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Concerns over ‘dangerous precedent’ after Court of Session rules Serco lock-change evictions lawful

Court of Session - Image credit: PA

Concerns over ‘dangerous precedent’ after Court of Session rules Serco lock-change evictions lawful

Concerns have been raised over the “dangerous precedent” and “profound consequences” for human rights after the Court of Session ruled that Serco’s eviction of former asylum seekers in Glasgow was lawful.

The judgment from the inner house of the Court of Session backs up an earlier ruling that Home Office contractor Serco did not act unlawfully by evicting failed asylum seekers without a court order.

Normally it would be unlawful to carry out an eviction in Scotland without a court order, but in a test case, the court ruled that the former asylum seeker, Shakar Omar Ali, was not a tenant as she did not have a lease or any obligation to pay rent since she had been housed temporarily by the Home Office only for the duration of her asylum case, which had now ended.

It also ruled that the threat of eviction did not meet the “minimum level of severity” to be considered a breach of human rights, and that some of the claim rested on the “erroneous assertion” that she was still an asylum seeker.

Contrary to the previous court ruling, it also said that Serco could not be considered a public body and therefore the Human Rights Act did not apply to its actions.

Scottish charities and public bodies have said they will now have to consider how to respond to the ruling.

The case dates back to summer 2018 when Serco began to serve rejected asylum seekers in Glasgow with eviction notices, warning them that locks on the properties would be changed.

The company had a contract with the Home Office to provide accommodation to asylum seekers, but the Home Office funding to cover the cost of accommodating them ended when their cases were rejected, leaving the company housing them for free.

Serco’s plans to evict around 300 former asylum seekers were paused after it was challenged in court, but they are expected to go ahead following today’s ruling.

Commenting on the judgment, Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: “We have serious concerns about the implications of this ruling, both for the people directly affected and for the protection of human rights more broadly.

“The court’s finding that Serco is not acting as a public authority in this context, and therefore is not bound by human rights legal obligations, has profound consequences for how people’s rights are protected when public services are delivered by private providers.

“This is an area of law that, in our view, requires further clarification.

“Governments should not be able to divest themselves of their human rights obligations by outsourcing the provision of public services.

“There is potential for further legal proceedings on this point and the commission will consider the most appropriate next course of action.”

Sabir Zazai, chief executive at Scottish Refugee Council, said: “We’re bitterly disappointed by today’s decision.

“This galling verdict leaves hundreds of men and women in Glasgow at risk of lock-change evictions and immediate street homelessness. People are very anxious and very stressed.

“The people we work with do not have family networks in Scotland or friends with spare bedrooms where they can stay in a crisis. People have no options.

“On top of this, there is already a homelessness crisis in Glasgow that this decision will only contribute to.

“Our advisers are working as hard as they can to provide advice and support.

“We are collaborating with organisations across Glasgow to try to provide emergency shelter and services, but we need the whole city of Glasgow to step up urgently in response to this.

“We are also pushing for fundamental and urgent reform to the UK’s asylum system.

“Nobody should be forced into destitution and homelessness with nowhere safe to go.”

Fiona McPhail, principal solicitor for homelessness charity Shelter Scotland, also expressed dismay at the ruling.

She said: “This decision is deeply disappointing news for all those directly affected.

“We now face a situation where around 300 people will be at risk of summary eviction, with no right to homeless assistance or no right to work to earn their own income to cover rent, meaning there is a high risk they will end up on the streets of Glasgow.

“Our clients are continuing to progress their asylum claims and cannot return to their country of origin.

“The finding that Serco is not a public authority and therefore does not need to comply with the Human Rights Act is deeply concerning.

“It’s the state that has the statutory obligation to accommodate asylum seekers; if by privatising those services, the state can avoid its obligations under human rights law, this sets a dangerous precedent.”

The Scottish Government’s communities secretary, Aileen Campbell, said: “I am disappointed at this news today and the impact it will have on more than 130 people.

“We have consistently called for a long-term, sustainable solution to the end of the asylum process, which respects people’s dignity and rights at all times and does not leave them destitute and homeless in a country where they have sought refuge.  

“If people are unable to leave the UK once they have exhausted their appeal rights, they should receive the support they need to make informed decisions about their future.

“We will now consider the implications of the judgment of the Court of Session and how best we can support those affected.”

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