Home Office contractor admits putting vulnerable asylum seekers at risk – then backtracks hours later

Chief operating officer of Mears says company didn’t carry out vulnerability assessments before moving trafficking victims and pregnant women into hotel accommodation – then claims it did

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 26 June 2020 11:46 BST

A company contracted by the Home Office to manage asylum housing has admitted it failed to carry out assessments before placing trafficking victims, pregnant women and children in accommodation that put them at risk – then backtracked on the statement hours later.

Mears, a private firm which was awarded the £1bn government contract in 2019, transferred hundreds of asylum seekers in Glasgow from the houses they had been living in to hotels in the city where social distancing was said to be impossible at the end of March in response to the lockdown.

During a media briefing organised by Mears on Thursday, its chief operating officer John Taylor said a “blanket decision” was made in late March to move people into hotels, and that no assessments were carried out of individual needs before people were transferred – which charities said was likely to constitute a “serious breach” of the company’s contract.

Mr Taylor said that once asylum seekers had been moved into hotels it became “obvious” that this setting “wasn’t appropriate” for some people, including pregnant women, people who had suffered trafficking and family groups, and that action was then taken to identify these groups and “safely” move them back out of the hotels and into smaller properties.

A spokesperson for Mears later told The Independent Mr Taylor was wrong to state that assessments were not carried out prior to moving asylum seekers into hotels.

The company confirmed that while the families were moved within 72 hours of being in the hotel accommodation, it took four weeks to transfer all of the pregnant women from the hotels to Mears accommodation.

Mr Taylor said during the press briefing: “We needed to make a decision, so we made the decision, rightly or wrongly, to move everyone from the initial accommodation apartments into hotels, and that was a blanket decision, because we felt that we could assess and support people better in that setting.

“Once in the hotels, it became obvious that there was vulnerabilities and that the hotel setting isn’t appropriate for some people, and there were pregnant women, some people who had suffered trafficking and there were family groups.

“We were then able to work through individual needs and we moved people into more appropriate accommodation as quickly as we could from there.

“In hindsight, would we have had time to do that assessment as lockdown came in? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s certainly one of the learnings and one of the issues we’ve taken on board, and hopefully we’ll never have to repeat it again.”

An updated statement provided to The Independent from Mr Taylor several hours later stated: “Our staff had discussions with everyone affected prior to moves and as a result a number of people were identified as needing Mears accommodation rather than hotel accommodation.

“There were a small number of cases of pregnant service users, and families initially moved to hotels who following further health and welfare discussions were moved on quickly to alternative accommodation.”

Responding to the comments made by Mr Taylor during the briefing, Graham O’Neill, policy manager at the Scottish Refugee Council, said it was “unacceptable” and potentially unlawful if people had been moved into hotels without a formal assessment of their individual needs and vulnerabilities.

“It is almost certainly is a serious breach of the asylum accommodation contract that these assessments were not conducted,” he said.

“The human consequence was pregnant women, children, trafficking survivors and people with mental health problems being moved and at short notice and with stress, from their own secure housing to a hotel room alone.”

He added: “Vulnerability assessments, especially during a public health crisis, cannot be skipped. In fact they are even more critical as the Public Health England evidence is clear that people from a Bame background in situation of severe poverty and deprivation particularly are at disproportionate risk of the worst consequences of Covid, including death.”

During the briefing, Mears also refuted concerns raised by a number of charities about the quality of food provided to asylum seekers in the hotels, claiming photographs of mouldy bread and fruit circulated by the campaign group No Evictions were not of meals provided by Mears.

As part of the move into hotels, asylum seekers had their weekly financial support withdrawn, on the grounds they would be provided with three meals a day, basic toiletries and a laundry service.

In response to allegations of poor quality food, Mr Taylor said: “The food we serve is monitored by the NHS staff on site. They often eat these meals. Across the six hotels, food is balanced, it follows nutrition guidelines. It’s very difficult to meet everyone’s needs. We have changed menus when we’ve had feedback."

Mr Taylor also revealed that new asylum seekers coming into the system were likely to be housed in hotels initially due to the "massive pressure" on the supply of property in Glasgow.

“It would be wrong of me to say there is a supply of property that can house everybody,” he said.

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“We want to get everyone in hotels out as soon as possible. New people coming into the system will probably go into the hotel until we can then source a new property to move them out, but hopefully they won’t be in the hotel for very long.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As these remarks demonstrate, the safety and health of people in asylum accommodation is of the utmost importance and, even during the pandemic, asylum accommodation adapted plans to meet public health guidelines.

"Using hotels and serviced apartments as asylum accommodation temporarily is contingency option and our accommodation providers are securing longer-term accommodation in Glasgow to meet specific needs.”

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