public Health England and the Home Office. We have made it clear to the Home Secretary that it is beyond reckless for a Government commissioned provider to fail to take steps to protect the health of the vulnerable people they are paid to support.
We will not let up on this. Birmingham is proud to be a City of Sanctuary and this Council is proud to play its full part in ensuring that those fleeing persecution and terror will find safety and refuge here. We’ve been an active participant in the national asylum seeker support arrangements for over 20 years, in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme since 2016 and earlier this year renewed our commitment to the Government’s new Global Resettlement Scheme.
Contrary to some of the misleading stories in the papers and the fake news circulating online, being an asylum seeker in Britain is about as far from being a comfortable or luxurious lifestyle as you can get. The truth is that if you’re seeking asylum, you’re left for months without a decision on your claim; you face constant uncertainty over where you are accommodated; you’re banned from being able to earn your own way and are given just £5.66 to live on per day. It’s a pretty shocking way to treat people.
That’s why we’ve been working closely with charities and volunteers in Birmingham to try and help and support those seeking asylum and ensure that they don’t fall into further poverty and destitution. We’ve thrown our support behind the national “Lift The Ban” campaign, because we think its better that people waiting for an asylum decision should be allowed to work and contribute, rather than trapped in enforced inactivity and poverty. And in the last couple of weeks, we’ve secured an extra £1.4m in EU funding to save two projects that provide vital advice and support to asylum seekers after the Government pulled the plug.
The Council’s social care, housing and refugee and migration teams, together with Birmingham’s brilliant voluntary and community sector, are continuing to work hard to ensure those who need our help are accommodated and supported. They are proof that Birmingham remains a genuine City of Sanctuary and a place that offers hope for those who need it most.But we expect Government – and the organisations they are paying to act on their behalf – to respect these values too. Let them be in no doubt, Birmingham Labour will continue to be unrelenting in calling out and challenging their failures on this most important of issues.