A row has broken out between the private company responsible for housing asylum seekers in Glasgow and refugee charities and campaigners, over the accuracy of information Mears Group has provided to politicians regarding its treatment of vulnerable people since the coronavirus crisis started.
Mears Group has moved around 400 asylum seekers into Glasgow hotels since the pandemic began, claiming it was necessary because of problems securing lets during the lockdown.
The firm has been heavily criticised for its decision, which campaigners say has put the physical and mental health of asylum seekers at risk. However, Mears insists it has kept people safe from Covid-19, claiming the “unprecedented arrangements” it has made during the pandemic are “proving effective”.
Now the company, which is contracted by the Home Office to provide accommodation for asylum seekers in Glasgow, has written to MPs to refute concerns, and accuse refugee activists of spreading “false and misleading information”.
Mears wrote to politicians last week to invite them to a briefing on 26 June 2020. In its email the company also disputed claims by refugee activists who have complained about range of issues from vulnerable people being moved from flats to hotels without notice to poor quality food.
Critics of Mears have responded to its email by accusing the firm of providing politicians with “misleading” information.
In recent weeks organisations supporting asylum seekers have expressed concerns for the wellbeing of people moved from flats into hotels in Glasgow. They included pregnant women, according to two Ferret sources, and children according to one. Mears claims it did not move service users “with documented health conditions linked to COVID-19 vulnerability, pregnant service users, or children to hotel accommodation”.
Refugee activists argue that lives may be at risk due to the difficulties people face trying to social distance in hotels. Asylum seekers have told The Ferret they are fearful they may pick up the virus from door handles and elevator buttons. Mears point out there have been no cases of Covid-19 in any of the hotels it is using.
People’s asylum support of £35 per week has stopped and instead they are provided with three meals per day in communal dining rooms, where it is claimed social distancing is difficult.
Concerns have also been raised over people’s mental health. In May there were calls for an inquiry, as reported by The Ferret, after a man was found dead in a guest house that Mears moved asylum seekers into. Adnan Elbi was found in his room at McLay’s Guest House on Tuesday 5 May.
In a letter to MPs last week Mears said that Covid 19 has had “significant implications” for its work in Scotland, where its Home Office contract is to deliver Asylum Accommodation and Support (AASC). The company also made various claims that critics have now been bitterly disputed.
It is quite clear that what Mears are claiming and briefing ministers is not the reality on the ground. Chris Stephens MP
Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West, was a recipient of Mears’ letter. He told The Ferret he was concerned about the “discrepancies” between claims and information provided by the company.
He added: “It is quite clear that what Mears are claiming and briefing ministers is not the reality on the ground. Various media outlets, the various support charities for asylum seekers, nor constituents cannot all be wrong.
“I have no concerns about the credibility of any of the charities or campaigns raising concerns here, or had any suspicion about inaccuracies.”
Stephens has now written to Chris Philp MP, Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, to seek clarity in response to his concerns over hotel accommodation.
Stephens said it was “imperative for ministers to answer clear questions”. He added: “There are now too many discrepancies between Mears and Ministers claims, and what MPs are being briefed.
Charities and campaigners refuting the claims made by Mears in the letter included Asylum Seeker Housing Project (ASH).
Mears wrote to assure politicians that its service users “were given notice and helped to move using transport with appropriate social distancing arrangements”.
But a spokesperson for ASH said: “Many service users have told us that they received no notice at all from Mears about being moved to a hotel. All have consistently said that the first time they became aware that they were to be moved was when 2-3 Mears staff came to their flats; told them they were moving and advised that they had half an hour to pack up.”
ASH added: “When service users asked why, they were told by Mears that it was an order from the Home Office.”
Mears also refuted concerns about food raised by the ASH as well as the campaigning organisation the No Evictions Network. It claimed the pictures of poor quality food circulated by the campaign group were not of meals provided by Mears.
In a statement the No Evictions Network said: “We’re shocked that No Evictions have been accused of circulating fake pictures of mouldy food in the hotels.
“These images and videos have all come from people inside the hotels who are part of the campaign and we think it’s appalling that Mears have chosen to simply dismiss them in such a high handed dismissive fashion.”
No Evictions also commented on Mears’ claim that it is “working closely with health services to provide medical assistance/advice and guidance to any service user who asks for help, this is done through direct referrals to the health team.”
The group alleged that Mears has “failed to provide adequate access to medical services to those suffering from acute physical health crises”. It cited an incident on 13th June 2020 when an asylum seeker suspected he had a broken foot.
