A fire door propped open with an extinguisher, dimly lit hallways, cluttered escape routes, peeling wallpaper, bins overflowing with rubbish and rats seen running through an overgrown neglected garden. These are just some of the grim conditions in a former residential care home in Hull, now being used to house asylum seekers.
Many are single mothers with young children, but men are also living there as Home Office rules allow mixed-sex asylum seeker accommodation as long as men are part of family groups. However, one man I spoke to claimed he was living in a one-bedroom flat on his own.
Mears Group privately runs asylum accommodation
I can also reveal the Home Office contractor ultimately responsible for the property recently increased the number of bed spaces it provides for asylum seekers in Hull by 48 percent, despite concerns raised by Hull City Council and Hull’s three MPs.
The move by the Mears Group came after council and health leaders in Hull criticised a decision taken without any prior consultation to start using the Royal Station Hotel in the city centre to house up to 130 asylum seekers in late 2019. It was made shortly after the company was awarded a £1bn contract by the government to manage asylum accommodation in Yorkshire and the North East.
At the time, council officials in Hull raised concerns over the unplanned impact on health and support services and temporarily paused its own refugee resettlement programme in protest.
The hotel is still being used as so-called ‘contingency accommodation’ for 130 people. Latest Home Office figures up to the end of June show there were 511 asylum seekers housed in Hull as part of the Mears contract including those at the hotel.
Mears is also now using more large privately owned properties, such as houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), to place asylum seekers in the city, despite claims by the council that the process is “inadequate and largely unmanaged”. Such housing is known as ‘dispersed accommodation’.
Peeling wallpaper and dumped rubbish
These properties include the former residential care home complex in West Hull, which has 17 flats. Originally a Victorian vicarage, it was opened as a care home nearly 20 years ago after a series of new extensions were built. Six years ago, planning approval was given to convert the property into self-contained flats and it’s believed to have been used to house asylum seekers for at least two years.
When I visited, I found an old damaged sofa and boxes of rubbish dumped in a hallway lined with peeling wallpaper; prams, bikes and pairs of shoes left in corridors and a fire extinguisher stood on the floor being used to prop open a fire door. Grubby and stained carpets were covered in dirt and dropped litter, while two main ground-floor entrance doors leading into the complex were wide open.
A notice in different languages requesting residents to use a supplied vacuum cleaner to keep the corridors tidy was among rubbish stashed into one of the boxes. The vacuum cleaner – unemptied and full of dirt – was among a clutter of prams and toys on a landing.
Once used as a communal area for elderly residents, a conservatory was crammed with discarded cardboard packaging, white electrical goods items still wrapped in cellophane and a large bed mattress, also wrapped in plastic. Outside, more dumped bags of rubbish were scattered around an overgrown garden area alongside a discarded sofa and an old moss-covered garden seat.
The only current communal space for people living there is a small laundry room.
There are no waste recycling facilities for residents. Instead, several large bins usually used for commercial waste and supplied by the council are emptied once a fortnight. On my visit, the bins were overflowing with rubbish – some of it food waste – and were partially blocking the main entrance to the property.
Life in the complex
One woman who lives there with her two-year-old daughter said, “We share a bedroom. Our flat is very small and we only have a shower not a bath but I try to keep it clean. I only speak to my neighbour, I don’t know anyone else here. There are lots of different nationalities here”.
Each one-bedroom flat has an open-plan kitchen and lounge, a shower and a toilet. There are also five two-bed flats at the complex.
The woman added, “It can be very noisy because people come and go all the time. It’s not very nice. We just stay in our flat because there’s nowhere to go and I don’t go out after it gets dark. If you have a problem, there is a number to call. Sometimes they come to fix things but not all the time”.
On my late morning visit, nearly all the curtains in the flats were pulled shut. The woman led me from the main hallway entrance to a locked external door on the ground floor leading to an outdoor space at the rear of the property. “I don’t have a key. It’s always locked as far as I know”, she said. “I have been here for more than a year. I don’t know when I will be able to move somewhere else.”
Neighbours who live nearby say rotting rubbish left near the bins regularly attracts rats to their gardens. One man said, “We get rats down here all the time now. It was never like this when it was an old people’s home. It was a lovely place back then. The smell from the bins can be disgusting. It’s not right that people have to live like this”.
