How the Home Office, Serco and G4S catastrophically mishandled asylum contracts

It was mishandled every step of the way. Each stage of the outsourcing of asylum housing contracts to three private sector providers was typified by incompetence and indifference.

Today's public accounts committe report lays it out step-by-step, in depressing detail.

In March 2012, the Home Office decided it wanted to shave off £140 million from the price of housing the 23,000 destitute asylum seekers waiting to be cleared. It did this by taking the 22 contracts from 13 different suppliers, scrapping them, and instead handing just six contracts to three suppliers - G4S, Serco and Clearel - only the latter of which has any experience in this area.

This is against government policy, which is supposed to be encouraging small-and-medium-sized companies to supply government services. Instead, the Home Office handed more work to a firm which was at that exact moment spectacularly failing to satisfy its contractual obligations for the London Olympics.

The trouble with streamlining providers is that it turns any breakdown from an inconvenience into a catastrophy. Where there is a diversity of supply, there is a limit on how many people are affected when something goes wrong. Once you're down to just three suppliers, it will affect many more asylum seekers. When it comes to housing for the most vulnerable people in the country that can have severe reprecussions, from homelessness to forced prostitution.

"The knowledge of experienced specialist providers has been lost and there are fewer alternative options available to the department if the contractor fails," committee chair Margaret Hodge said.

There was no business case for the change. There does not appear to have been a risk assessment.

The contractors did not even bother to inspect the properties they had inherited.

There was a three month 'mobilisation' period for these complex new contracts, which was a particularly ferocious time frame given the dearth of experience among the firms given the work. The Home Office decided to take a 'hands-off' approach and rushed through transition activities. It didn't facilitate the exchange of information between outgoing and incoming contractors.

The Home Office failed to show any interest in the process. And Serco and G4S showed no interest in inspecting the properties or carrying out due diligence. "This lack of information contributed to delays, additional cost, and disruption and confusion for a very vulnerable group of service users," the report found. But who cares, right? They're only asylum seekers.

Predictably, the Home Office then incurred additional costs. It needed to extend existing contracts  during the transition period and then had to start inspecting property itself.

The quality of the data shared by the department was branded "poor" by the committee at every stage of the process - tender, transition and delivery. Contractors said the Home Office had failed to give them good information, particularly about the quality of the housing stock they were inheriting. But then, they didn't even bother checking it. Poor data apparently contributed to the assumptions which underpinned the bids, such as the ease with which they thought they'd be able get approval from local authorities.

The Home Office even failed to share information about predicted inflows of refugees.

"The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families," Hodge said. "The companies failed to improve quality in a timely manner. None of this was helped by the department's failure to impose penalties on contractors in the transition period. It is disturbing that over a year into the contract the accommodation is still not of the required standard and the department has only chalked up £8 million in savings."

Serco, G4S and the Home Office really are as bad as each other. They are entangled in a marriage of mutual suspicion, laziness and failure of communication. Their behaviour towards the most vulnerable people in Britain is typified by indifference.

That Ukip joke isn't funny anymore

We've all been in a conspiracy to support Ukip. The hard-right like the party because it agrees with them. The right-wing of the Tory party likes it because it pushes their own leaders in their direction. The left likes it because it splits the Conservative vote. And people who don't fit into any of those categories like it because it shakes things up a bit.

This website has been just as culpable as the others. For some time, we hosted a column by Godfrey Bloom, who is a peculiarly laughable example of the Ukip politician.

It all seemed safe. Nigel Farage does not come across as too sinister a threat. His cheerful, spittle-lipped bonhomie seems a fairly harmless form of right-wing extremism. For a time, I thought that if that was as far-right as Britain got, we must be doing something right.

That now seems deeply naive. Ukip is doing what it always intended to do: filling our country with poison.

Its latest poster campaign targets the reptile part of the human brain. It digs below the advanced functions into the fight-or-flight mechanism, the bit of us that wants to take and hoard and lash out at anything different.

Of its latest round of posters, the most pernicious features a large hand pointing at the reader with the message: "Twenty six million people in Europe are looking for work – and whose job are they after?"

