Afghan asylum seekers arriving in Britain could experience problems securing suitable housing after ministers ignored the advice of their own officials about how to increase the pool of available accommodation.
Pressure on asylum and refugee accommodation is likely to increase due to the influx of Afghans fleeing the Taliban. Guardian analysis has revealed that almost a quarter of the UK’s 44,825 asylum seekers supported by the Home Office are housed in just 10 local authorities, nine of which are among the most deprived in the country.
They include Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Rochdale and Glasgow, which has the UK’s highest number of refugees as a proportion of its population. Only one of the top 10 destinations – Barking and Dagenham in London – is in the south of England.
Local authorities can veto Home Office requests to accommodate asylum seekers in their areas. As a result, some councils have to support a disproportionate number.
In correspondence from March 2020, referred to in a high court case about asylum accommodation, senior civil servants urged ministers to ditch the local authority veto and instead insist that more local authorities played their part.
But ministers did not follow their officials’ advice, choosing instead to use hotels, which on average cost three times the price of the usual dispersal accommodation in shared housing, and controversial military barracks accommodation where there was a mass Covid outbreak earlier this year.
The mayor of greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has called on ministers to explain whether officials’ advice was ignored and if so, why.
In their submissions to ministers, the civil servants believed that requiring more local authorities to house asylum seekers would ensure a sufficient supply of accommodation.
Officials asked that local authorities outside London be put on notice to support these aims. It was recommended that the immigration minister, Chris Philp, should write to local authority chief executives requiring them to support the policy change.
It was not clear whether he wrote the letter. There has been no rule change to scrap the veto.
Had ministers heeded their own officials’ advice, it is likely that some of the hundreds of Covid cases at Napier barracks could have been avoided, along with some of the issues at hotels, including far-right attacks and a serious decline in the mental health of many asylum seekers housed there. More use of shared housing around the UK for asylum seekers would have led to significant savings to the taxpayer.
Burnham said the Home Office had broken promises to reduce the number of asylum seekers placed in his area and end the use of hotels.
“Home Office civil servants are aware that the government’s current policy is unfair and unsustainable,” he said. “It is also now clear that it is a political decision of Conservative ministers to reject that official advice and expect only the poorest places in the country to play a part in solving what is a national challenge.”
He said that while Greater Manchester was willing to step forward, others also had to step up.
“The home secretary has questions to answer. She needs to confirm today whether she rejected this advice and why.”
Maddie Harris, founder of the Humans For Rights Network, condemned the disclosure. “The use of hotels and army barracks to accommodate asylum seekers is not as we suspected an emergency response, but an intentional policy.
“We urgently call for all local authorities to accommodate their fair share of people seeking safety in order to eliminate the need for the use of hotels and army barracks.
“As our government consistently tells us, the UK has a long standing history of assuring those in need of safety. Now is the time to prove this.”
Simon Cox, an immigration barrister, said: “The shortage of decent accommodation for asylum seekers seems to be because ministers were content to give local authorities the final word on whether or not they accommodate asylum seekers. There isn’t a fair distribution of this accommodation. I don’t know why ministers allow local authorities to pick and choose whether or not to accommodate asylum seekers.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK government will always stand by those fleeing persecution or oppression in their hour of need, which is why thousands of Afghans most in need will be welcomed to the UK through one of our most ambitious ever resettlement schemes. Each and every day we work closely with local authorities across the United Kingdom to ensure suitable accommodation and support is in place for those seeking asylum or resettlement in the UK.
“We are grateful to all local authorities who currently support and would encourage all local authorities to come forward and offer further assistance to these vulnerable people. Dedicated civil servants continue to work round the clock with local authorities to ensure those arriving in the UK have the accommodation and assistance they deserve.”