Home Office facing legal action over ‘unfair’ asylum dispersal system

Home Office facing legal action over ‘unfair’ asylum dispersal system
Ministers accused of ‘irrational, undemocratic abuse of power’ after refusal to accept councils’ decision to stop taking in asylum seekers

A group of cross-party local council leaders have launched legal action against the Home Office over its “unfair” and ”fundamentally flawed” asylum dispersal system which they say is leading to vulnerable migrants missing out on vital services.

Six local authorities in the West Midlands, plus Tory-led Stoke-on-Trent, have accused the department of an “irrational, undemocratic abuse of power” after it refused to accept their decision to stop taking in asylum seekers.

The asylum dispersal system is designed to allocate asylum seekers to different parts of the UK, into Home Office funded accommodation, while they await a decision on their claim.

However, concern has been mounting in recent years that the placement of these individuals is concentrated in certain parts of the country – often towns and cities with higher levels of deprivation – and that this is causing a strain on local services.

The councils – Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry, Walsall, Birmingham, Dudley and Sandwell – said they made up a “small proportion of mainly urban councils in the UK” who take in the bulk of asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their claims.

They wrote a letter to the home secretary in March stating that they had decided to suspend participation in the asylum dispersal scheme because large numbers of people were being placed in areas that already exceed the recommended ratio of one asylum seeker to 200 local residents.

The Home Office has contested this decision, and the councils have subsequently taken legal action through the High Court in Birmingham “to resolve this issue”.

Cllr Ian Brookfield, leader of City of Wolverhampton Council, which is leading on the legal action, told The Independent the asylum dispersal scheme was “flawed and fundamentally broken”, and that it had been “hidden away from the British public”.

“Fundamentally, it’s unfair. There are hundreds of authorities up and down the country who turn a blind eye to this issue, so the Home Office keeps coming back to the authorities that have always been willing to help,” he said.

“We’ve been speaking to the Home Office about this and we haven’t had any reassurances. Nothing changes. They need to implement – not just talk about – a fairer, equitable and appropriately funded national system.

“We can’t talk about this anymore, so until things change, we are sadly removing ourselves – with a heavy heart – from the national dispersal scheme that we’ve been part of for years.”

It comes as local authorities are being urged by the Home Office to come forward to offer homes to newly arrived Afghan families.

Cllr Brookfield added that it was a “strange circumstance” for the councils to find themselves in given that they were some of the first local authorities to come forward to resettled Afghan refugees.

“Three months ago before it hit the television, the whole of the West Midlands, all the local authorities – cross-party – said yes we want to help those people who helped the British army in Afghanistan,” he said.

“We still want to be involved, but you can’t keep drawing from the same well. We can’t provide more than what we’re already doing.”

Cllr Abi Brown, Conservative leader of Stoke-on-Trent Council, said that to make the system “fair” the Home Office must “encourage – or ideally mandate” – authorities to take part.

“People are concentrated in neighbourhoods where the value of housing is very low, and those neighbourhoods already have often significant issues of their own. It’s neither fair to the asylum seekers we are placing there, nor to the residents who are already there,” she said.

“We need a national debate on this, around the pressures and the benefits that come with asylum dispersal.”

Cllr George Duggins, leader of Coventry City Council, which is taking part in the legal action despite having been a City of Sanctuary since 1999, said the Home Office was “kicking the issue into the long grass” and that asylum seekers were suffering as a result as it was becoming difficult to access health services and other support in the region.

“If everybody took their fair share this wouldn’t be such a problem. Asylum seekers themselves would have a much better quality of life. It’s an issue for the whole of the country, and that needs to now be addressed. They can’t keep coming to the same authorities,” he added.

Cllr Duggins said the Home Office was making the situation worse by leaving asylum seekers “in limbo” for long periods due to delays in the system, adding: “On top of the Windrush scandal, this is evidence that the Home Office is still not fit for purpose. The problem is, everybody else picks up the cost.”

A statement issued on behalf of the councils on Tuesday states: “Failing to respect our decision is an irrational, undemocratic abuse of power – volunteering authorities should have the same rights as those that have previously never volunteered and still refuse to do so.

“We want to stress that we are absolutely committed to continuing to play our rightful role in providing safe refuge and a positive future for those seeking or granted asylum, but the level of this must be proportionate and reasonable. In reality, this will only be achieved by the government taking the action we have requested.”

A Home Office spokesperson said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on ongoing litigation, but that it was working on an a plan in partnership with local authorities to achieve a more equitable dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK.

They added: “The government is committed to doing everything necessary to protect the rights of asylum seekers and provide them with the safe, secure accommodation they deserve.

“We are working closely with our accommodation providers to increase the amount of dispersed accommodation available to us. We need the support of local authorities to do that and we are committed to working with them.”