The multinational firm, Serco, has been accused of making asylum seekers feel unsafe by regularly walking into their homes using spare keys without giving adequate prior warning.
The grassroots charity, Asylum Seeker Housing (ASH), claims that Serco is failing to give adequate notice on non-urgent repairs, or to stick to agreed times for house visits and inspections. The company is contracted by the Home Office to provide housing for asylum seekers.
More than 30 asylum seekers surveyed by ASH raised concerns, which were highlighted in research findings revealed at an event on 26 April.
However Serco said it “did not accept” the findings of the survey, which it was not shown in advance. The company insisted that all its staff and contractors were trained and vetted, and they treated residents with “respect”.
The company said it provided the necessary advance warning, with staff only using keys if they knocked and received no answer “in line with Home Office contract obligations”.
ASH surveyed 30 asylum seekers in Glasgow between January to March, and had a focus group with a further 14 people. Everyone who took part in the focus group claimed that Serco, or its contractors, had used spare keys to enter their homes unexpectedly.
Many commented that they were left feeling anxious, afraid, depressed and “unsafe” in their homes.
As many as 93 per cent of those who completed the surveyed said they believed someone had come in while they were out. Just over two thirds claimed they were at home when Serco opened the door with spare keys, usually after knocking.
This indicated the practice was “a regular occurrence”, said ASH, which is due to publish the research this week.
Serco says it only uses keys if people do not answer the door despite being given “the necessary advance warning of a forthcoming visit”.
But the report quotes a man who claims he woke up to find two unknown men in his bedroom. They claimed they were there to take photographs for a new housing provider.
The man, who has not been named, told researchers: “I was sleeping. Suddenly I heard ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ – I wake up and they are in the bedroom. It was two men.
“They told me: “you must wake up because we take pictures of this room”.” He claimed one showed him an ID card from Serco.
Serco said it had not been sent a full version of the report in advance and so had not been able to properly investigate the claims. A spokesman stated that the dates of the next routine property inspection were noted on a board in Serco properties. He said a letter was sent one week in advance for compliance visits.
But complaints were raised that contractors often failed to produce IDs when arriving and were angry when refused entry until they were produced. Serco said it required all contractors to be cleared with Disclosure Scotland and to carry IDs. It also provided additional training, a spokesman added.
ASH claimed the practice of entering without giving due notice was contrary to Scottish housing legislation, and to both Home Office and Serco guidelines. The contract stipulated that entering a property without notice should only be in cases of emergency and should be “the exception rather than the rule”, it said.
We do not want special treatment for asylum seekers, simply the same treatment as Scots can expect under Scottish housing law. Sheila Arthur, Asylum Seeker Housing
However the multinational insisted that it always complied strictly with its Home Office contract.
A Serco spokesman said that five days notice was not required on all non-urgent visits. “The contract specifies a number of different notice periods depending on the reason and issue that requires a visit to our properties,” he added.
“For example, the dates of the next routine property inspection is noted on a board in our properties. A letter is sent one week in advance for compliance visits.”
In minutes from April 2017, seen by The Ferret, Serco said that it needed to allow unscheduled access to people’s homes in order to meet repair timescales specified by the Home Office. However Serco claimed that minute had been “superseded and is not the current company position”.
A spokesman sent minutes from October 17 in which it stated staff and contractors may have to use keys if the resident was not available at the time of a housing inspection. “Please be assured that it is not the intention of Serco staff to cause any unnecessary stress…or invade privacy,” this minute stated.
ASH director, Sheila Author, said: “We did the research because people have continually complained about what we feel is the gap between what should be the norm – living with a right to privacy – and what is actually happening.
“We do not want special treatment for asylum seekers, simply the same treatment as Scots can expect under Scottish housing law.
“It’s shocking that people who have experienced all sorts of trauma and come here seeking safety have unknown people traipsing into their home without warning.”
