Serco and Asylum Seeker Lock-change Evictions

Part of Children’S Future Food Report – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th June 2019.

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Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 4:15 pm, 27th June 2019

I agree that it is urgent, as my hon. Friend suggests. I am sure that the Minister will address that, because there is a very real concern about it, not just from independent advocacy groups such as the Scottish Refugee Council but from local government and the Scottish Government. I will come to that later.

The priority remains to help all those facing asylum destitution, especially those due to receive the 14-day notice-to-quit letter followed by the seven-day lock change notice. Destitution advisers provide a holistic assessment of need and ongoing support and co-ordination, including for individuals under threat of eviction through lock changes by Serco. All these individuals are known to the Home Office. The process of submitting new evidence for a refused asylum claim is lengthy and complicated for most, and they might not have an option to return because of fear of persecution. To simply say that they “refuse” to leave is not accurate. We must emphasise that the actions of Serco are, in this sphere, functions of a public nature and therefore come under the scope of the Human Rights Act 1998. This legal status was confirmed in a Court of Session decision.

It is important that we highlight just some of the individuals who are under threat of eviction by Serco and the Home Office. We have been advised by the Home Office, and by the Minister at a meeting I had with her earlier this week, that those with vulnerabilities will not receive such letters, but that does not seem to be the case. I am going to mention a number of cases that have been presented to me by asylum charities. Everyone here knows the safety and belonging that a home brings, but today in Glasgow we are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis of hundreds of women and men who sought sanctuary in the UK. The Conservative Government have none the less retained their basic inhumanity in the asylum process. Since last week, they have been ruthlessly rolling out their privatised hostile environment in Scotland’s largest city.

Courageous women like Mariam, who has fled abuse in Eritrea but been refused refugee protection by the asylum system, should never have received a notice to quit. Why? Because Mariam has depression, is receiving medication and is being helped by a community psychiatric nurse. Serco has ordered her to get out of her house through a lock-change letter, which means no protection against street homelessness, with no rule of law or court oversight, callously causing trauma and tearing her away with immediate effect from her only source of shelter. Do we leave people like Mariam on the streets, with their mental health going through the floor, to be a sitting target for traffickers or exploiters, when the outgoing Prime Minister said that tackling trafficking was a top priority? Does the Minister realise that those sorts of decisions feed exploitation and are a boon to organised crime, while destroying lives? Surely the decent thing is to ensure that Mariam’s lock-change is cancelled.

Another concern that has been brought to my attention is that letters are being delivered by two men in uniform, sometimes to women who live on their own. I have a real concern about that, and I find it completely and utterly unacceptable. For a woman who has fled her country to seek shelter and asylum in the UK, two men in uniform visiting the house with letters will mean something completely different from what it would perhaps mean to us. It is unacceptable, and I hope the Minister will have something to say about that.

I have a number of other cases to mention. A 34-year-old woman from Eritrea was issued with an eviction letter dated 12 June 2019—not 20 June, as MPs have been advised—telling her to leave her accommodation by 25 June. The letter wrongly stated that she had received a positive decision. It also incorrectly advised her that she must leave and that she would have to apply to Glasgow City Council for rehousing. Her hopes were raised that she had got refugee status. A week later, she received another letter dated 19 June, again telling her to leave by 25 June. This time, the letter wrongly stated that her asylum claim was refused and that she must leave her accommodation. In fact, she has an ongoing asylum claim and is due to attend a further submissions appointment in Liverpool on 4 October 2019. This woman’s claim for asylum is based on her nationality and the fact that, as a Pentecostal Christian, she would be at risk of persecution should she return.

Another case presented to me is a 72-year-old gentleman who is an Iraqi national but has lived most of his life in Syria. He left Syria when the war started. He has lost contact with his wife and children in Europe and is in Glasgow alone. He speaks Arabic. Serco sent him a lock-change eviction letter dated 19 June, telling him to leave by 2 July 2019. He has a serious heart condition, for which he has had a heart operation. He also has a problem with his spine and breathing problems, which leaves him bedridden most of each day. He is particularly vulnerable due to his age, his ill health and English not being his first language, and he is traumatised by his experiences. It is a real concern that he will be unable to safeguard his own wellbeing and is at risk of neglect. Positive Action in Housing has asked Glasgow City Council’s social work department to carry out a community care assessment and is seeking legal support.

