Council’s senior officers raise concerns about refugee resettlement capabilities
Under resourced North unitary is struggling to find the right staff to help
By Sarah Ward
A report about North Northamptonshire Council’s housing responsibilities to asylum seekers and refugees has said the authority’s efforts to recruit staff is ‘proving challenging’ and there is a risk the current workload and new demand may lead to staff going off with stress or resigning.
The report written by the authority’s executive director for adults, communities and wellbeing David Watts and assistant director Kerry Purnell, says the under pressure authority is working hard to ‘mobilise and expand’ the resettlement team but the executive, which is led by Cllr Jason Smithers, should be aware this is ‘proving challenging’.
As has been widely documented, the unitary authority is carrying several hundreds of vacancies across all departments and is relying on agency staff to plug some of the gaps, but many jobs are unfilled.
Now with a new demand on all local authorities by central government to rehouse asylum seekers as part of its new ‘full asylum dispersal model’ (previously under a quarter of councils in the East Midlands had taken part) the authority’s housing team has been asked to support around 300 people who have mostly come across the English channel on small boats to seek asylum.
The report, which will be discussed by the council’s executive advisory panel for health, wellbeing and vulnerable people panel on Friday, also gives more details about how the now ditched plan by the Home Office to turn a popular Corby hotel into a contingency hotel for asylum seekers came about.
How it will work
Like all local authorities the council is currently providing support to refugees, with more than 300 Ukrainians having settled in the area either through the Homes for Ukraine Scheme or Ukraine Family scheme, and also a smaller number of Afghan refugees settling in the area following the country’s takeover by the Taliban last August (exact numbers have not been made public). More than 450 Ukrainians have settled in the west of the county.
As part of the shift introduced by Boris Johnson’s government in May from an opt in asylum dispersal model to a mandatory system, all authorities are now required to help with resettling people.
The council’s report says the mandatory direction to local authorities has come about due to the increasing numbers of small boats crossing the channel.
It says that:
“Between April and August 2022 13,000 new asylum seekers have crossed the channel to the UK and it is estimated the total figure for 2022-23 will reach 100,000. There are currently over 30,000 asylum seekers temporarily accommodated in Contingency Hotels and the Government wishes to settle them in private rented accommodation across the country as quickly as possible. This is to avoid disproportionate pressure on certain Local Authority areas and to afford Local Authorities more local influence and control on the system.
A national consultation ran during June, not on the full dispersal model per se, as that is adopted, but more on how to implement it and the potential impact on Local Authorities. At a regional briefing on 24th May, it was agreed a regional response to the consultation would be developed by the Regional Migration Partnership and a regional implementation plan would be drafted to include a regional quota for the number of asylum seekers to be allocated.”
The allocation for East Midlands will see numbers rise from the current accommodated figure of 3395, to 6,700 by December 2023.
289 asylum seekers will be accommodated in North Northamptonshire by December next year. (A report about how many asylum seekers will be accommodated in West Northamptonshire has not yet been put before a committee).
Accommodation will be handled by SERCO which will lease properties from private landlords. So far four properties (all in Wellingborough) have been secured by SERCO. Under the arrangement the council is notified of all properties being considered by the contractor and has a week to respond otherwise the report says SERCO will ‘progress the acquisition regardless’.
A multi agency forum has also been set up to discuss matters such as legislation compliance.
The usual support given to asylum seekers through the local authority, such as help with securing education and benefits will be provided.
The authority will be given £3,500 from government for each asylum seeker accommodated in the area. It predicts it will receive just over £1m. Councils receive £10,500 to help each Ukrainian who settled in the area, plus several more thousands for education costs for children.
Concerns about service delivery
Assisting the new asylum seekers will put additional pressure on the already thin housing team.
The report says:
“ . . officers are working hard to mobilise and expand the Resettlement team but the Executive should be aware this is proving challenging. Whilst we have secured, to date, an administrator, a business support officer and one resettlement officer via OPUS [the council’s contracted agency supplier], OPUS are struggling to find more experienced Resettlement officers. We are out to recruit in the wider market but are competing with all other local authorities who are simultaneously trying to recruit to Resettlement teams.
