Serco, a multi-national which provides housing for asylum seekers, has announced that it will restart evictions for those who have been refused by changing their locks in coming weeks – a move that will make hundreds of people homeless.
The decision, which could see about 300 people made homeless across Glasgow within months, was met with shock by charities providing emergency help, who said the company had given them no advance warning of the announcement.
The first 30 lock change notices, which give 21 days notice, will be issued next week.
Councillors held an emergency meeting following the announcement. Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council has now written to Immigration Minister Caroline Noakes, urging the Home Office to intervene to stop hundreds being left destitute.
In the letter she claims that if no resolution can be found, and lock changes are an ongoing policy, “Glasgow will have no alternative but to consider what, if any, future it can have in an asylum dispersal programme.”
However, speaking to The Ferret, Julia Rogers, Serco‘s managing director of immigration, defended the decision and said the company needed to hand back empty properties to landlords in September, when the housing contract will be passed to Mears Group. She claimed the issue was a longstanding one and refuted the idea that they should have provided more warning to charities.
A legal challenge brought to the Court of Session by Govan Law Centre on behalf of two asylum seekers facing eviction went in Serco’s favour in April, with Lord Tyre finding its plans for eviction were not unlawful. Govan Law Centre is appealing the judgement.
Ongoing legal challenges
Following the decision, Serco claimed it was considering its options before taking any further steps and the firm was in discussions with the Home Office and Glasgow City Council.
It was anticipated by charities that ongoing legal challenges – which include a case being brought by legal firm Latta Law on human rights grounds – would mean evictions remained suspended.
But Serco – which claims it is providing £1m worth of free housing to several hundred former asylum seekers who have had their asylum claims refused at its own expense – says inaction is unsustainable because they no longer receive government funding towards their housing.
The “phased” lock-change programme will be rolled out over four months, with about 30 people being issued with lock-change notices in any one week. People will be given 21 days notice, which Serco says will allow them to “make alternative arrangements”. Charities claim they will have nowhere to go.
Acknowledging the “increased burden on voluntary organisations”, Serco will be making up to £150,000 available to charities supporting homeless people in the Glasgow area.
About 300 people will be affected, with Serco insisting that no children will be left without housing. In a statement, the firm said it was “not a step we have taken lightly”.
Julia Rogers, Serco’s managing director of immigration, said: “We very much regret the distress this will cause, but hope that it will be understood that we cannot be expected to provide free housing indefinitely to hundreds of people who have been unsuccessful in their asylum claims and most of whom have no legal right to remain in the UK.
We cannot be expected to provide free housing indefinitely to hundreds of people who have been unsuccessful in their asylum claims and most of whom have no legal right to remain in the UK. Julia Rodgers, Serco
“We call on all parties to work with us constructively to help people navigate their way through to a new future beyond the asylum system, and we will be making funds available to charities to support this work.”
She claimed that those who had been refused refugee status should take-up the offer of voluntary return with the Home Office and go back to their countries of origin, and expressed frustration at the idea that is was “not compassionate”.
“Our licence to operate in Glasgow come to an end in September and we need to put our plans in place,” she said. “This isn’t a surprise, or it shouldn’t be. We have tried to do the compassionate thing but it feels as if we are being pilloried for paying for accommodation until now. What do people expect us to do?”
However, charities said the planned lock changes – done without consultation – were “inhumane” and claimed that those staying without leave to remain were only doing so because it was not safe for them to return home.
Annika Joy, chair of the Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers’ board, said the emergency shelter, which provides basic accommodation with bunk beds for 22 destitute men, had only two spaces currently available. She had not been made aware of today’s announcement in advance.
Though the charity is working with Glasgow City Council to identify new premises with more space, including for women, she said any move was still “months away”.
“I’m shocked that there wasn’t a conversation with the people who are providing emergency accommodation in the city,” she said. “If this is a business decision – made despite ongoing legal challenges – it should have been done with humanity and dignity. This is not humane.”
Sheila Arthur, director of Asylum Seeker Housing project – which has been supporting over 80 people facing eviction – confirmed she had no prior sight of the announcement.
“We are very disappointed that Serco has reneged on their previous public undertaking to not change locks as a means of evicting asylum seekers from their properties,” she added.
“We hope some provision has been made for them that we have not heard about. Being evicted using a method which avoids giving them any Scottish legal rights, an issue which we understand is currently being appealed in the Scottish Court of Sessions and through Judicial Review.”
She described the money being offered to charities as “a drop in the ocean” compared with the millions received by Serco by the UK Government, and said the charity would not be accepting donations from Serco “on ethical grounds”.
Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action on Housing, expressed shock and said a meeting would be held on 13 June to discuss the evictions.
She added: “We are also extremely concerned, in the absence of a structured eviction process with a sheriff officer attending, what these lock change evictions look like. Are people going to be dragged out with their belongings dumped in the street? There is no procedure.
We are also extremely concerned. Are people going to be dragged out with their belongings dumped in the street? Robina Qureshi, Positive Action in Housing
“Anecdotal evidence tells us that vulnerable, frightened people, both men and women, will be man handled onto the street. Our advice is to refuse to leave so that they can appeal to the first tier tribunal as per the court of Session’s advice.”
Lawyers maintained that arguments on the legality of the evictions had not been determined. Fiona McPhail, principal solicitor for Shelter, said the charity, which has cases due to be heard in the Sheriff Court “firmly believes that lock changes are illegal without a court order, with the court still to fully determine all legal arguments in the ongoing actions”.
Graham O’Neill, Policy Manager at Scottish Refugee Council, said it was “outraged” at Serco’s plans and confirmed agencies were not aware of plans to re-start the eviction process.
Councillor Aitken called on the Home Office to halt the process. She wrote: “It is a sorry and utterly unacceptable state of affairs when a UK Government contract legally obliges its contractor to force people from their homes and leave public servants to choose between either breaking the law or allowing mass destitution on the streets of our city.
“When we spoke about this last year, I asked you to give me an undertaking that future lock changes would not take place and warned that if that did not happen, we would simply repeat the cycle of me having to protest to you about an imminent homelessness crisis in my city. I deeply regret that this has come to pass.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Home Office takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers and the local communities in which they live extremely seriously.
“We have and will continue to work closely with local authorities and partners to ensure that those who have no right to be in the UK leave their accommodation in a safe and secure way.
“We have been working with Glasgow City Council and other partners to ensure those at risk of potential eviction have the necessary advice on their options.
This article was updated at 17:00 on 12 June with reaction from the leader of Glasgow City Council.