Another case is that of a 58-year-old woman who received a letter from Serco dated 21 June telling her that her entitlement to support ends on 23 June—less than two days’ notice. If she leaves her accommodation, she will be destitute. Her section 4 application is under way, and her legal case is ongoing. This woman left Gambia to ensure that her daughters cannot be subject to female genital mutilation practices.

Another case I have is that of a constituent who received a letter on 12 June, and who visited this Parliament as part of a delegation from the British Red Cross. She is an African lady, who identifies herself as a member of the LGBT community, and she feels she cannot go back to her country. She was issued with a letter on 12 June, not 20 June.

It appears that Serco is treating individuals with complex cases as one mass of people, and this is likely to lead to unjust decisions and vulnerable people with a genuine reason to be here being ejected from their accommodation. As a landlord, Serco is ill-equipped to pass judgment on someone’s asylum status. Walking unannounced into someone’s accommodation and rummaging through their private belongings does not make that person an immigration officer. The people Serco is attempting to evict are not subject to deportation orders. The Home Office support has stopped for now, but that does not mean that their cases—to put it in inverted commas—“failed”. They can still engage with the legal process and apply for support to be reinstated. Appeals and judicial reviews do happen and are often successful.

I want to come on to the local government view. I have a letter, which I will place in the Library, from Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council, and a note of the meeting of local authorities passing on their concerns about asylum accommodation contracts and processes. There are pressures in different areas, including the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, and Glasgow, as incoming contractors face the need to procure a large number of properties in a very short period of time. It is my concern that Serco is advertising the fact that the reason why it needs to remove asylum seekers from their accommodation is so that it can hand back the keys to the original landlords, which does not seem to me to be an acceptable reason.

There is very real concern from local government that the transition deadline will not be met in some areas and that contingency accommodation may have to be used. The distribution of asylum seekers across the country is very uneven, with some areas of high concentration, including Glasgow. Local authority leaders from other parts of the UK agree that we need to progress the funding issues, as local government is left to pick up the tab for the decisions made by both Serco and the Home Office. In their view, the Home Office is failing to address issues for which it has responsibility and seems unable to provide up-to-date data on the number and locations of asylum seekers. When data is produced, it is often incomplete and contradicts information available from other sources.

In the view of local authorities, nothing is being done by the Home Office to convince other local authorities in the UK to participate in the dispersal programme. However, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the fact that asylum seeker lock-change evictions are going ahead has resulted in some local authorities suggesting that they would not want to participate in that sort of process. Local authorities participating in the dispersal programme are still waiting for the Home Office response to their request for funding, and they see no evidence that that has been taken to Her Majesty’s Treasury.

I think it would be fair to say that we have a number of questions about what is going on in relation both to the contracts, and to this inhumane move to subject asylum seekers to lock-change evictions and make them homeless. However, before I ask those questions, I have to say that I am very concerned at the behaviour of Serco. I want to reiterate again that two men should not approach women living on their own or with children, going in with threatening letters and handing them over in that way. That is something I want to hear the Minister condemn, and I want that practice put a stop to.

Can the Minister answer the following questions? I have a number of questions for her. Does she intend to come to Glasgow to witness a lock-change eviction? When is she next coming to Glasgow to discuss the asylum accommodation contract with asylum charities and the council? Does she realise what it would mean for someone to come home and find that their locks have been changed? May we have a guarantee that no one in Glasgow who has vulnerabilities as defined by the Home Office safeguarding policy has or will receive 14 days’ notice to quit, or a seven-day lock change notice?

Will the Minister publish the Home Office safeguarding policy? To my mind, the four cases that I presented involve people who would qualify as having a vulnerability under that policy. Will the Minister say more about what the Home Office defines as the over-staying group? Does it have a list of those in that group? Will she confirm whether refused case management and immigration enforcement teams are planning to start working through the over-staying list? Are they planning to detain people at their reporting events in Glasgow? Can she assure me that that will not happen, and that it has never been discussed since the first announcement about Serco evictions in July 2018? Can the Minister provide an assurance that no one in the over-staying group will be visited by immigration enforcement in their asylum accommodation, purely because they are classed as an over-stayer?

As a result of what has been put forward, the Home Office is required to make a decision. You will have heard the rumours, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I have, about the shredding machines in Departments being in overdrive and working overtime, prior to the new Prime Minister and new regime.