Glasgow City Council’s internal auditor is to investigate emails suggesting managers knew that Serco planned to change the locks of asylum seekers’ homes, alongside claims that the company aimed to mislead the council.
In July 2018 the multinational company, 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.
But documents released under freedom of information law to Scottish Labour – and reported by The Ferret – revealed 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.
Glasgow Green councillors have now referred the issue to the council’s audit office, who will look into the content of the emails and give its verdict.
The party is insisting full transparency is needed to ensure future decisions are made in the best interests of vulnerable asylum seekers facing eviction.
However at a full council meeting yesterday SNP leader, Susan Aitken, emphatically restated her position that the council had been “blindsided”. She claimed the emails were part of Serco’s attempt “to recover their corporate reputation by means of misleading use of language, conflation of separate operational areas and outright misinformation”.
Aiken said she was “deeply concerned” about the decision to “cast aspersions” on staff and councillor Jennifer Layden, whom Serco claimed in emails had met with Serco and “understood the need for Serco to explore lock changes”. The councillor was not copied in on an email and on discovering the claim, wrote to deny it.
The council leader insisted there were “no questions in her mind, nor should there be in the mind of any councillors, about the integrity of councillor Layden or any Glasgow City Council officers.”
The emails started on 9 April 2018, 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 (HSCP).
It alluded to a meeting held on 29 March and said: “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 continued: “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.
On 14 June one of the two Glasgow managers copied into the emails, replied acknowledging Serco’s “contractual obligation to the Home Office” to move people on their “termination date”.
He made no explicit mention of lock changes, mentioned in an email received by Serco the previous week, but wrote: “I think you would need to look at what targets would be over the coming months for reducing the number of over-stayers, say on a weekly basis”.
He said that the way forward is to show “a pathway” for vulnerable people, but added: “We also do not want a situation where every case is being referred”.
"Ideally I want to begin rolling out lock change notices at the onset of July." Email from Serco employee to Glasgow City Council managers
On 19 June the Serco manager wrote again to Glasgow managers stating: “Ideally I want to begin rolling out lock change notices at the onset of July”.
This did not happen but on 17 July the two managers were sent a copy of a “move on” document, which included the lock change policy.
Two days later, while council was in recess, the Serco manager wrote to inform the two managers, and in a separate email councillor Layden, that lock change notices were “likely” to start being issued in the week starting 30 July.
Layden insisted she did not get the email because she was on holiday.
Eight days later emails were sent to voluntary organisations to inform them of the move on policy, which included lock changes. The council claimed it was “blindsided” by plans, and after protests the evictions were suspended.
Glasgow Green councillor Kim Long said: “Senior council officials have assured me that meetings with Serco were about how to support asylum seekers, not about lock changes, but the emails have explicit mention of lock changes months before Serco’s announcement.
“If Serco has been misrepresenting what happened, there needs to be accountability – how could they still be suitable bidders for the renewed asylum housing contract? And how has the council been content to still be around the table with Serco in meetings since then?
“We must have transparency – those of us who are working to support asylum seekers in the context of the Home Office’s brutal policies need to be able to work together, and requires trust. It’s frustrating that the administration doesn’t seem to be taking seriously the need for councillors to know what is being done in our name.”
Long added: “We have explicitly asked that findings be made public – community groups need to know what happened, and we’re not going to let this be swept under the carpet.”
Susan Aitken said: “Since the political and public backlash which followed the announcement that Serco planned to evict 330 asylum seekers this summer, Serco has attempted on several occasions to recover their corporate reputation by means of misleading use of language, conflation of separate operational areas and outright misinformation, particularly in respect of councillor Layden.
“I am not sure what the council can do about it, other than to restate again and again, that the meeting did not take place in the terms characterised by Serco.
“We have said the council officers were aware in very general terms that Serco was considering lock changes and that this was not escalated to senior social work management.
“However, the intention to change the locks of up to 330 people was absolutely not discussed until the point Serco made this public in July, an action which – in councillor Layden’s wholly appropriate description – ‘blindsided’ her, the council and HSCP officers.
“It is concerning that the excuses of the company which is mishandling the asylum contract are being swallowed hook, line and sinker by people who should know better.”
Serco declined to comment directly on Aiken’s claims but stood by its previous statement. “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,” said a company spokesman.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
Glasgow North East Labour MP, Paul Sweeney, said: “It remains clear that there is more to this story than meets the eye. I asked councillor Aitken to provide the minutes of the disputed meeting between Serco and councillor Layden so we can establish the facts of the matter – she has still not done so. Why not?
“Without seeing those minutes and given that the information about that meeting only emerged in an email released through a freedom of information request, there is no more reason to doubt Serco’s version of events than there is to blindly accept councillor Aitken’s interpretation.”