Monday, November 22, 2010

Robert Brown and Anne McLaughlin stand up for Glasgow's asylum seekers

One of the things that has made me absolutely furious this past week is the disgraceful disregard and lack of understanding that Glasgow City Council and the UK Border Agency seem to have for the vulnerable asylum seekers who are housed in Glasgow. These two organisations are arguing about money and over 1300 vulnerable people in almost 600 households are caught in the crossfire. The Council has had a contract until now to provide temporary accommodation to  asylum seekers. This expires in February. It hasn't been renewed because the Council wants more money.

Last week, the affected families received letters from the UK Border Agency saying that they could be asked to move, at 3-5 days notice, with one or two bags each to anywhere in the Scotland region. Scotland is a big place, stretching all the way from Dumfries and Galloway to Caithness and Sutherland on the mainland 400 miles away.  That's not counting the northern or western isles, which are also part of this fabulous country.

Neither the Council nor the UK Border Agency seem to be looking at what an enforced move will mean for those families. Children who are settled at school and have been so for some years could be uprooted at a critical stage in the school year. That is just completely unacceptable. The UK Border Agency and Glasgow City Council should hang their heads in shame at the distress and upset they have jointly caused.

This issue brought a touch of seriousness to an otherwise pathetic First Minister's Questions the other day. Anne McLaughlin, who of course had done so much work on behalf of asylum seekers, including Florence and Precious Mhango, first asked about it and Robert Brown, Liberal Democrat MSP for Glasgow followed with this?

 Does the First Minister share my view that the priority now must be to retain asylum seekers in their current homes and to keep their children in their current schools? Regardless of the management arrangements that are contracted for by the UKBA, stability and security are vital for such people, many of whom, as the First Minister touched on, have gone through horrendous experiences at the hands of oppressive regimes abroad.
Do the protocols regarding the treatment of asylum seekers that were arrived at with such great difficulty between successive Scottish Governments and the most recent UK Government give the Scottish Government the opportunity to discuss practical solutions to the issues at hand with the Border Agency and, indeed, the UK Government?
The FM's helpful reply was
I  must confess that I have never found the UK Border Agency to be among the foremost advocates of the respect agenda between Westminster and Scotland. Nonetheless, given that the important matter here is the treatment of people who are in a vulnerable situation, we will take up Robert Brown's suggestion and will seek to use the protocols to defend their position.
In my experience the UK Border Agency takes no notice of anyone, so it's not just the Scottish Government it disrespects. I have no time for them at all and it's high time some Government ministers shook the place up completely and made it take a more compassionate, civilised tone with people.

I feel, though that there's a bit of a wider issue here, though, generally, about how we treat homeless households. If a family is made homeless, their local  Council has to give them accommodation, but it could be anywhere within that Council area and they can be moved on at very short notice to other accommodation which similarly can be anywhere in their area. Now that's fine if it's fairly compact Council area, but look at Fife. I've seen people in desperate housing need from Dunfermline be put in Cupar, Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy. In some circumstances it's meant that the adults in the household can't continue to work because they're away from their support network, or they work shifts and there's no public transport available outside peak times. Although generally the kids get to stay at their school, they often face a long journey to get there.

This is a function of there simply not being enough affordable social housing and so far nobody seems to be coming up with suggestions to alleviate that. When Governments and Councils draw up procedures and work out how to deliver services they really need to think about what it actually means for people to go through them and try to draw up the service round the needs of the people and not themselves. The way homeless people are treated is just one example of how services fail to do that. And what the UK Border Agency seeks to do to those asylum seekers in Glasgow  is even worse.

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