No Evictions said: “He was seen by two members of Mears staff the following day. A member of the No Evictions Network, who was providing support, witnessed them downplaying his injuries. As a result, the No Evictions Network were forced to pay for his taxi to the hospital.”
In a separate incident on Friday 12th June, according to No Evictions, an asylum seeker reported providing assistance to a 67-year-old man with chest pain and breathing difficulties.
“Despite the seriousness of the situation, Mears informed him that he would be able to see a nurse on the following Monday, and by the Tuesday afternoon, had still failed to arrange this,” No Evictions claimed. Mears said it didn’t recognise the claims.
Hotels are not homes
Graham O’Neill, of the Scottish Refugee Council, claimed the row underlined the need for Mears and the Home Office to move asylum seekers in hotels back into residential accommodation as soon as possible. He said Mears wrongly told a Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this month that it had told the refugee charity it was moving asylum seekers to hotels.
He added: “We do not think hotels should be used for the accommodation of people seeking refugee protection. Hotels are not homes. We accept that hotels may be necessary for a very short period in a public health emergency so people are not left on the streets. However, the longer people are stuck in hotels the worse it gets.
“To add insult, the Home Office cut off all financial support when people were moved within hours to these hotels, and even worse that this is still the case today.
“We have placed on public record many times our serious concerns on how people ended up in these hotels including in Home Affairs Select Committee. We had to correct Mears’ evidence that implied we were informed of the hotel moves – which absolutely we were not.
What must happen now is the Home Office and Mears move all those in hotels into safe residential accommodation, urgently, so people can have privacy and choice back in their lives again.”
In response, Mears said it was “disappointed” that No Evictions Network “continues to spread false and misleading information” about asylum accommodation and support, particularly in relation to its use of hotels during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Asylum seekers in hotels are provided with three meals a day,” a spokesman added. ” This is good quality nutritional food that meets NHS Eatwell standards, and our recent survey showed our service users generally consider the food to be good.
“We have had feedback asking for some changes to the menus and we have accommodated this. The pictures shared by No Evictions Network claiming to show mouldy food were clearly of food in packaging from an external source, not food provided by Mears.”
They added: “We do not recognise the claims being made about the quality of health and welfare support at hotels. Mears has housing managers and residential welfare managers based at each of the hotels on a daily basis to help service users with any issues or concerns. Any issues are logged and addressed where possible.
“In relation to Covid-19 we are making daily contact with service users and having a weekly meaningful conversation with every service user to check on their well-being and to confirm they have no symptoms of Covid-19. Mears are working closely with health services to provide medical assistance/advice and guidance to any service user who asks for help, this is done through direct referrals to the health team.”
We have asked No Evictions Network to engage constructively with us but it is quite clear they have no intention of conducting themselves in a responsible way. Mears spokesperson
Last week The Ferret reported that loyalists in George Square, Glasgow, opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement, abused and intimidated a protest held in support of asylum seekers.
The End Hotel Detention Now rally, was held in solidarity with asylum seekers who were refusing food in McLay’s Guest House. Mears stated in its letter that asylum seekers were not being detained and were free to come and go as they pleased.
The Mears spokesperson added: “We have asked No Evictions Network to engage constructively with us but it is quite clear they have no intention of conducting themselves in a responsible way. Their latest attacks about ‘detention’ completely misrepresent the service that is being provided. Mears works closely with the Scottish Refugee Council and a range of NGOs supporting and advocating for Asylum Seekers in Glasgow.”
Responding to ASH’s points, Mears said: “Regards testimony given to ASH about notice, most service users had around 48 hours notice, appropriate transport was arranged and social distancing arrangements were in place for the moves.”
The spokesperson said that “short notice” was caused by “pressure on our staff capacity” and the need for “moves to take place before the full ‘lockdown’ period started”. Mears also encouraged ASH to “dissociate” from “false claims by the No Evictions Network” that service users were forcibly moved. “Our staff would not use force in any circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
The company said that food served in the hotels meets NHS Eatwell standards and AASC contract standards. “Eatwell standards deliver a healthy, balanced diet, with food from each food group and emphasis on 5 a day. Mears reviews and changes the menus weekly to ensure variety, all food is halal and is prepared by qualified chefs,” Mears added.
The spokesperson also said Mears “fully agrees” that hotels are not suitable as long term accommodation, adding it was planning to move asylum seekers from hotels “as soon as health guidance allows, and accommodation is available.”
“We are actively developing the plans to move people and we will consult with all stakeholders and NGOs,” Mears added.
It was reported this month that asylum seekers had refused food at one of the hotels in protest.