Councils in areas where there is no housing available at benefit rates may receive a top-up to help them house Syrian refugees, a Home Office minister has said.
Speaking at the Local Government Association executive meeting on Thursday, Richard Harrington, the minister with responsibility for the resettlement programme for 20,000 Syrians, said that the government was working on a top-up facility.
His comments came in response to concerns raised by Hackney LBC’s mayor Jules Pipe (Lab) who said there was no accommodation in many London boroughs at rents below the local housing allowance cap.
Mr Harrington said: “It is quite clear that unless we offer some sort of top-up facility it is going to be impossible for you to do it. We are aware of it and we are working on it.”
The civil servant in charge of the resettlement programme told the meeting the government could not go above the benefit cap but recognised the need for a top-up.
Emma Haddad, director of refugee resettlement operations at the Home Office, said: “We cannot go above the benefit cap. We are not making exceptions because perception-wise that will go down, ministers think, extremely badly with the general British population.
“There is no exception there on the benefit cap but we need to make it work, so there is a top-up we need to make somehow.”
She said the government had already said that it would meet the additional cost of supporting refugees in the first year after their arrival and asked local authorities to supply estimates as soon as possible.
The meeting also heard complaints from the leaders of Wolverhampton City Council and Oldham MBC that the current system for dispersal of asylum seekers leads to disproportionately high concentrations of asylum seekers in some areas.
Wolverhampton leader Roger Lawrence (Lab) said: “Unless we get dispersal right and get it right quickly you are going to find a lot of people saying we won’t do what you want us to do.”
Oldham leader Jim McMahon (Lab) said the distribution of asylum seekers around the country “could not be described as fair and equitable”.
He told the meeting that some authorities “notionally receive asylum seekers but at some point rehouse them elsewhere, often in the north of England” but the funding remained with the authority where they were received rather than where they lived.
In response, Mr Harrington gave an “absolute commitment” that funding in the Syria programme would “follow the person” to wherever they live rather than remaining with the first local authority that receive them.
Ms Haddad said the reason that local authority participation in the Syria resettlement programme had been made voluntary was so that authorities could decide not to come forward if they already felt they were already at full capacity with asylum seekers from the dispersal programme.
The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme will provide five-year visas to 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees currently living in camps in neighbouring countries under UN HCR protection.
Warwickshire CC will open an assessment centre for refugees just before Christmas. Izzi Seccombe (Con), the council’s leader and chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said the refugees are expected to be there for two to three weeks each.