They've been branded racist on Twitter. Ukip of course denies that. But whoever the hand is pointing at, it is surely not a European person, or else its message would not make sense. And one might reasonably conclude that it does not include people from Somalia or India or Colombia. No, the 'you' is the indigenous Brit - whatever that is. And the 'other', the person taking your job, is 'the foreigner', a word which is increasingly used in this country with a degree of spite.

It is divisive by definition. And the form of division it encourages is based on nationality. No dog whistle is necessary. We can all understand perfectly well what it is trying to say.

Our patience toward Ukip is poisoning our political debate. The decisive moment came during 2010 general election campaign after Gordon Brown's regrettable conversation with Gillian Duffy. The aftermath of that saw commentators and politicians jump up to say how questioning immigration does not make you racist.

This is plainly true. But it is also true that anti-immigrant sentiment can be a Trojan horse for racism - that many of the people who despise immigration are in fact racists and hold a puritanical ethnic and cultural view of what constitutes national identity. This reactionary view of society has been reinforced by mainstream politicians, including the prime minister, insisting that "multiculturalism has failed".

The idea that there has ever been a period in which critics could not discuss immigration is total nonsense. The front pages of the Mail and the Express, to name two of the worst offenders, have screamed anti-immigrant bile for years. One study found that in 2002, 25% of Daily Mail and 24% of Daily Express articles were about asylum. Fifty-three per cent of newspaper stories about asylum were negative. The most common words associated with immigrants and asylum seekers in the national press are 'illegal' and 'bogus'.

Ukip entered this situation with questionable aspirations. Kippers will tell you until they are blue in the face that they are not racist. For many it is surely true. I know some people in Ukip, most of them now running as MEPs, who are personally decent and often good company over dinner. One or two are highly civilized, enjoyably esoteric and sincere.

But Ukip is, at heart, an alliance of Tory malcontents, reactionaries and the hard-right. The politics of its poster campaign are representative of the terrible nonsense they have in their heads.

The research of Robert Ford, lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester, into Ukip is invaluable. Using YouGov data he found a much higher admission of out-and-out racist views in Ukip than in other parties. Twenty-two per cent said employers should favour white applicants over non-whites, 18% said non-white people are not really British and 17% said that black Brits are less intelligent than white Brits.

That's just the racism that dares to say its name. But look into other hardline views which are short of outright racism and a more widely-held ideology comes into focus.
Sixty-four per cent of Kippers think Islam poses a threat to Western civilization. A survey of Ukip supporters conducted by Matthew Goodwin and Jocelyn Evans found 84% would feel uncomfortable if a Mosque was built in their area.

Most perniciously of all, this small, nasty party, combined with the toxic politics of Lynton Crosby, has pushed the Tories further to the right than they have gone in recent memory. Who would have thought that the party of David Cameron would outdo the party of Michael "we know what you're thinking" Howard? That they would put posters on the street echoing National Front rhetoric? That ministers would pass ID cards by the back door to deal with the non-existent migrant 'threat' to public services. That it would have ministers like justice secretary Chris Grayling or home secretary Theresa May spit out the word foreigner like it was something dirty?

It must be a source of deep shame to decent-minded Tories, of whom there are many, that their party lacks the conviction or the political armoury to take on Ukip and instead has been rotted from without by an inward-looking nationalism more reminiscent of Geert Wilders than Winston Churchill.

Labour has been useless in its response. Ed Miliband's electoral calculation mandates that he claim to be "not that interested" in Farage, but in truth the party's years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and support of untrammelled free markets deprive it of the language and ideas necessary to challenge the eurosceptics.

Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats have been quick to jettison their progressive and rational immigration policies and so are left defending only the EU's worst excesses. It is hard to imagine a worse response to Ukip.

If Farage had been allowed to invent his own opponents, these are the ones he would have created.

This has happened with a party which has not one single MP and is polling in the mid-teens. It is not bad going, but it's hardly a revolution. And this tiny organisation is affected the policies of a governing party which could not even win the general election. The grotesque, unstable, mutually-loathed alliance of Ukip and the Tory high command are making this seem a more hateful country than it really is. Their voice is disproportionate to their support.

