Friday, 26 March 2010

South Wales CITIZENS for Sanctuary enjoy second successful negotiation

CITIZENS for Sanctuary in South Wales is a diverse alliance of churches, community groups, drop-in centres and refugee organisations. On Wednesday, a team of leaders from South Wales CITIZENS for Sanctuary held a meeting with Phillip Smith, UKBA Chief of Operations for Wales and South West England which was a great success.

Phillip Smith, who is also head of the Wales Local Immigration Teams, was met at Trinity Methodist Church in Cardiff by a team of seven including leaders from the church, the local Labour Party, the Tenavus charity and Displaced People in Action. The team of leaders had drawn up an agenda to follow-up on the first negotiation with Mr. Smith back in January but also to discuss some new concerns that have been raised and researched by members of the South Wales group.

South Wales CITIZENS for Sanctuary made real steps to changing the Azure card scheme on Wednesday when Mr. Smith was introduced to Alan Bagshaw, a volunteer with Tenavus the cancer charity based in Wales. Alan and Frances, a leader of CITIZENS for Sanctuary and a trustee of Cytun, have been working hard over the last few weeks to get Tenavus to sign up to the Azure card scheme. Signing up a charity shop to the Azure card was deemed a vitally needed change after the action CITIZENS for Sanctuary held in Cardiff which highlighted the poor quality and expensive items currently available at Azure card stores, especially in comparison to the good value for money available at charity shops. Because of the negotiation, the UKBA is now going into talks with Tenavus to make this a reality and, hopefully, to reduce some of the burdens people seeking sanctuary face on the Section 4 support system.

As well as signing up one of the first charity chains to the Azure card, the South Wales CITIZENS for Sanctuary team conducted research within their communities about the continued problems associated with the card. Synne Hathway from Cardiff University STAR compiled a report on the evidence she had gathered since our last meeting with Mr. Smith. Her work revealed a number of continually problematic stores in Cardiff, whose staff were inadequately trained to use the card and as a result had been causing embarrassment and humiliation to people attempting to use their card in the shops. At the meeting Mr. Smith was informed of these problems and is now going to personally submit the information to the contract provider to address the training issues.

Mr. Smith also agreed to investigate the lack of information amongst schools in South Wales, after Lina, a mother from Congo who is seeking sanctuary, told of the difficulties she has experienced trying to tell her son's school that she is without cash and therefore unable to contribute towards school trips or the fruit and veg scheme at school. The CITIZENS for Sanctuary team is simultaneously going to push the Local Education Authority to better educate school staff about the circumstances for those seeking sanctuary in Wales.

Finally, the negotiation team also raised concerns about the UKBA policy for providing emergency travel. Only one person asked in the survey by STAR knew that they were entitle to travel expenses from their Housing Provider for emergency travel and when we raised this with Mr. Smith he was shocked about the lack of knowledge amongst the communities and the Housing Providers of this contractual obligation. The team managed to convince Mr. Smith to write a statement on behalf of the UKBA about the rights and entitlements for people seeking sanctuary to claim travel expenses. South Wales CITIZENS for Sanctuary looks forward to publishing this on the blog and within the communities in Wales to ensure that people seeking sanctuary are able to access the help that has been promised.

The negotiation was a very productive meeting and has been a good building block for strengthening the relationship between the leaders and the UKBA in South Wales. The team was really pleased to capitalise on the promises made at the first negotiation and to see changes beginning to happen in Wales.

Sr. Ruth O'Neill, a leader with CITIZENS for Sanctuary and volunteer at Asylum Justice, said it was "great to speak to someone who has the power to improve things for us".

Frances Ballin, trustee of Cytun, said that she was really pleased by the outcome and, after the meeting, she concluded that "good team work really has begun to show results".

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


An alliance of faith, citizen and refugee groups is celebrating success after the UK Border Agency’s Regional Director of Operations, Eddy Montgomery, agreed to take action on substandard housing conditions for people seeking sanctuary in Greater Manchester.

Greater Manchester CITIZENS for Sanctuary presented Mr Montgomery and the UKBA’s Head of Contracts, Mark Blackledge, with a report showing the shocking results of a citizen inspection exercise in January, when local people visited houses provided by private accommodation providers on behalf of the UKBA.

The Unhappy Homes report documents some of the horrifying conditions people seeking sanctuary in the North West are forced to endure, and the failure of private housing providers to fulfil their contracts and deal effectively with problems in the houses. In 70% of the houses visited, there was no access to either a washing machine or a laundrette. In 65% of the houses the residents had not been provided with the means to clean their home. Pest infestations were a particular problem in the twenty houses visited – rats were present in 2 houses, mice in 3 houses, ants in 2 houses and cockroaches in 3 houses. In one case featured in the report, a woman resorted to sleeping with the lights on to stop the cockroaches crawling onto her bed. Despite complaining to her housing provider nearly every day for the last four months, nothing has been done to eradicate the cockroach infestation.

In addition to promising swift action to resolve issues such as the cockroach infestation, Mr Montgomery agreed to work with Greater Manchester CITIZENS for Sanctuary to improve the induction process for people who have fled persecution and who move in to Manchester, and to explore the idea of a ‘Sanctuary Mark’ which would be awarded to housing providers who provide good quality housing and customer service.

Reverend John Simmons, a leader with Greater Manchester CITIZENS for Sanctuary, said:
“We were delighted that Mr Montgomery at the UK Border Agency is taking the Unhappy Homes report seriously. He has promised simple practical actions that will make life better for people who live in these homes - for example, ensuring that the housing providers know that they need to provide a lockable bedroom door or a lockable wardrobe so that people can protect their belongings. This is a great achievement for Greater Manchester CITIZENS for Sanctuary.”

Daniel Murphy, of the UNITE trade union and a leader with Greater Manchester CITIZENS Sanctuary, said:
“As a taxpayer, I want my money to be used effectively and at the moment the housing providers are breaking their contractual agreement with the UKBA. It’s a scandal that we’re paying these landlords to do provide such an appalling service. I’m glad the UKBA is now listening to our concerns and we are going to monitor the complaints system over the next few months to ensure housing defects, infestations and faulty appliances are being dealt with quickly and effectively.”

Eddy Montgomery, Director of Operations for the UK Border Agency in the North West, said:

"We are always keen to hear the views of our stakeholders and I am pleased with the constructive nature of discussions with CITIZENS for Sanctuary. The UK Border Agency treats asylum seekers with dignity and respect and as such we require accommodation providers to comply with a comprehensive statement of requirements for all accommodation which includes an obligation to comply with Local Authorities housing standards.”