Today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that despite asylum accommodation and support contracts being replaced with less disruption than last time, it is not clear whether the new, more costly contracts will be value for money, with some providers initially failing to meet Home Office standards. This has left some supported asylum seekers1 facing waits for longer-term accommodation and specialist advice.
The Home Office designed the 2019-2029 asylum seeker accommodation and support contracts to improve services for asylum seekers and their families while their cases are processed. These replaced the previous COMPASS contracts for asylum seeker support with seven similar regional contracts for accommodation and transport, and a new national helpline and support service, AIRE.2
Between July and October 2019, the number of asylum seekers in initial (short-term) accommodation increased by 96% from 1,678 to 3,289. Most people were moved from this initial, short-term, accommodation into longer-term housing within a few weeks, although some have stayed much longer. Between September 2019 and February 2020, the average time spent in initial accommodation was 26 days, in line with Home Office expectations.3 However, 981 people who had arrived by the end of December 2019 stayed in initial accommodation for at least 86 days, during which time they were not able to register with a GP practice or enrol their children into school.
Although accommodation providers are now broadly meeting performance standards set by the Department, providers new to their regions struggled in the early months of their contracts. Both Serco and Mears told the NAO that some houses they took over from outgoing providers were below the standards required by the new contract. This increased the maintenance work needed and made it harder to move people into longer-term housing on time.
The AIRE service failed its users in its early months and despite some improvements, the service has not yet delivered consistently acceptable performance. The contractor, Migrant Help, expected to receive 21,400 calls per month to the AIRE helpline, but received more than twice this number. As a result, only a fifth of helpline calls were answered. Although call waiting times have improved since Migrant Help recruited more staff, other AIRE services have not met standards set by the Home Office. Between September and March 2020, 2,800 asylum seekers did not receive an induction briefing within one day of moving into initial accommodation. Migrant Help also took on average three to four times longer than expected to complete application forms for failed asylum seekers who were facing destitution.4
Following a request by local authorities, the Home Office agreed that by 2029 the regional distribution of supported asylum seekers would be in line with the UK regional population. This would require the Home Office to more than double the number of accommodated asylum seekers in the south of England. The Department has not calculated what this might cost, but given higher accommodation costs in the south, the NAO estimates that it could be an extra £80 million. This is in addition to price increases that the Department may have to negotiate with providers if the number of accommodated asylum seekers increases beyond limits in the contracts.
It is too early to determine whether the £4 billion asylum seeker accommodation and support services will achieve value for money. However, the NAO recommends that the Home Office should collaborate with providers to address early performance issues and to meet its future aims for the service. The Department needs to work with Migrant Help to improve the performance of the AIRE helpline and secure better outcomes in other areas, such as inductions for new arrivals. In addition, the Home Office should review whether asylum seekers who have been in initial accommodation for some time are being offered longer-term accommodation at the same rate as recent arrivals.