Over four weeks in September and October, people living in NI contingency accommodation joined together to compile evidence of human rights failings and propose solutions. Their report was presented to elected representatives and officers from a range of government bodies and oversight institutions on 14 October 2022. These are their findings around poverty.
The Human Impact
People fleeing persecution or war have the right to seek international protection. Under the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ – unlike in most European countries – people waiting for their asylum claim to be processed are barred from working, for themselves or anyone else, forcing them to be inactive, dependent and impoverished while they wait. Recent data indicates that a third of current asylum seekers have been waiting between 1 and 3 years for an initial decision.
It was not always this way.
Up to twenty years ago the work ban only covered the first six months after a person applied. In 2002 this was extended to a 12 months’ wait, and in 2010 the government went a step further, stipulating that even after 12 months it would only grant work requests to people whose qualifications matched the narrow list of specialist professions on the Home Office’s ‘Shortage Occupation List’. (The UK’s business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, has just called for a relaxation of Home Office rules given staff shortages in the hospitality, manufacturing and construction sectors).
The Home Office gives a meagre subsistence allowance to people barred from working: £40.85/week for people who cook for themselves and £8/week for people, like these, who aren’t allowed to. This has not risen with the cost of living crisis.
In the words of one resident, “we need to work because 8 pounds per week does not cover our kid’s needs”. Others explained, “the £8/week doesn’t cover the essentials… it does not cover food or clothing or bus tickets or my children’s basic needs”.
The impact on people is stark: “me and my son are in desperate need for money to cover our personal needs”, said one resident. A young family explained, “having a young baby, we live in a financially difficult circumstances. We have not received any support with the baby’s necessary stuff and currently spend considerable money on nappies and baby milk.”
Image caption: Flipchart capturing hostel residents’ concerns from September 2022 monitoring
Other blog posts have described parents’ despair at trying to make the £8/week cover things like healthy snacks for young children who need to eat more frequently than the 3 set meal times allow, or transport costs to school. Girls and women reported having to try to buy feminine hygiene products out of their £8/week.
Human Rights Context
Governments like the UK which signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights thereby recognise everyone’s right to an adequate standard of livingfor themselves and their family (art 11.1). Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child they recognise every child’s right to a standard of living adequate for physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, and commit to helping parents provide this (art 27).
While asylum system itself is the remit of the Home Office, health, social, education and community services are all devolved to NI authorities who are responsible for supporting asylum seekers here per the NI Executive Office’s 2022 draft Integration Strategy.
The Department for Communities is responsible for “developing, co-ordinating and driving the Executive’s priorities for tackling poverty”, in part through its Poverty Policy team. The Department for Communities’ strategic priorities include “tackling disadvantage and promoting equality of opportunity by reducing poverty”. Unlike other involved departments, it declined to send representatives to either the April or the October public meeting with hostel residents.
full board accommodation of three meals per day and essential personal hygiene items and toiletries… including a) baby care equipment and disposable nappies; and b) personal toiletries and feminine hygiene products [should be provided]
Mears Group’s contract with the Home Office for asylum accommodation and support says:
“The Provider shall note that Service Users … are not permitted to receive cash. If required by the Authority, they are to be provided by the Provider with full board accommodation of three meals per day and essential personal hygiene items and toiletries (schedule 2 2.6.1) … including a) baby care equipment and disposable nappies; and b) personal toiletries and feminine hygiene products (188.8.131.52)”
Testimonies gathered by hostel residents indicate these contractual terms are not being fully met.
To the Home Office:
- Give us the right to work to support ourselves
- Increase the £8/week payment, not just in line with inflation but to a liveable base value
- Oversee Mears Group to ensure it provides the food, baby items and toiletries required by contract, including in-date and adequate supplies of sanitary products, nappies, soap, shampoo, skin care, shaving razors, hand sanitisers
To the NI Executive Office and departments:
- assist in the oversight of conditions in the hostels and proper fulfilment of the Mears contract
- include asylum seekers in contingency accommodation in Department for Communities anti-poverty planning and programmes (including emergency fund, emergency food support)
- encourage other departments (Department of Education and Department for Infrastructure for transport assistance) to do everything within their power to help these families cope with the extreme financial constraints they are under due to Home Office policy
To the oversight bodies (NIHRC, NICCY, NI Equality Commission, NIPSO):
- Use all of your powers to investigate the hostel situation described here
- Make your findings and your work public, in the interest of the greater good and to combat misinformation around asylum generally and around the use of hotels for hostel accommodation in particular