A visit by the fire service
In a statement, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service said it had recently visited the property after concerns were raised:
“We responded the same day and attended with both a fire engine crew and an experienced building safety inspector. As with every visit of that type, we always prioritise the safety of residents, visitors or employees and if any issues are identified we will seek to work with people on site to rectify them there and then.
“We will also seek to work with responsible persons to provide advice and support as required. If necessary we may also take proportionate enforcement action. Our primary concern is ensuring that the means of escape and detection and alarm systems provided within the premises are both suitable and sufficient in line with current legislation.”
City council concerns
During a recent inquiry by MPs on the public accounts committee into asylum accommodation, Hull City Council submitted detailed written evidence outlining concerns over the delivery of the Mears contract.
“Since the start of the contract, Hull City Council and other local authorities have been informed by the Home Office and Mears that the use of hotels as initial accommodation would continue unless local authorities, including Hull, would agree to increased asylum procurement and increases in asylum numbers.
“The council regards this as an attempt to force local authorities, who are already committing a great deal to existing asylum and refugee provision, to accept increased impacts on services, the voluntary sector and the local community.
“The council has concerns around the lack of systems in place to monitor risks within the contract, particularly around the delivery of safeguarding and health and welfare functions in respect of the asylum seekers being accommodated both in hotels and in dispersed accommodation.
“Processes in place appear to be inadequate and largely unmanaged; there are also significant knock-on consequences to the public purse as locally operating public services are forced to step in to support people.”
In its evidence, the council described a move by the government to re-start determining asylum applications and ending support for those being turned down as “irresponsible”, because it was done at a time when Covid-19 cases were rising and lockdown restrictions were increasing.
The authority said the decision had again been taken without any engagement or consultation with local or regional public health officials. The result, it said, led to a “shifting of the responsibility of caring for this cohort of asylum seekers onto local authorities” when the pandemic was already limiting the availability of appropriate legal and voluntary sector support for people who had been refused asylum.
The council added, “It is not appropriate for the government to continue to expect the most deprived parts of the UK to continue to face the greatest impacts of asylum policy and provision. There needs to be some additional resourcing to health and local authorities in order to facilitate their engagement and provision of services around the asylum contracts”.
Public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier said there had been an “unacceptable failure” by the Home Office to communicate with councils and health services over the rapid shift of asylum seekers into hotels and other types of accommodation:
“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.”
John Grayson, of the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, has carried out extensive research on the impact of the contract awarded to Mears and gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry. He said, “The contracts are the largest ever awarded by the Home Office – literally billions of taxpayers’ money over the next ten years. At present, monitoring, accountability and transparency in the management of them is, in my view, woefully inadequate”.
Emma Hardy, Hull West and Hessle MP, said she had previously raised concerns over the way Mears was operating its contract in Hull. She explained, “Hull is proud to be a city of sanctuary and for playing its part in supporting asylum seekers. We have all seen the horrific images of people trying to flee the Taliban which I know will have moved many people. These desperate families and young children should all have decent accommodation and know that Britain is a country where they can feel safe”.
What Mears and the Home Office say
A Mears spokesperson said, “Temporary use of hotel accommodation is in line with the contingency arrangements taken across the UK to accommodate and support asylum seekers due to a rise in numbers of people in the system. Mears has engaged with the local authority and other partners on these arrangements. We will continue to work to procure suitable dispersal accommodation and reduce hotel use”.
The company said asylum seekers in the hotel were provided with three meals a day along with snacks and drinks. It said on-site support for welfare issues is provided by Mears staff who worked with the NHS to arrange any necessary healthcare. Resident welfare managers employed by the company are based at hotels.
The spokesperson added, “Accommodation is in good repair and cleaned prior to occupation. Service users can report any issues with accommodation directly or through a reporting service so that we can investigate and take any action that is needed”.
Addressing the issues at the former care home in West Hull, the spokesperson said, “Issues were identified on recent inspection, discussions have taken place with service users and contact with the local authority has been made. There was a recent occasion when refuse was not collected due to bin lids not being closed. Service users have been advised of the importance of closing bins. Fire safety checks take place on a regular basis and any issues are addressed.”
In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said:
“We are dealing with an unprecedented increase in asylum cases but despite this we continue to ensure that the accommodation provided is safe, secure and leaves no one destitute. We are satisfied that our contractors are meeting their obligations to provide suitable accommodation.”