I am confident that our housing officers and our contractors treat the people that we are accommodating with respect and act with their best interests in mind at all times. Jenni Halliday, Serco
Arthur pointed out that there were children and vulnerable women from traumatised backgrounds, who may have experienced sexual violence, involved. “We wanted to show that this is still a current issue,” she added. “It’s crucial that the new contractor [Mears] doesn’t adopt this practice.”
The charity recommended that spare keys should only be used in emergencies. Visits and repairs should be arranged with the residents, with a minimum of five days’ notice, and arranged by a phone call and a follow-up text message, it said.
It also called for housing officers to stick to agreed visiting times. All staff and contractors should be fully vetted, it added. Serco said it already does this.
Jenni Halliday, Serco’s contract director, said: “We do not accept the findings of this survey and unfortunately, we were not given the opportunity to see the survey before publication.
“However, I am confident that our housing officers and our contractors, who are cleared with Disclosure Scotland and all carry ID badges, treat the people that we are accommodating with respect and act with their best interests in mind at all times.
“We always give the necessary advance warning of a forthcoming visit and knock before entering our properties; if there is no response our staff will of course use their keys to enter and undertake the necessary work, in line with our contractual obligations to the Home Office.”
Several asylum seekers, including two peer researchers involved in the study, told The Ferret that their mental and physical health was affected by feeling insecure in their homes. They asked not to be named.
One woman, who has been living in Serco accommodation for many years, claimed that company staff and contractors had let themselves into her flat, using their own keys, including when she was out.
When her appeal to stay in the UK was refused, she was told she would be evicted, and was worried that her belongings would be moved out of the flat or the locks changed while she was out. She said: “My heart would start beating in fear when I approached the door.
“It’s so scary to know people have keys. Living on your own as a lady, and you get strangers coming in – it’s not good.
“Sometimes I would come home and have to check the whole flat to make sure there was no-one there because you are always thinking what if someone has made a copy of the keys because they are not Serco staff. And they have made their way in to hide and they might grab me and rape me or something like that.
“At night I take precautions. I put the snib down so I know if someone is trying to get in. This helped when a Serco housing officer arrived and tried to open the door without knocking, but was only unable to gain access because the door was on the snib.”
Another woman from an African country, who has lived in Scotland for five years and helped with the survey, said she had experienced unexpected visits from Serco staff who had used their own keys after knocking, which she found “intimidating”. It added a level of stress that was difficult to cope with while going through the adversarial asylum system, she said.
“Having people walking into your home raises the anxiety levels,” she added. “Everyone we spoke to had experienced this and everyone was angry about it. Some people in the research told us they had post traumatic stress disorder and when things like this happen it triggers their symptoms.”
She said some people had put chains on their doors, though they claimed Serco housing officers often asked for them to be removed. “Others will leave a key wedged in the door so no-one can come in unexpectedly,” she said.
“Another man [told her he] put sticky tape on his door. These are the lengths people are having to go to just so they can feel safe. Often asylum seekers don’t know their rights.”
Some worried that Serco would report “non-compliance” to the Home Office, she added, and that this would affect their asylum claim.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The Home Office takes the wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously and we demand the highest standards from our contractors and their accommodation. When issues occur in properties we set out clear timescales in which they must be resolved.
“In the case of repairs, and particularly where urgent repairs are needed, it may not always be possible to contact the service user or provide advance notice that repairs are to be made.”
The SNP immigration spokesperson, Stuart McDonald MP, praised ASH’s report and called on Serco to urgently address its findings. “Unannounced visits by landlords or contractors of the sort described in this report would be unacceptable in any sort of residential property,” he said.
“It is even more unacceptable and way below the standards we should expect where those being housed are asylum seekers, many of whom have significant vulnerabilities. I hope that Mears Group will engage positively with the report’s findings so we can see a much improved system when the contract is taken over.
The Scottish Refugee Council said the report chimed with concerns from other UK dispersal areas and called for the Home Office to investigate urgently.
Mears Group declined to comment, saying that polices were set by the Home Office.