The risks associated with the current workload and new demand which may lead to officers being absent or resigning due to stress.”
In a report to the council last month concerning the Homes for Ukraine scheme, assistant director Kerry Purnell said the amount of work being carried out had led to key projects being delayed:
“With the level of work involved in managing and delivering the day-to-day operational activities, which includes welfare checks, emergency payments and the time-consuming work involved in relationship breakdowns are at full capacity. The intensity, volume of work and re-deployment of officers within the Communities and Wellbeing Team, has meant key projects, such as the Community Strategy and other ‘Day 2’ project work has been delayed.”
When the report goes to the executive next month the Conservative leading group will be ‘asked to note the unintended consequences the various schemes under Refugee Resettlement are having on Council resources and the potential impact on access to services such as education, primary care and other health services and housing.’
There are also concerns detailed in the report about the impact SERCO rentals would have on the council’s own attempts to secure private rented accommodation for people who are without a home. There are thousands on the waiting list and households are becoming homeless each week.
“The housing market is already under acute pressure and as a Housing Service provider the council struggles to access accommodation in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) for customers on our housing register and to prevent homelessness. In addition, the council is already struggling to secure PRS properties for the other refugee programmes for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees (move on from sponsorship).”
Speaking to NN Journal, Leader of the Labour opposition John McGhee said he is fully supportive of the authority helping those in need and Northamptonshire needs to play its part but the council ‘needs to up its game’.
“The council hasn’t got in place the right support they need for the refugees at the moment. It is a local authority’s job to look after people. I detest the fact that the national government thinks it is ok to give these kinds of tasks to the private sector - this should be what the local government does best - providing people with housing and support.”
He said: “We know the national government has cut 50 to 60 per cent of funding to local governments and it is struggling. If they don’t give us the support we will end up being bankrupt, just like the old council.”
More detail about Corby’s scrapped contingency hotel
As reported by the Northants Telegraph last week, the Home office had planned to take over the town’s Rockingham Forest Hotel and use it as a contingency hotel - which would house asylum seekers before their claims had been processed. (There are currently 16 contingency hotels in the East Midlands and the people accommodated in the hotel would have been additional to the 289 allocated to be homed in the area through the full dispersal scheme).
After a public backlash and concerns about transparency from councillors (who were instructed once the decision had been made) the plan was mysteriously ditched by the home office, with councillors being told by the authority that the Home Office had not been able to secure the hotel.
The report to the EAP contains further details on how the plan came about in the first place.
“In May 2022 the Council was notified that the Best Western Rockingham Forest Hotel Corby had been identified as a potential facility for short-term accommodation to asylum seekers (contingency hotel). The purpose of having such a facility is to provide initial short-term accommodation to asylum seekers not using one of the current recognised, official asylum routes.
"Council officers had a virtual meeting with the Regional Migration Partnership, the Home Office and SERCO on 12th August 2022, informing the Council that preparations were almost complete to mobilise the hotel.
Those that arrive at the hotel will only be staying there until dispersal accommodation is identified. Their Asylum status may not be confirmed at the point of arrival, and subject to checks they may or may not be granted asylum.”
The Home Office and SERCO will be operating the arrangements in the hotel and it is expected that occupancy will commence on 19th September 2022.
NNC will support the arrangements on matters that are outside of the usual asylum-seeking process, e.g. if someone stopping at the hotel appeared to have social care needs, officers would assess and potentially provide support with those needs. In addition to this, people staying at the hotel may have health care needs and colleagues from public health are working closely with NHS providers to support this.”
Corby’s MP Tom Pursglove is the former minister for justice and tackling illegal immigration, a job he held until July when the PM resigned. He is now the policing minister.
In a statement issued before the Home Office’s decision to scrap the plan to use the hotel he said the ‘situation is quite clearly highly undesirable.’ He said as a former minister he was not in any way responsible for asylum- related accommodation and would not have been able to make decisions affecting his constituency. He said he had asked for an urgent meeting with the minister responsible and took a swipe at the local Labour party who he claimed had come up with no credible alternative plan to address illegal immigration flows. He said the government had a credible plan, although it would take time to deliver.