Yes, people want less immigration. But within that assessment they are capable of nuanced views. They want a reduction in low-skilled workers (64%) and extended family members (58%) but not in high-skilled workers (32%) or immediate family members (41%).There is space for a more complex, adult debate about immigration, even accepting the suspicion which informs it. Ukip does the precise opposite: it polarises. It makes the debate meaner and more hateful.

Since the Duffy incident there has been an informal but universally-held ban on commentators calling concerns about immigration racist. This avenue of attack has essentially been barred. And look where it has got us: posters, pointing towards the reader, encouraging them to resent the man next to them in the street because of where he is from. There were posters in Mussolini's Italy which were genuinely more subtle.

If you can look at it and not feel shame for your country then you do not understand what it is that makes this country great.

Two summers ago, the Olympics felt like a new chapter in the British story, a country finally putting its imperial past to rest and looking outwards: powerful, unified and diverse. Now it seems like a high water mark which recedes ever further with each passing day.

Ukip is poisoning this country. There is no amount of damage to the Tory party or funny media coverage of Farage sinking a pint that makes up for it. Let's call a spade a spade: this poster campaign is racist and only a racist could possibly have written it.

Doing God: Why is Cameron calling himself 'evangelical'?

Easter has done something odd to the prime minister.

Last week he said his moments "of greatest peace" came when he attended eucharist in a Kensington church. He pointedly made reference to "our saviour" throughout.

Now he has published an article in the Church Times in which he calls on Britain to be unashamedly "evangelical" about its faith and described it as a "Christian country".

It comes a week after local secretary Eric Pickles called on secularists to stop preaching "politically correct intolerance" and "get over" the fact Britain is a Christian country.

Both men are plainly right that Britain still has no separation of church and state and retains Christian institutions.

But in the broader sense, their insistence that Britain remains a Christian country is difficult to stand up. Churches used to point to the 72% of people who described themselves as Christian in the 2001 census. That became more difficult when the 2011 census showed just 59% of England and Wales identified themselves as Christian.

That figure is almost certainly an over-estimate. We know that people who tick Christian on the census have a very broad assessment of the word, which involves history and cultural identity. The census is also problematic because one member of the family typically fills it in for everyone. Surveys, on the other hand, are usually filled out individually, giving a more nuanced view.

When the question is more strictly worded, the numbers reduce substantially.

The 2009 British Social Attitudes survey asked: "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?". 50.67% of respondents selected 'no religion'. A YouGov survey from 2012 found 76% were 'not very religious' or 'not religious at all'.

So who is Cameron appealing to?

Not so long ago the prime minister took a witty approach to his faith which seemed to chime much more naturally with British religious sentiments than his current rhetoric. He once described his faith as "like Magic FM in the Chilterns" - fading in and out.

Now he has markedly shifted in tone, adopting an 'us' and 'our' manner of speech and using words like 'saviour' and evangelical', which sound more at home across the Atlantic than among the more relaxed standards of British religious discourse.

Everything the prime minister does between now and polling day 2015 is about winning the general election, in an unusually tight race. That is the prism to look at his newfound religious approach.

For this, he must drag back as many naturally-Conservative voters as possible, shoring up his support against Ukip and bolstering the party for the fight ahead.

Cameron is attempting to appeal to those most outraged by same sex marriage – the most conservative element of the Church of England who could be tempted by Nigel Farage's more reactionary political offer.

At the same time Cameron tries to appeal to the more progressive elements of the church, which he has alienated with austerity and welfare reform. He dedicates extensive passages of his Church Times article to defending his decisions in language church-goers will understand.

Finally, he reiterates the broader argument – accepted by most religious people – that faith is being swept out of the public sphere by a new 'militant atheism' which insists on firm secular standards.

The appeal suggests Cameron has a religious problem, or at least that he believes he does.

He is blamed by the religious right for gay marriage, by the religious left for welfare reform and by most people of faith for the sneaking suspicion he has failed to stem the tide of secularism in British society.

The Church Times article suggests he intends to rectify that problem, but he will need to tread carefully: what appeals to one side of the church may not appeal to the other.

There is another, more substantial danger. The British public will be wary of religious rhetoric from a prime minister – especially if it seems it is being used for political advantage.

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