Multinational provider Serco has lost a contract worth tens of millions a year to house asylum seekers in Scotland.
The contract to provide accommodation in Glasgow has been awarded to Mears Group, a UK-wide housing and social care provider. The new arrangements will come into force in September.
Provision by Serco has been widely criticised by housing campaigners, refugee charities and politicians over the last seven years.
Numerous asylum seekers housed by the firm complained of dirty, substandard, unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, with several of these claims previously reported by the Ferret.
The complaints prompted a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry, which found evidence of unacceptable standards and treatment of asylum seekers.
Serco was also condemned for its decision last summer to roll-out plans to change the locks on the homes of asylum seekers it said it no longer had an obligation to house under the terms of its contract.
The plans were halted pending legal action, with cases due in court later this month.
In response to criticism Serco has always defended its service, saying that asylum seekers have been “treated with dignity and respect”.
Announcing the new contracts, Caroline Noakes, Minister of State for Immigration, said they were awarded after “extensive engagement with local government, non-governmental organisations and potential providers”.
She added: “The contracts offer a number of improvements on the current arrangements to make them more sustainable and include changes to improve the customer journey and conditions for service users, addressing many of the recommendations in the Home Affairs Committee’s reports on asylum accommodation.”
The news of Mears group’s appointment was cautiously welcomed by refugee charities who claimed it offers an opportunity for the new provider to both improve housing standards and put the rights of asylum seekers at the heart of provision.
Scottish Refugee Council’s Policy Officer Graham O’Neill said: “Over the last seven years we’ve seen too many examples of the impact poor quality accommodation has on people, particularly on children, pregnant women and parents.
“We’ve heard how people have been left in despair after being treated with a lack of dignity and respect from accommodation staff and how frightened people were after Serco locked people out of their homes.
“It is time for a new approach and in Glasgow we welcome this new chapter in supporting people seeking refugee protection.
“Providing housing to people in need is an essential public service and the rights, needs and dignity of people seeking refugee protection must be at the heart of the Mears Group’s work as they take over from Serco.”
Mears Goup should work collaboratively with Glasgow City Council, O’Neill added, and share decision making with the council. The local authority should also have a role in inspections, to ensure adequate standards are upheld, he said.
The Scottish Refugee Council also claimed the new provider should have a role in ensuring access to rights beyond housing including access to legal representation and physical and psychological healthcare.
O’Neill said: “All these should be built into the design and delivery of any housing arrangement. With these assurances in place we look forward to working alongside the Mears Group to make sure that anyone seeking refugee protection in Scotland is able to begin rebuilding their lives in safe, secure and appropriate accommodation.”
Sheila Arthur, of the Asylum Seeker Housing (ASH) said: “Serco’s failure to provide safe, decent accommodation for asylum seekers is well documented and we welcome the fact that the company has lost the asylum accommodation contract for Scotland.
However she claimed the new provider was still “very much an unknown quantity”. “We hope that they will work with ASH to raise the overall quality of accommodation in Scotland and to ensure that their staff treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect,” she added.
The chief operating officer of Mears Group, John Taylor, has been a housing professional for more than 25 years, working in senior positions for both private companies and housing associations.
In 2012 he left his post a chief executive of Orchard & Shipman, the housing firm sub-contracted by Serco to provide accommodation for asylum seekers from 2011-2016.
He said: “Mears provides housing and care to many thousands of people all across the UK, including some who are vulnerable.
“This experience, combined with our expertise in housing repairs and maintenance means we are a strong provider for the government to deliver asylum accommodation and support that is safe, habitable and fit for purpose.”
Julia Rogers, managing director of Serco’s Immigration business, said the company was “obviously disappointed” to have lost the Scottish contract.
She added: “Despite what some commentators have said, I know that our team in Glasgow has delivered a service that has seen the asylum seekers in our care treated with dignity and respect and provided with accommodation that not only meets all the required standards, but is some of the most heavily inspected in the country.
“Our employees who are residents and constituents of Glasgow, have always been totally professional in circumstances that were at times very challenging and I am proud of them all.
“Our job now is to complete the contract to the highest standard over the next nine months and hand over to the new provider in September.”