Delays and lack of sensitivity have been cited by the
Welsh consortium for the breakdown in negotiations with the asylum
support service. Anabel Unity Sale
Welsh councils firmly put their collective foot down last week
when all but one of them withdrew from negotiations with the
government’s National Asylum Support Service.
It was another controversial act in the 23-month history of the
home office’s central agency responsible for providing
accommodation and support for asylum seekers.
Nass’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers out of London and the
South East – without giving them a choice – has always attracted
criticism, especially in the aftermath of the murder last August of
Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag, who had been dispersed to a
Glasgow council estate.
Dag’s murder prompted home secretary David Blunkett last
September to order an internal review into how the dispersal system
operates on the ground, the results of which were fed into the
Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill that is currently before
A home office spokesperson says the dispersal programme will
continue to operate alongside the new system of induction,
accommodation, reporting and removal centres proposed in the bill.
So Nass’ major problem now is its crumbling relationships with the
local authorities receiving the asylum seekers it is trying to
In Wales, the consortium of all Welsh councils, except Cardiff
council, decided to withdraw its offer to Nass to provide local
authority accommodation to asylum seekers after two years of
discussions about creating a contract.
Graham Bingham, lead officer of the Welsh consortium and Newport
council’s strategic director for social well-being and housing,
describes the negotiation process as “extremely tortuous and
After much work, a final draft contract to disperse asylum
seekers across the 21 local authorities was agreed just before the
government announced its review of the system.
Bingham says the consortium was initially happy to wait until
after the review but, after seven months, had still heard nothing
from Nass and decided it could wait no longer. Bingham wrote on
behalf of the consortium to Nass setting an end of April deadline
for an answer, but says they received no response. While he
stresses that consortium members have good relationships with
regional Nass staff, he says getting “the organisation” to respond
“We tried to get some kind of answer with increasing regularity
from Nass, but failed to get a yes or a no or any information about
implementing the contract,” he says. “There is a limit to how long
you can keep people dangling.”
In order to implement the dispersal of 2,000 asylum seekers,
consortium members had spent a total £175,000 on establishing
a skeleton framework and had made offers of employment to 35 staff.
Bingham says the majority of the costs were incurred during the
last nine months and now the 21 councils want their money back.
The National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Local Government
Association are backing the consortium’s demand for reimbursement.
WLGA head of social affairs Lynda Bransbury says that each council
in the consortium is at least £8,000 in debt as a result of
preparing to disperse asylum seekers for Nass.
“The consortium needs to know that the home office will
reimburse its costs,” she says. “If the home office doesn’t refund
them they will have to find the money from other budgets, which
will means cuts elsewhere in their services.”
Bransbury adds that if the situation in Wales is not resolved
then only private accommodation providers and Cardiff council will
continue to receive dispersed asylum seekers. She says the
government will have to take steps to convince the country that it
can still disperse asylum seekers effectively.
“If there is no consortium in Wales, the home office has to
create the confidence that the dispersal system is organised in a
co-ordinated way,” Bransbury says.
A home office spokesperson says the department is disappointed
with the consortium’s decision, and regrets that is has withdrawn
its offer of accommodation. However, on the question of
compensation, they add that it “would not be normal practice to
reimburse the type of costs outlined by the consortium”.
Whether or not the withdrawal of the other councils means more
asylum seekers for Cardiff remains to be seen, but a Cardiff
council spokesperson says the council is not envisaging a change in
its current dispersal arrangements with Nass. Cardiff began its own
contract with Nass in April 2001, and is committed to providing
1,000 beds for asylum seekers over a five-year period.
The spokesperson describes the council’s relationship with Nass
The Welsh consortium is not the first to threaten Nass with
withdrawing its offer of accommodation for dispersed asylum
seekers. In February, Edinburgh council said it would withdraw
because it claimed the home office had ignored it during plans to
set up a detention centre in the city. The council said the home
office informed the media about plans for the centre before it
consulted the council.
At the time, council leader Donald Anderson said: “We have been
keen to discharge our responsibility fully in terms of asylum
seekers. In order to do that we need a degree of partnership
between ourselves and the home office. The way this has come about
has got that off to a bad start.”
An Edinburgh council spokesperson says the authority has now
“withdrawn from formal negotiations” with Nass, although informal
talks are continuing.
Another council, which does not wish to be named, says it never
openly criticises Nass or the home office because it would damage
their relationship. But it says that it is often misinformed by
Nass about the arrival times of asylum seekers.
So is it possible for local authorities to have a constructive
relationship with Nass? Sam Newman, who is responsible for Devon
council’s five-year contract with Nass that started in March 2001,
believes it is. But it requires a lot of hard work.
Newman admits he has great sympathy with the Welsh councils
because the South West consortium in which Devon was involved also
collapsed at the 11th hour.
According to Newman, the reason Devon’s contract with Nass works
is because of the perseverance of two members of the agency’s
staff. And unlike most contracts with Nass, Devon does not have a
set number of asylum seekers to accommodate.
“The two key members of staff were keen to make something work
for us,” he says. “They were able to understand our perspective and
able to make decisions that stick.”
Despite having a contract that works well, Newman says the
council still feels like it is “fighting against a bureaucratic
“It was difficult getting Nass to accept our needs because they
had to get outside of their London perspective to see what works
well,” Newman says.
“Nass needs to understand that there is a whole different
perspective out there. If it did that it would get a huge amount of
co-operation and support from local authorities to help them do a
very difficult job.”
Dave Garratt, deputy director of asylum advice at Refugee
Action, says Nass should not expect all councils to be able to work
together in a consortium to disperse asylum seekers. He says:
“There needs to be an appreciation that local authorities may not
wish to or cannot work together on asylum seekers and need to do so
separately.” Garratt adds that appropriate regional planning, and
resources must be allocated if councils are to create their own
contracts with Nass.