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Latest on local asylum accommodation transition situation

Over the past weeks and months, you may have heard that the provision of asylum accommodation is undergoing major changes. The impact of the transition has already been felt by communities across Middlesbrough and is likely to continue, so here we look at what has changed and highlight some issues for VCOs to be aware of.
Jennifer Laws from Asylum Matters has provided this update.

What is asylum accommodation and how is it managed?

People seeking asylum in the UK cannot claim mainstream benefits and are prevented from working. Instead, they are able to apply for financial support and accommodation if they can prove they have no other means of supporting themselves whilst their application for protection is considered by the Home Office. Accommodation linked to this financial support is provided on a no-choice basis, and for the last seven years has been governed by a contract awarded by the Home Office known as COMPASS. On 1st September 2019, the new Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contract (AASC) and the related Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility (AIRE) contract became operational across the UK.

What has changed?

Transition to AASC

The accommodation provider under the new AASC arrangements for the North East England, Yorkshire and Humberside are Mears Group, replacing G4S, who delivered the previous contract in part through subcontractor Jomast which housed about 3,800 service-users in the North East. The transition between G4S and Jomast and Mears has been challenging; while G4S housing stock has novated across to the new contract, the continued use of Jomast properties depended on an agreement being reached between themselves and Mears. With an agreement not yet in place, in mid-August Mears shared that while they had found 1,500 bed spaces through the procurement of new properties (and that service users would need to be relocated to these bed spaces), 2,300 service-users had no accommodation to move to on the 1st September, meaning that contingency arrangements comprising of B&B and hotel accommodation may have been needed. Finally, on the afternoon of Friday 30th August the North East Migration Partnership (NEMP) circulated the news that an interim deal between Jomast and Mears had been reached. This agreement has allowed service users in Jomast accommodation to remain in their properties for now, although we do not know how long the agreement is for and how many people will ultimately have to be relocated to new properties.

How to report issues and inquiries

Transition to AIRE

Responsibility for providing Advice, Information and Eligibility Assistance Services (the AIRE contract) rests with Migrant Help. While Migrant Help had been previously provided independent advice to people seeking asylum via a national phoneline, there are a number of new requirements under the new contract, including ‘issue reporting’, which means problems with asylum accommodation should be reported to Migrant Help.

Migrant Help’s new First Response Centre phoneline (0808 8010 503) should now be used to report all issues and inquiries including:

  • Eligibility, Advice and Guidance (e.g. how to claim asylum, navigating the asylum process, applying for asylum support (including accommodation), finding legal representation, accessing healthcare, and other asylum and post-asylum claim related matters)
  • Issue reporting of property maintenance issues in asylum accommodation
  • Issue reporting of payment issues (e.g. unreceived, lost or stolen ASPEN card, incorrect payment received, PIN forgotten)
  • To request assistance (e.g. if there is a risk to a person's health or wellbeing)
  • To provide feedback or to make a complaint- this can be regarding services delivered by the accommodation provider (Mears), the payment provider (Sodexo), the Home Office or the AIRE provider themselves (Migrant Help).

Under the new contract, Migrant Help will also be responsible for making outreach arrangements to work with vulnerable people in the asylum process through face-to-face appointments. They are also subcontracting with Reed in Partnership to provide support during the 28-day move-on period following a positive decision on their claim. Migrant Help will provide assistance and referrals after a negative decision.

Although the AIRE system is designed so that service users will be able to reach an advisor very rapidly, in practice service users and support organisations are finding that they must wait for long periods of time before being connected to the FRC phoneline.

How is the transition affecting people?

The continuing uncertainty for people living in Jomast properties has caused disruption for some service users. Some relocations have already taken place, while some service users have received confusing communications about if and when they will be moving. For some people, the worry of being moved has meant that they are no longer able to engage with services and therapies they were previously accessing. While Mears have committed to relocating service users within Local Authority areas – and within postcode areas where possible – the uncertainty of who this will affect is likely to continue to cause anxiety for some service users.

In terms of the transition to the AIRE contract, for VCOs and service users in Middlesbrough the continued difficulty in getting through to Migrant Help services may mean that some people are not accessing the support they require, particularly if they are in need of urgent assistance. While the AIRE contract has provision for a range of other ways to contact Migrant Help, including webchat and a self-serve portal, it remains to be seen how much pressure this will take off the main phoneline.

What next?

While the new contracts may in the long-term result in improvements for people seeking asylum (for example, the new AASC contract is much better resourced than the previous contract; Mears have committed to phasing out the practice of forced bedroom sharing, and the new issue reporting provision in the AIRE contract may allow for more scrutiny in how housing providers respond to problems with accommodation), in the short term the challenges of the transition are likely to be felt by people seeking asylum and VCOs in Middlesbrough.

If you have any questions about the transition, please get in touch with Jennifer Laws at jennifer@asylummatters.org. The North East Migration Partnership (NEMP) also shares updates from the AASC and AIRE providers with the VCS – you can ask to be added to their VCS Forum by writing to nemp@middlesbrough.gov.uk.

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