More councils need to help house asylum seekers despite concerns about a lack of funding and suitable properties, according to immigration minister Brandon Lewis.
While the government is “well on track and slightly ahead” of its commitment to resettle over the course of this parliament 20,000 refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and north Africa, Mr Lewis did not provide a figure for how many had been found homes.
However, he said meeting the government’s target “depends” on the support of councils and added those which had found homes for refugees were “making a real difference” to people and allowing them to “rebuild their lives”.
Speaking at the Local Government Association’s councillors’ forum in London on Thursday, Mr Lewis said: “Too many children are still being looked after in areas caring for a disproportionate number of children. The transfer process is taking too long to complete in too many cases…
“But I am aware there is some reluctance to participate in the scheme from some local authorities because of the concerns about the cost of placements compared to Home Office funding.”
He also acknowledged that securing appropriate housing for refugees “can be a challenging process”.
LGC reported at the beginning of the year how some councils were forced to reconsider resettling child asylum seekers due to spiralling costs.
The government then subsequently shut down the scheme to bring unaccompanied child refugees to the UK under an amendment to the Immigration Act which allowed councils to take a “specified number” of children instead of 3,000 as had previously been stated by former prime minister David Cameron.
Mr Lewis said 480 children had been transferred to councils around the country under this particular scheme.
“In doing that you’ve taken a great deal of pressure off the small number of local authorities that were provisionally looking after far too many UASCs [unaccompanied asylum seeking children]. Those children needed our help and your support,” he said.
In a session after Mr Lewis had delivered his speech, concerns were raised about refugees being placed in poor quality homes.
David Simmonds, the Conservative group leader on the LGA, said: “The contracts which the Home Office has to procure accommodation are very much a race to the bottom of the market.
“One of the reasons why many areas don’t participate is not so much the councils are reluctant to have asylum seekers placed but the contractors have won the contract from the Home Office on the basis of putting the migrants and asylum seekers in the cheapest possible accommodation that’s available in the country. That often leads to them having contracts with landlords who are in some cases slum landlords.”
In his speech, Mr Lewis said those contracts are up for renegotiation in 2019 and pledged to address issues, including ensuring better information is shared more widely and to enable local authorities plan better.
He said, however, “there is no silver bullet” and added: “Not all of the issues are tied up in the contracts and in many respects there’s no need to wait until 2019 to make some of the improvements we would all like to see… My officials stand ready to work with you to do that now.”
Mr Lewis said it was important “we do not actually accidentally move problems or burdens around” when tackling the issues.
The government is also due to publish an integration strategy “later this autumn”, he said.