The UK Government recently decided to ‘streamline’ decisions on asylum claims, while slashing the time available for people to find alternative accommodation, sometimes to just 7 days. Many people who are destitute from months of living on just £9.58 per week are now at risk of eviction by Mears PLC, whose annual profit last year was £35.2m.
Below is the text of the letter sent to the NI Secretary of State and relevant public authorities calling for a cold-weather moratorium on evictions.
Members of UK Government Secretary of State for the Home Department, James Cleverly,
Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris
Members of Parliament Claire Hanna, Gavin Robinson, John Finucane, Paul Maskey, Colum Eastwood, Stephen Farry, Jeffrey Donaldson, Gregory Campbell
Mears PLC David Miles, Darrell Smith, John Taylor
Northern Ireland Office Julie Harrison
NI Civil Service Jayne Brady, Denis McMahon (DfI), Orla McStravick (TEO), Colum Boyle
NIHE Grainia Long, Ailbhe Hickey
MLAs Michelle O Neill, Naomi Long, Gerry Carroll, Doug Beattie
Equality and Human Rights Bodies,Alyson Kilpatrick, Chris Quinn, Geraldine McGahey
Belfast City Council Ryan Murphy, John Walsh, Bryan Smith, Eric Hanvey
20th November 2023
Re: Call for a cold-weather moratorium on evictions of individuals and families living in Mears managed UK Home Office accommodation
PPR is a human rights ngo established by the trade union leader Inez McCormack, to provide practical ways to secure the rights set out 25 years ago in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
As many of those who have interacted with our Take Back the City and #KindEconomy campaigns will know, Belfast faces a number of converging crises related to shortfalls in social housing provision, deepening ‘hostile environment’ Home Office policies and a rise in racist hate crime amongst those seeking to exploit these tensions for their own agenda.
Housing Executive figures reveal that over 5,000 children are officially homeless in the city. Belfast City Council’s existing plans for 31,600 new homes for 66,000 new residents prioritise young professionals without addressing existing acute social housing need – which, while found in pockets across the city, disproportionately impacts households in predominately Catholic areas of north and west Belfast. There is also a growing cohort of refugee families affected. Available land and property are not being exploited to their fullest potential to help resolve the growing housing crisis; you will be aware that approximately 500 people have written to party leaders and planning officials at council in recent weeks to call for the zoning of the largest public site in the city – Mackies – to enable housing development in line with longstanding community initiatives.
Every week PPR supports families to document human rights failings in our housing system and to formulate complaints seeking effective remedies, which many of you have received. We continue to help families monitor the response going forward.
Adding to the existing housing crisis, as a result of the Home Office’s Streamlined Asylum Process, since August over 135 asylum seeker households have been granted their long-awaited refugee status and have been given notice to quit their asylum accommodation. They have been advised that their asylum support and accommodation will end in 28 days. They will join the more than 45,000 households on the waiting list; finding somewhere for them to live becomes the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, particularly as they will meet the criteria for Full Duty Applicant status.
These people, up until this time, have been barred from working, and have been subsisting on a minimal weekly stipend from the Home Office (£9.58 / week each for those placed in hostels set up in hotels). They therefore have no savings or immediate means of earning a living. There is a time delay in the issuance of their Biometric Residence Permit / other documentation that they need to register for Universal Credit (exacerbated often by the refusal of agencies to accept any other form of status despite recent statements to the House by the DWP Minister); this is further lengthened by the five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment once they are enrolled onto the system. During this time they are left completely unresourced, despite protections against destitution under international human rights law.
The Prime Minister has set a deadline for the end of 2023 for the asylum backlog to be cleared, meaning that many more of the 3,348 people seeking safety in the north will find themselves in similar circumstances throughout the coming holiday period and into the new year. (At least another 20 asylum seekers have seen their asylum claims denied since August, and have been given just 21 days’ ‘notice to quit’; as they will have No Recourse to Public Funds, it is unclear who will support them and how they will fare as winter draws in).
PPR has submitted a series of FOI requests to understand how the UK Home Office has been working with the NI Executive Office and relevant local authorities to plan for the eventuality of many more of these families facing eviction and homelessness this Christmas and beyond. Specifically on the issue of planning and resource allocation, the Home Office wrote to PPR on 7 November stating that, “Mears have written a paper that has been delivered to the Home Office for consideration. A number of points require answers before an accurate process can be confirmed”. In the absence of any more clarity than that, we are unable to advise those we support what remedies they may seek from which agencies.
PPR and the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) held an information session regarding the rights of residents faced with eviction and homelessness on Tuesday 14th November, during which approximately forty families from Belfast presented under threat of eviction due to the recent change in their immigration status.
Some have received notices to quit, others have been told to expect them soon. When one single mother recently asked the Housing Executive to advise her, she was told that nothing could be done until she had been evicted from her lodgings; and that she should then pack up her family and belongings and make her way as best she could to the Housing Executive office to see then what her options were. The potentially destabilising and re-traumatising impact of this on previously displaced people should be of immediate concern to all authorities involved.
It is neither practical, reasonable nor humane to ask families who have suffered both the trauma of fleeing their home country and navigating the local asylum system, to leave the only safe home they have to become street homeless during the cold winter months. No parent would do that to their children, nor should they be advised to by any public authority or private contractor in receipt of public funds.
We would like to be able to advise families as to what steps local authorities are taking to provide temporary and longer term solutions to this bottle neck of housing need created by the changing of immigration status. In the interim, we share families’ concerns over how to protect their children from exposure to the elements and how to stay safe, until such time as they have suitable, safe, adequate and appropriate alternative accommodation.
We are calling for:
- a winter-long cold-weather moratorium on the eviction of individuals and families from properties managed by Mears PLC on behalf of the UK Home Office, until they have suitable, safe, adequate and appropriate accommodation.
- the relevant UK and devolved agencies in Northern Ireland to work collaboratively so that everyone’s right to housing is respected, protected and fulfilled.
We also flag for your attention the recent rise in racist hate crime in and outside Belfast, where violent elements in our society are mobilising -with apparent impunity -to stop public resources being allocated based on need to those they do not personally welcome. No one should have a veto on housing rights and especially not those willing to engage in racist, intimidating or violent behaviour. We must all stand firmly against the ‘whites only’ agenda advocated by some groups and support plans to build and allocate homes based on need.
We would like to arrange a meeting between the relevant agencies and the people whom we support. PPR are willing to organise the venue, translations and associated costs if the relevant state services, elected representatives and institutions can nominate representatives to provide advice and solutions.
We understand that many of you will be short staffed during December – please provide availability for January and a guarantee that no evictions will take place over the holiday period.
Please confirm receipt of this correspondence and what actions you will take to prevent take to prevent the mass homelessness of individuals and families over the winter.
Director, Participation and the Practice of Rights on behalf of the Kind Economy and Take Back the City campaigns.