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Wed, 28 October 2020

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Home Office problems left ‘vulnerable’ asylum seekers without access to doctor or schools for 86 days, watchdog finds

Home Office problems left ‘vulnerable’ asylum seekers without access to doctor or schools for 86 days, watchdog finds

Home Office asylum seeker contracts 'failed in early days', report finds (Credit: PA)

3 min read

Hundreds of asylum seekers were left without access to a GP or schools for months after a Home Office programme to temporarily support and house them struggled to get going, the public spending watchdog has found.

The Home Office handed out contracts in September 2019 to run its asylum and accommodation support services under a major shake-up of the system. 

But a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said some providers had initially failed to meet the department’s own standards, leaving vulnerable people unsupported while the department processed their claims.

According to the NAO, the number of asylum seekers in short-term accommodation increased by 96% — from 1,678 to 3,289 — between July and October 2019. 

Between September 2019 and February 2020, the average time they spent in that limited accommodation was 26 days, in line with Home Office expectations.

But the watchdog found that 981 people who had arrived in the UK by the end of December 2019 ended up staying in short-term accommodation for at least 86 days.

That left them unable to register with a GP or enrol their children into school.

Providers Serco and Mears said some houses they took over from providers under the new setup were below standard, upping the maintenance requirement and leading to delays moving people in.

A dedicated helpline set up as part of the overhaul also "failed in its early months" the NAO said, and has "not yet delivered consistently acceptable performance".

Contractor Migrant Help expected to receive 21,400 calls per month, but in reality it faced twice that number, meaning only a fifth of helpline calls were answered. 

And although waiting times had improved after the charity recruited more staff, other services were still falling short.

Between September and March 2020, 2,800 asylum seekers did not receive an induction briefing within a day of moving into initial accommodation, the NAO said — while Migrant Help also took on average three to four times longer than expected to complete application forms for failed asylum seekers facing destitution.

'SUPPORTED BETTER'

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee, said the Home Office had learnt lessons from previous contract failures, but "could have done more".

"If bidders had been given the right data, costs would probably be lower and vulnerable people might have been supported better," she added.

"The decision to change where asylum seekers should be hosted just before the new contracts started means some are already out of date. Too often, the taxpayer loses out when contracts are renegotiated.”

The NAO is calling on the Home Office to "collaborate with providers to address early performance issues and to meet its future aims for the service".

They say it should work with Migrant Help to improve the dedicated helpline and check whether asylum seekers who have been in short-term housing for a protracted period are being offered longer-term accommodation at the same rate as recent arrivals.

NAO head Gareth Davies said: "The Home Office has replaced the previous COMPASS asylum seeker accommodation and support contracts to improve services at a higher but realistic cost. 

“However, performance standards were missed in initial months, which left some asylum seekers facing difficulties accessing suitable housing and specialist support and advice."

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a long and proud record of providing protection to those who need it. The health and wellbeing of those seeking protection has and always will be the priority, and we will continue to provide support to those that need it.

“The NAO is clear in this report that the Home Office is paying a realistic price for service provider contracts and has learnt the lessons from previous arrangements. The Home Office continues to work closely with service providers to ensure our asylum system is providing the necessary support to those who genuinely need it.”

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