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Private sector fails to look after asylum seekers

May seems unlikely to be a merry month for those caught up in Glasgow's asylum-seeking drama.

It marks the official start of a transition period to the private sector company given a five-year contract to provide accommodation for would-be refugees dispersed to Glasgow and the rest of Scotland.

Already the 89 failed asylum seekers given notice of eviction by current contract holders Ypeople face the prospect of destitution if they are not repatriated.

It is a sad and sorry tale which has left Ypeople cast as involuntary villains despite the fact it became unsustainable for them to continue to offer housing to people for whom they can claim no funds after their application has failed. They were originally part of a tripartite contract with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) which included Glasgow City Council and private contractor Angel. When the council failed to agree new terms with the UKBA last November, Ypeople were left carrying a very expensive can.

It estimates that over the past two years they have spent more than £800,000 in housing support services and utilities for failed asylum seekers. In March their efforts were rewarded with rejection, when the UKBA plumped to hand the support contract to Serco, one of the companies who have hoovered up hundreds of millions of pounds of Government contracts.

The Scottish Refugee Council has voiced its concern about a private company being given the job of looking after the housing needs of our most vulnerable immigrants when their only current experience in the field has been running much-criticised detention centres. Meanwhile, Serco has indicated it will be subcontracting the work to letting agency Orchard and Shipman, whose commercial skillset hardly seems the best fit for this particular clientele.

The Refugee Council's experience of private sector contractors has been less than comforting. When it asked for feedback on asylum accommodation in Glasgow, 97% of complaints were about provider Angel.

Since all of these policies are determined at Westminster, Holyrood is unable to impose more demanding conditions on contractors. All the Scottish Government can do is tinker around the edges. Failed asylum seekers, for instance, can access free health care here which is denied them in England.

It's all part of a punitive regime run with the stated intent of making Britain an undesirable place to seek sanctuary. The statistics tell you all you need to know: in 2005 we offered essential protection to one in four people who contended the risk of returning home would be too great. Now it's one in 10.

That should be a matter for great shame, as should the policy of offering only what is termed "cashless support". It means hostel accommodation will supply basic meals but no visible means of financial support. And, perversely, you will not be allowed to work. As a consequence, the hard-pressed charitable sector has had to find scarce funds to construct a safety net.

As the Scottish Refugee Council bleakly observes, the efforts of Glasgow City Council and Ypeople to interpret the rules as humanely as possible "has masked the true extent and impact of abject destitution experienced by refused asylum seekers in Glasgow compared to other parts of the UK. Charities such as the Scottish Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Refuge Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing, as well as local faith and community groups, are increasingly having to pick up the pieces of UK Government policies".

Neither is this suspicion that some public services are comprehensively unsuited to be run as private sector commercial concerns confined to the welfare of our most vulnerable citizens. The recent scandal at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary saw unsavoury chickens coming home to roost thanks to the nature of contracts awarded under the Private Finance Initiative.

Trumpeted as the only way to restore schools and hospitals in a timely fashion, these contracts are often sold on, providing a cash cow for the initial bidder, but a long-term financial burden for the institution.

The Edinburgh case highlighted why hospital, health and welfare contracts should never be dispersed on crude commercial calculations.

Two operating theatres were left without power at the end of March, one was in the midst of a surgical procedure. This is not an isolated incident, according to NHS Lothian. Executive director Alan Boyter attributed the problems to PFI provider Consort and described incidents as "repeated, serious and potentially life-threatening".

From time to time members of the Westminster Coalition cabinet accuse Scotland of refusing to "modernise"; of clinging to outmoded means of running public services.

No system should be preserved in aspic. And no government should be immune to innovation. But neither should we resort to treating those in need of care and support as commodities whose welfare can be put in the hands of the lowest bidder.

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