Author: Helen Pidd
The UK’s most deprived wards, including several in Greater Manchester, are carrying a hugely disproportionate weight.
Three years ago, Theresa May gave a speech promising that the UK would be a “beacon of hope” to those fleeing persecution. “Let Britain stand up for the displaced, the persecuted and the oppressed,” she said. As home secretary, she announced an overhaul of the system that at the time saw 34,363 asylum seekers supported in the UK and which should, she suggested, “distinguish carefully between economic migrants and genuine refugees.” Back then, in October 2015, May’s own local authority area in wealthy Berkshire looked after precisely three of them.
Three years on, there are now 42,352 asylum seekers receiving government support while they wait ever longer for a letter granting them refugee status and the right to remain in the UK. None of them are in Windsor and Maidenhead, where May has been MP for 21 years. Nor are they in Runnymede, the affluent slice of Surrey commuterville represented by the chancellor, Philip Hammond. In Bromsgrove, where the current home secretary, Sajid Javid, is MP, there was just one asylum seeker receiving support from the local authority in the first quarter of this year (the latest period for which figures are available): support that usually consists of a room in a shared house and £37.75 a week to pay for food, clothing and toiletries.
Meanwhile in Greater Manchester, there are 6,681 supported and accommodated asylum seekers: a 102% increase since 2003. Some 997 of them are in Rochdale, one of the poorest 10 boroughs, amounting to one in 200 residents. “It cannot be right that towns in Greater Manchester have more asylum seekers clustered in a handful of wards than entire regions in the rest of the country,” the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, wrote in a letter to Javid earlier this month, threatening to stop accepting any more.
The chosen wards are always in the most deprived areas: scruffy streets off Manchester’s Curry Mile, or in Gorton, the setting for Channel 4’s Shameless, where you can easily rent a three-bed house for £600. In Trafford, the wealthiest of Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs, and one of the few with a Tory MP, there were just 142 asylum seekers receiving support at the last count.
It is not difficult to work out why. Serco, which holds the government contract for looking after asylum seekers in the north-west of England and Scotland, is a private company. It has to make a profit and cuts costs by renting the cheapest properties available.
You could argue that Greater Manchester only has itself to blame. Local authorities can refuse to be asylum dispersal areas, and plenty do. Others say yes, knowing full well that their house prices mean Serco and co will never take up their kind offer.
You could argue, too, that asylum seekers represent a tiny proportion of immigrants coming to the UK each year. Last year, for example, some 141,416 family visas were granted, including 68,726 dependants, and you don’t hear Burnham complaining about them. Unlike asylum seekers, most of whom are fit, young, single men, those new arrivals have the immediate right to claim benefits. They are also much more likely to require expensive hospital care – for example, by giving birth – and to require places at the local school.
But that ignores the cohesion issues that can arise in communities which have seen drastic increases in asylum seekers in recent years. In Bolton, home to 1,038 asylum seekers, too many are placed in “challenging areas where you may tend to have some nationalist tendencies”, according to David Greenhalgh, leader of the Conservative group on the council. He pointed to the case of two new arrivals, a mother and her teenage son, who this summer were seriously injured in an alleged race hate attack in Breightmet, a deprived area of Bolton that has become home to many asylum seekers. A man goes on trial next month charged with racially aggravated GBH.
Earlier this year Julie Elliott, the Labour MP for Sunderland Central, wrote to the home secretary to ask the Home Office to stop sending asylum seekers to the north-east due to “tensions” in the area. Far-right groups had seized on the local case of a Pakistani asylum seeker caught by paedophile hunters, who told a court he didn’t know it was illegal to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. A compromise was struck, with the Home Office agreeing to pause the dispersal of all immigration bail cases to the north-east.
With hate crimes on the rise, and the asylum dispersal process currently under review, the government must move on from a contracting model in which providers race to the bottom by renting the cheapest possible properties. As the Local Government Association has argued, local authorities should be asked to take asylum seekers based on their capacity, rather than on the cost of accommodation in their area. And if May is serious about the country being a “beacon of hope”, she should start in her own constituency.