In today’s Guardian, it has been reported that a commons select committee has called for asylum seekers to be housed in the UK shire counties. The article noted that the highest proportion of asylum seekers are placed in Glasgow (3067), Birmingham (1674) and Liverpool (1524) with Bolton (1023), Rochdale (1020) and Manchester (954) coming in at fifth, sixth and seventh respectively. However, it is apparent that Greater Manchester and the West Midlands area – when taken as units rather than individual cities and satellite towns – take the highest proportion of asylum seekers in the country by a considerable margin. The BBC offers slightly different figures but the order of council areas taking the highest proportion remains the same.
The article notes that many areas of the country house no destitute asylum seekers at all. For example, the Home Secretary’s Maidenhead constituency, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s East Cheshire council area and the Prime Minister’s West Oxfordshire council to name but a few. Again, this BBC map showing dispersal of asylum seekers clearly highlights their concentration in particular areas. Evidently, the policy is to send asylum seekers to the lowest cost urban areas possible, which has led to the concentration.
I want to make three brief observations:
Concentration in low-cost, urban areas is inevitable with private contracts
One is at a loss to work out why it comes as a shock to anybody that G4S, Serco and Clearsprings have elected to place asylum seekers in the very cheapest housing possible in non-expensive, insalubrious urban areas (1). In fact, for the most part, asylum seekers are placed in “hard to let” homes; that is, housing that nobody wants to rent because it is considered sub-standard. It is therefore hard to see how these private companies have in any way failed. If the government has placed no restriction on where they could place asylum seekers (2), why on earth would you expect to see them placing individuals in high cost housing in highly sought after areas?
If the government truly want to see a dispersal policy enacted properly, they have only one of three ways to make it happen. Either they: (a) place total restrictions on housing asylum seekers in certain areas; (b) insist on one place for all asylum seekers for a certain period of time and then periodically move the allocated area; or, (c) they take away the private contracts and allow a government agency to place asylum seekers proportionately throughout the country making no reference to profit.
Of course, the fundamental issue with (a) and (b) is that G4S, Serco and Clearsprings may well decide to pull out of their contracts if they are forced to place asylum seekers in areas of higher cost housing given the severe dent this move would have on their bottom line. Should they be prepared to take this hit, however, these are the options available. Nonetheless, it bears saying that there is something ever so slightly sickening about the monetisation of people in desperate need and something similarly concerning about the monetisation of a policy that has the inflammatory power to spark riots.
Even in the areas of highest concentration, asylum seekers are not swamping anyone
If we take Glasgow as an example, the area with the largest number of asylum seekers, we note that the city has a population of just under 600,000. Currently, Glasgow houses little over 3000 asylum seekers. This amounts to 0.5% of the population of the area. To take a wider example, Greater Manchester as a whole outstrips most other areas of the country for asylum seekers (3). Greater Manchester has a total population of 2.7m people. The number of asylum seekers living in the region, according to the Manchester Evening News, is 5586. This amounts to 0.21% of the region.
Though there is certainly a case to be made about the fairness of dispersal, it would be false to pretend that a lack of dispersal is putting undue pressure on local amenities. For one, there are truly not enough asylum seekers in any given place to represent a huge drain on local services. Equally, central government pay asylum seeker support meaning no money is taken from council tax for support. The only affect on any given area would be if a growing number of asylum seekers are placed in the region and all choose to stay there if and when they receive their leave to remain. However, given the minuscule percentages we are discussing, the probability of this becoming a real issue is highly unlikely. Moreover, once leave to remain is granted, these same people will begin working as well as paying income and council tax paying.
A solution to the perceived dispersal problem
One possible solution to the perceived problem (and I stress, it is more a perception than a reality) is for the government to give local councils a premium for each asylum seeker housed within their area (akin to the pupil premium within schools). Those who vehemently refuse to house asylum seekers can do so but would lose extra funds as a result. This would give local councils a positive incentive to house asylum seekers but would also offer choice to those who would rather they were placed elsewhere. Those who are viewing the figures with any measure of sense would come to the obvious conclusion that such small numbers will not disproportionately affect the local area whilst the offer of extra money to offset what is clearly only a perceived issue ought to make the decision the proverbial no-brainer. This would go a considerable way to solving the problem of disproportionate dispersal.
Again, the only problem with this would be the private contractors involved. If they were forced to place asylum seekers in certain higher cost areas, in response to local councils recognising the benefits of a premium, is it likely that Serco, G4S and Clearsprings would be happy to see a dent in their profits with no additional benefit to them as a company? It may only be a workable solution if either: (a) the private companies still see value in their contracts even though they are forced to place in higher cost housing/areas; or, (b) if the government remove the private contracts and take the housing of those in desperate need back into public control.
- I’m not suggesting the places names are insalubrious, I mean the areas within the towns where asylum seekers are usually placed are often insalubrious (with some exceptions).
- To my knowledge, the only restriction is on the placement of those with no right to work (that is, the vast majority of asylum seekers) anywhere within Greater London.
- Only the West Midlands would rival it.