The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced a national dispersal policy for asylum seekers to ease pressure on authorities in London and Kent. Many councils and local agencies, receiving asylum seekers for the first time, will find this a significant challenge.
The commission found several areas of good practice, but variation overall in local agencies' abilities to provide for their needs:
- Poor information about asylum seekers' needs often hinders service planning - only 12 per cent of authorities with a social services department have a refugee strategy in place;
- Some schools and GPs are reluctant to accept asylum seekers, especially if they impose new demands on stretched services;
- Language barriers and low staff awareness of asylum seekers' rights and entitlements are persistent problems.
Improvements in the national framework are also needed. Uncertainty about the length of time that decisions take inevitably impedes local agencies' service planning, and recent improvements in their processing must be sustained. There are also concerns that the government's funding mechanisms may not reflect the full cost in the short term to those councils and health authorities providing services to this high needs group in dispersal areas in England and Wales.
The Audit Commission calls for local authorities, and their partner agencies such as health authorities and housing associations, to:
- Work together to review services for asylum seekers, establishing clear lines of responsibility, and consider how resources can be pooled to develop joint provision;
- Take steps to make local services more accessible, for example through better signposting, staff training, interpretation, translation and advocacy services;
- Identify the needs and profile of all asylum seekers within their area, develop effective consultation methods, and ensure data is shared between agencies;
- Develop positive public relations strategies to promote consistent messages in their area.
Recommendations for central government include:
- The home office needs to ensure that government policy on asylum seekers and refugees is better co-ordinated nationally;
- The home office, the DfEE and the department of health need to ensure that resources are available to meet the reasonable costs of statutory services for new dispersal areas;
- The National Asylum Support Service should analyse the comparative costs of services to asylum seekers around the country.
Andrew Foster, controller of the Audit Commission said:
'This report shows that dispersal arrangements for asylum seekers can work, but a number of barriers remain at the local and national level. Providing all the appropriate services is a big challenge for local agencies - particularly where there is little history of providing such support. Both national and local government need to ensure that they are doing all they can to make dispersal a success.'