The Government’s climbdown yesterday on removing safeguards against slum housing for people seeking asylum is a significant victory for those seeking refugee protection and their right to adequate housing.
More fundamentally, it says that this country does not stand for inferior rights for specific groups of people, in this case people seeking asylum.
The win represents a vital opportunity to create a housing system founded on equal basic rights for all and an end to the dehumanisation of people seeking asylum for cheap political point-scoring and profiteering by private contractors.
The Government’s now discarded policy had originally intended to allow private housing contractors to bypass housing law and accommodate people seeking asylum in properties that had not been properly checked. These regulations – sneaked through by ministers via secondary legislation last summer – would have meant that accommodation providers like Serco, Mears Group and Clearsprings Ready Homes would not have to apply for Houses in Multiple Occupancy (HMO) licences for properties newly acquired for people seeking asylum.
Worse still, it would have opened the market of asylum accommodation provision to even worse actors, like the criminal landlords we have seen flock to sectors in which licencing exemptions have been tried in the past.
The move would have meant the Government’s private contractors – which make millions of pounds in profit from the taxpayer – wouldn’t have to pay fees to local authorities for HMO licences that ensure they meet minimum safety standards, which can cost more than £1,000, nor pay to have properties repaired. It would also have allowed them to ignore the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act.
According to the Government, in its original ‘explanatory memorandum’ on the new regulations last year, the call to water-down these regulations had come from the private contractors themselves. This is a clear example of the rot within the system. Contractors are not being held accountable for the terrible current conditions in asylum accommodation, the idea for even less accountability should have been unthinkable.
This victory for equal basic rights was a result of a legal challenge led by Duncan Lewis Solicitors, alongside charities, and the work of activists and members of the public saying they would not stand for it. At the heart of this victory is the personal testimony of people seeking asylum about their accommodation and essential Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to piece together the impact on Local Authorities of poor-quality asylum accommodation.
FOIs to Councils across the UK identified that, under the current regulations, Local Authority environmental health departments have been kept very busy by reports of poor-quality asylum accommodation in their areas, with calls or inspections made almost 1,500 times since January 2018 due to complaints about conditions.
Reasons for the complaints or visits ranged from rat and mouse infestations to disrepair, collapsed ceilings, mould and damp, health and safety issues, rubbish build up, unsafe food and raw sewage flowing into kitchens.
This is what we hear on a daily basis through the stories told to our expert Asylum Services support team, who work with thousands of people each year in the asylum system.
The phone-camera pictures of filth and the bigger picture of profit-making can be seen with the HMO regulations in place. Imagine the alternative without those regulations: a wild west of deregulation, inhumane living conditions and free-flowing taxpayer funds into the pockets of an even wider and less accountable set of profiteers.
These Government attempts to further segregate and degrade the rights of people seeking asylum are happening at a time when many rights have already been stripped away.
Imagine living your daily life in the conditions described above, then further consider those living in monuments to performative cruelty like the Bibby Stockholm barge and the former military barracks at Napier. At the root of this are deeply racist hierarchies that define the housing policies of this government.
With this win, the public pushback against the Government’s housing policies is now well underway. Councils and charities are calling for a not-for-profit asylum accommodation model – like the one we argue for in our Most Wanted campaign – with standards for asylum housing brought into line with the rest of the population and adjusted for specific needs.
We need this to happen within a much wider context of addressing the long-overdue need for a significant increase in social housing for all.