Senior managers at Glasgow City Council knew for months about controversial plans to evict hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees from their homes, calling into question claims by councillors the council had been “blindsided”.
In July this year, private firm Serco put forward proposals to change the locks on homes of up to 300 asylum seekers and refugees that it no longer had a duty to house under a multi-million pound contract with the Home Office.
At the time, council leaders said that Serco’s proposal constituted an “impending humanitarian crisis” and wrote to the Home Office calling for it to be halted.
Then in November the council’s SNP leader, Susan Aitken, told the Home Affairs committee at Westminster that the council went “tonto” at the Home Office over the evictions.
But documents released under freedom of information law and obtained by The Ferret reveal that Serco discussed its plans to carry out lock changes with senior managers at Glasgow City Council as far back as April – more than three months before the proposed roll-out.
The documents, requested by Scottish Labour, show that Serco emailed two council managers more than a week before the roll-out with a final version of a ‘move on protocol’, which included plans to issue lock change notices with seven days warning. This email was sent eight days before the council claimed it had been “blindsided”.
Glasgow City Council denies councillors had any knowledge of plans. It claims it worked with Serco on how to support asylum seekers no longer entitled to Home Office accommodation, but not on lock changes. It said managers did not escalate knowledge of the contractor’s proposed eviction tactics.
Serco also emailed councillor Jennifer Layden, convenor of the equality and human rights committee. She told The Ferret that she was on holiday at the time and did not receive the notification. The council said Serco would have received an out-of-office response.
Internal council emails detail Serco’s correspondence with experienced managers at Glasgow City Council over several months.
The emails start on 9 April, with one sent from Serco’s customer relations director to two managers – one working for Glasgow council, the other for the council’s Health and Social Care Partnership.
It alludes to a meeting held on 29 March and says: “I know we are all due to meet again on 23 April, however, ideally I would like Serco to take some proactive steps in piloting lock change notices in advance of that.”
The email continues: “I am keen to avoid members being blindsided on this in the spirit of partnership working”. In response a meeting was set up with Layden and scheduled for the end of June.
Subsequent emails from Serco continue to raise the issue of lock changes, under which refused asylum seekers would receive seven days notice of eviction. Under the plans they risked being locked out without belongings, with refused asylum seekers being left homeless and destitute unless they could prove additional “vulnerability” such as having a serious health condition.
In an email to the council on 5 June, Serco wrote: “Ideally I would want members aware we would be progressing with local change notices ahead of us carrying this out”.
An email from a Glasgow council manager on 14 June said: “I think you go forward with what we discussed at our last meeting. You have a contractual obligation to the Home Office to move people on from their Home Office accommodation on their termination date (to free up accommodation for others).
“Unfortunately for people with a decision (i.e on their application for asylum being refused) that will mean they are facing homelessness and destitution and they will probably have NRPF [No Recourse to Public Funds]. At the end of the day that I do not think is an issue for Serco. If people in general have an issue with that they will need to direct it to the right people (immigration minister).”
The meeting with Jen Laydon went well earlier this week, and politically she understands the need for Serco to explore lock changes for negative cases – she has agreed in assist in managing some of the political messaging on that if required. Serco email to Glasgow City Council
On 29 June, Serco wrote to the council with an update. The email said: “The meeting with Jen Laydon went well earlier this week, and politically she understands the need for Serco to explore lock changes for negative cases – she has agreed in assist in managing some of the political messaging on that if required.”
However, councillor Layden strongly refutes what Serco claimed in this email. Politicians have claimed this also raises serious questions about whether the Home Office contractor was lying to council officials.
On 19 July – while councillors were on recess – Serco sent another email to the council and Layden, as a follow-up to a meeting held in June. It said that “lock change issuing will begin to be introduced,” adding “it is likely we will begin this piece of work w.c. 30th July”.
Official notice that lock changes would begin on the 30 July was received by charities and GCC on the morning of 27 July.
Hours later Layden gave a media interview in which she claimed to have been “completely blindsided” by the plans.
She also co-signed a letter, along with other Glasgow’s MPs, which was sent to Home Secretary Sajid Javid, expressing “deep concern” about lock changes causing “an impending political crisis”.
On 31 July, council leader Aitken followed up with a letter to Javid requesting he instruct an “immediate pause on Serco’s programme of lock changes”. She also announced a task force would be set up to help those affected by proposed evictions.
Council leader Aitken is now facing questions over why she did not have oversight of discussions between her senior staff and Serco.
The managers negotiating with Serco remain key players in Glasgow City Council’s task force.
