Concern over thousands of asylum seekers moved around UK during pandemic

Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel arrives at Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in central London on September 22, 2020 to attend the weekly meeting of the cabinet. - The UK government will on Tuesday announce new measures to curb rising coronavirus cases across England, hours after upgrading the virus alert level with top advisers warning of a surging death toll within two months without immediate action. (Photo by Leon Neal / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The criticism came as Priti Patel defended herslef against claims of 'bullying' her staff (Leon Neal / POOL / AFP)

The Home Office has been accused of a “wholly unacceptable failure” after rapidly moving thousands of asylum seekers into hotels around the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In August it emerged that 47 asylum seekers with COVID-19 had been ferried from Birmingham to a hotel in west London without informing local councils, and now a report by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has lambasted the government department for a succession of similar actions.

The report, published on Friday, says Priti Patel’s office failed to keep councils, health services and MPs informed of the plans, and hit out at the lack of consultation carried out with local leaders and the limited information supplied.

Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “Quite simply, there was a wholly unacceptable failure of the Home Office to communicate with local authorities and health services as they rapidly shifted hundreds of asylum seekers into hotel accommodation.

“In some cases, people who had contracted COVID-19 were moved to another borough without the authorities being informed. Even at the pace of events there was no excuse for this lack of communication.”

Among examples provided to the committee of incidents was the Home Office’s decision to move asylum seekers who had tested positive for coronavirus out of Birmingham to a hotel in Hammersmith, west London, in August without informing the council.

A Home Office immigration enforcement van parked in Westminster, London. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Home Office has been criticised for moving COVID-positive asylum seekers across the country during lockdown (Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

The pace at which the Home Office had to work does not excuse the “lack of discussion with local authorities and NHS bodies about how to manage this resettlement”, the committee said.

Its report found vulnerable people, including families with children, have been living in accommodation that does not meet their needs, and for far too long.

Around 9,500 asylum seekers are being housed in at least 90 hotels around the UK as a result of the pandemic.

But the use of hotels was high before COVID-19, the committee said, with more than 1,000 people in such accommodation each night since October 2019.

The report was published just hours after Boris Johnson was criticised for his decision not to sack Patel over allegations that she bullied staff.

The prime minister judged that the ministerial code was not breached by the home secretary, despite multiple allegations of bullying.

Watch: PM has ‘seriously failed’ over bullying investigation

This came despite a report by his adviser on ministerial standards Sir Alex Allan saying that Patel had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”.

The coronavirus outbreak highlighted major concerns over how the asylum system was operating, according to today’s report, which said elements of new services were “set up to fail”.

The Home Office has a series of contracts with providers to offer housing and support to asylum seekers in the UK while their claims are processed.

According to the committee, the department is now paying an estimated 28% more to new providers than it was under a previous system in 2016 – which had also attracted criticism.

The Home Office must now prove it is getting value for money for both the taxpayer and those who rely on the services, the committee said, warning there is a long way to go before it “delivers what it has promised on accommodation and essential services for asylum seekers”.

Hillier added: “The Home Office has cranked up the payments for these new contracts – now it must prove it can correspondingly crank up performance and deliver at least decent, suitable accommodation and services to people fleeing war and persecution to seek asylum in this country.”

The findings prompted criticism from campaigners.

Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, described the report as “damning” and said it echoed what had been “consistently highlighted for the past year”.

He said: “This botched changeover of contracts contributed significantly to a humanitarian crisis in the middle of a pandemic as people and children are forced to live in squalid houses, dilapidated barracks, or cramped hotels.

“Britain is better than this. It’s time ministers honoured their words and took decisive action to create a fairer and more effective asylum system.”

The Home Office said it was considering the report’s recommendations and would respond in due course.

A department spokesman said it had worked “tirelessly” to try to provide asylum seekers suitable accommodation and using hotel accommodation on a temporary basis over recent months was necessary as a result of increased demand amid the pandemic but longer-term accommodation was being arranged.

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