Asylum seeker home defects not fixed within timescales

Plumbing Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Water leaks and a lack of heating were some of the defects a Home Office subcontractor failed to address within contractual timescales

Concerns have been raised over the number of asylum seekers who did not have defects in their homes fixed within agreed timescales.

A BBC investigation revealed defects including mould, water leaks, damp walls, and a lack of heating.

An ex-employee also claimed cost-cutting by housing provider Orchard & Shipman (O&S) was "absolutely endemic".

Contractor Serco, on behalf of O&S, said an increase in defects last year was due to improved self-monitoring.

O&S has managed the £221m Home Office contract for asylum seeker accommodation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, on behalf of international service company Serco, since September 2012.

These claims follow recent controversies which revealed O&S may have changed the locks of asylum seekers' homes, and allegedly placed people in dirty and dangerous accommodation.

Thousands of asylum seekers in Glasgow have come from all over the world including Somalia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Eritrea - many have fled war, torture, sexual abuse or persecution.

Defect data

A BBC Scotland freedom of information request - which the Home Office took eight months to respond to - revealed 199 asylum seekers in a 12-month period were "impacted" by faults not repaired by O&S within agreed contractual timescales.

A Home Office contract stipulates that O&S is required to ensure that all asylum seeker accommodation be safe, habitable, fit for purpose and correctly equipped.

The data shows that in the last six months of 2014, 56 service users were affected by defects not fixed within set timescales, and between January and July 2015 that figure rose to 143 - an increase of 155%.

Defects included: bedroom space capacity; water ingresses; faulty heaters, fridges and washing machines; damp walls; damaged windows, leaking sinks, as well as more routine repairs.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The types of defects not fixed within contractual timescales included mould such as this on a bathroom ceiling

The UK Parliament's Home Affairs Committee announced earlier this month that it is to launch an inquiry into the provision of accommodation to asylum seekers in Glasgow.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chair of the committee, said he was "concerned" by the figures.

He said: "If Home Office inspectors identify issues with asylum seeker housing serious enough to require a response within one working day, then they must be complied with. "

A Serco spokesman said the rise in defects not being fixed within agreed timescales was due to improved, and more intensive, self-monitoring by its subcontractor.

He said: "Where issues were found, they [O&S] reported the failures themselves and addressed them.

"This is the sign of good rather than poor management."

Serco said 21,930 repairs were logged across 1,800 properties over the 12-month period - the majority of which were for routine maintenance.

The multinational outsourcing company said the rate of not fixing defects within agreed timescales during this period was 0.26%.

Image caption Many asylum seekers live in Orchard & Shipman housing in Glasgow's Govan area

According to the Home Office contract the majority of the defects should have been made safe within one working day, and permanently remedied with a week, to make accommodation "fit for purpose".

Six people were "impacted" by defects deemed more serious and which, according to the contract, should have been resolved within 24 hours to make the accommodation "habitable".

However a Serco spokesperson said these particular defects were due to three heating failures, that temporary heating was provided in each case, and that the defect was left 'open' resulting in it being deemed a failure.

'Absolutely endemic'

Shafiq Mohammed - who worked as a housing procurement officer at O&S between February 2012 and August 2014 and has now talked to BBC Scotland - claimed he was put under pressure to take on properties he knew were not compliant.

He said: "You know that a property is without doubt a single bedroom but you're forced to classify it as a double bedroom, so you can get two people in it.

"[And there are] properties that clearly have real problems with their heating and their hot water systems to the point where they're clapped out - they're simply not working.

"They'll pick up the cheapest accommodation that they can, they'll do as little as possible as far as repairs are concerned."

Image caption Shafiq Mohammed, an ex-Orchard & Shipman employee, said cost-cutting was "absolutely endemic" at the private company

He added: "There's always an excuse not to do something - they're very, very good at that.

"The culture was 'profit is king', cost-cutting and cutting corners in terms of the service [was] absolutely endemic."

Mr Mohammed also claimed "a culture of fear" meant many asylum seekers - without any intimidation by O&S staff - may not report any housing defects for fear of being deported.

He said: "They would withdraw complaints so the heating hasn't been working for the last week - 'I better not complain, they'll get annoyed with me'.

"The lighting's not been working in the bedroom for three weeks, I'll try and fix it myself."

A Home Office spokesman said: "The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it and providing safe and secure accommodation while applications are considered.

"It is the responsibility of the Compass providers to ensure the standards of the contract are met. The Home Office and providers regularly inspect properties to ensure the accommodation meets contractual standards."

He added: "Where a contractor is found to be falling short of these standards, we work with them to ensure issues are quickly addressed and when they are not we can and do impose sanctions.

"The government expects the highest standards from our contractors. If we find any evidence of discrimination against asylum seekers it will be dealt with immediately as any such behaviour will not be tolerated."

A Serco spokesman said there was no evidence to support any of Mr Mohammed's allegations.

He said: "All the housing leased by us is fit for purpose at the point of procurement.

"We repair all defects reported to us, the overwhelming majority within the required timeframe."

Case study: 'Full of mould'

Amanda - not her real name - said last year it took the company several weeks to replace her washing machine.

But when the appliance did finally arrive it didn't work.

She said: "I complained to them [O&S] and they sent someone to come and repair it.

"I was telling them we can't stay in the house, it's really, really smelly and the inside is full of mould."

Depending on the level of "non-conformance" under the contract, the Home Office may apply financial penalties to the monthly invoice of a housing provider.

In February 2015 it was revealed Serco had paid out £443,545 in penalties in Scotland and Northern Ireland - an increase of 184% compared to the previous, full fiscal year.

None of the other contracted housing providers - including G4S and Clearel - incurred any penalties in this fiscal year.

The parliamentary question that prompted the release of these figures was submitted by SNP MP Stuart McDonald who sits on the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr McDonald said: "These [freedom of information] figures suggest some real challenges in ensuring asylum accommodation is fit for purpose.

"The nature of some of the defects is also a concern - including issues such as mould and water leaks.

"The bottom line is that we a very incomplete understanding about how the [Home Office] contracts are functioning and what needs to be done to make them as effective as they must be for everyone concerned."

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