Paul Sweeney, Labour MP for Glasgow North East, pointed out that hundreds of his constituents would have been affected by the plans. “Now there is documentary evidence that verifies what was being done, and it’s appalling,” he said.
“It’s very clear that this was a decision that should have been immediately understood and gripped – both at political and civil servant level in Glasgow City Council.
“Is it incompetence or cynicism? It’s bewildering either way that they would not be aware of the impact of this. Being off on holiday doesn’t cut it I’m afraid when my constituents lives are at stake.”
He claimed that among his constituents affected was one man who attempted suicide following fears he would be evicted and sent back. He was a victim of torture whose claim for asylum had been refused.
Numerous terrified families contacted him, he added, afraid they would end up on the streets.
“I think it demonstrates that it’s time for a rethink of leadership,” he claimed. “We need transparency about who knew and when. This is another example of how trust in our elected representatives has been seriously undermined.”
Sweeney added: “It has got to underline some serious issues with local government. It’s been so stripped of resources, that it’s not really fit for purpose.
“You’ve got to ask what is going on. This seems like another example of unelected bureaucrats doing deals with corporate companies that leach money out of the public pocket, while councillors do not have the time to give this proper oversight or interrogation.”
A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: “The information was not escalated. Politicians were unaware of the lock changes. That is why they ‘went tonto’ and reacted urgently to stop Serco going ahead with their planned lock changes as soon as they found out.
“It is simply untrue to suggest that Glasgow City Council officers or members were working with Serco and the Home Office to implement lock changes. We were working with the Home Office on how social work, within the constraints of the law, would be able to support vulnerable asylum seekers who have had a negative decision.
“Serco emailed Cllr Layden on July 19th to inform her of their planned lock changes. This was when the council was in recess and she was on holiday. Her automatic out-of-office email response was on and Serco received a reply telling them she was unavailable.
“Serco did not copy Cllr Layden into the email in which they allege she ‘understood the need for lock changes in negative cases and agreed to manage some of the political messaging around that’. This is something she strongly refutes and when she became aware of Serco’s claims – she wrote to them to point that out in the strongest terms stating ‘I am not, and don’t believe I indicated, that I am supportive of a protocol for lock changing being implemented’.”
It is simply untrue to suggest that Glasgow City Council officers or members were working with Serco and the Home Office to implement lock changes. Glasgow City Council spokesman
A Serco spokesman said: “It is completely untrue to say, as some have claimed, that this issue has come as a surprise, or that there has been a lack of engagement. Charities, officials, MPs and councillors who interest themselves in these matters, knew that there was a growing problem with over-stayers, and that we were going to have to act.
“We have engaged with all the major stakeholders regularly on this issue, with numerous minuted meetings and email exchanges. Shortly before the storm of recent publicity we agreed with Glasgow City Council a formal “move on” protocol which sets out the procedure to be followed for lock changes.”
Patrick Harvie MSP, Glasgow’s Green MSP, said: “It was outrageous that Serco ever thought it was okay to make hundreds of asylum seekers homeless and destitute – but it’s doubly-shocking that council officials were aware of the plans but apparently did nothing to stop this brutal action. Officials must have known the impact on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. The council must urgently explain why Serco’s vicious plans were not flagged up earlier.
“There remains a serious concern about Serco’s claim that Cllr Layden “agreed to manage some of the political messaging” over the mass eviction plan. If Cllr Layden’s denial is accurate, then this is an outright lie by the Home Office’s contractor, giving yet more evidence that they are unfit for the serious responsibility of caring for refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow. The truth must be found about this matter if Serco expect to have any credibility at all.
“It’s also vital that the council commit to ensuring no return to lock changes, regardless of the outcome of legal challenges, and to work with everyone involved in supporting asylum seekers so there’s a united front against the UK Government’s hostile environment regime. The administration must act quickly to rebuild the trust that has been shaken by this issue. That means having full transparency, which Greens will continue to push for.”
Communities secretary Aileen Campbell said on behalf of the Scottish Government: “I have made clear to the immigration minister that it is not acceptable for people to be made destitute and homeless in a country where they have sought refuge.
“We need a long term sustainable solution to dealing with people at the end of the asylum process in a way that respects their dignity and rights. The Home Office must also properly fund Glasgow City Council for the crucial role it plays in supporting people seeking asylum.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Office takes the well-being of asylum seekers and the local communities in which they live extremely seriously. We will continue to work closely with local authorities across the United Kingdom, including Glasgow City Council, to house destitute asylum seekers while their asylum claims are determined.”
Cosla declined to comment.
This story was published in tandem with The Times.