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A lack of bedspaces has led to hotels being used as asylum accommodation

Insufficient bedspaces across the asylum accommodation estate has required greater use of contingency asylum accommodation over the past few years. This has mostly been provided as rooms in hotels leased by the Home Office and its suppliers. Contingency accommodation must be procured because the Home Office has statutory responsibilities to provide for the essential living needs of all destitute asylum seekers.

Pressures on the availability of asylum accommodation have largely been caused by changing patterns of people entering and leaving the asylum system. Recent governments have attributed this to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increase in small boat crossings since late 2018. Increases in the length of time taken to decide cases also means people have been staying in asylum accommodation for longer.

Using contingency hotel accommodation has had a major effect on the asylum support budget. The Home Office spent around £3.6 billion on asylum support costs in 2022/23, nearly double spending in 2021/22. About £2.28 billion was spent on hotel accommodation in the last financial year.

Contingency hotels have been more widely used and for much longer than originally anticipated. Around 47,500 people (42% of people in receipt of asylum support) were in hotel accommodation at the end of March 2023. This compares to around 9,500 asylum seekers in hotels in October 2020.

The Home Office is trying to increase accommodation supply and reduce the asylum caseload

Ending reliance on contingency hotel accommodation has been a priority for successive governments since 2020. Their efforts have focussed on increasing the supply of mainstream asylum accommodation, identifying suitable sites for new large-scale accommodation facilities, and implementing broader reforms to the asylum system.

Rishi Sunak’s government has continued with this approach. Recent actions to add bedspaces include:

  • Maximising capacity by requiring asylum seekers to share hotel rooms.
  • Trying to increase the supply of accommodation, by requiring all local authoities to participate in the asylum dispersal scheme and increasing their funding, and easing some licensing requirements.
  • Developing new large-scale accommodation facilities on land and in moored vessels. These will provide basic accommodation and are intended to have a deterrent effect.

The government is also making policy and legislative changes to deter irregular migration and clear the backlog of undecided asylum claims, such as though the Illegal Migration Bill and the introduction of a streamlined asylum process for certain nationalities.

How much progress has it made?

There have been criticisms that recent measures focus on adding accommodation capacity rather than reducing use of hotels. Ministers have not publicly expressed a specific timeframe for ending hotel accommodation.

An average of 48 additional dispersal beds became available each week between April 2022 and April 2023. The Home Office’s target is to procure 350 new beds each week. But even if meets its targets for new bedspaces and the number of asylum decisions, it would still need to use hotel accommodation.

So far, the Home Office has procured three accommodation vessels (one of which will be moored at Portland Port) and identified four land-based sites for possible use as asylum accommodation (RAF Scampton, MoD Wethersfield, Catterick Garrison, and Northeye facility in Bexhill). Collectively, these could provide at least 6,400 extra bedspaces. All the sites have generated significant local opposition and several have been subject to legal challenges, which have affected the anticipated timeframes for bringing them into use. The Bibby Stockholm barge at Portland is expected to be the first to open.

Legal challenges to use of hotels and government-owned military sites

Some local authorities have sought court injunctions from the High Court to prevent accommodation providers from using hotels to house asylum seekers. They have done so on planning grounds.

Planning permission from the local planning authority is usually needed to ‘materially’ change the use of a building or land. The local authorities argued that using hotels to house asylum seekers was a ‘material change of use’ which required their planning permission. However, accommodation providers did not obtain their permission.

Braintree District Council sought an injunction to prevent the Home Office from using a Ministry of Defence site to accommodate people seeking asylum. The Home Office had used powers that the government has to undertake development on its own land in an ‘emergency’ without planning permission. The council argued that the conditions for these powers to be used were not met.

The High Court decided to not issue injunctions, however. Applications made by West Lindsey District Council and Rother District Council for judicial review of the government’s use of emergency powers will be heard in July 2023.

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