At least 4,200 people have offered to open their homes to Syrian refugees, taking the pressure off social housing lists, only to be told ‘no thanks’ by the government due to health and safety law. Critics of the policy have called the government’s response “health and safety craziness,” accusing the government of “not thinking outside the box.”
Prompted by the emotive picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, and the example of public figures such as Bob Geldof and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who have offered homes to Syrian refugees in their own properties, thousands of Brits have offered spare rooms and even sofas to those who need them.
But the Home Office has turned down their offer, saying that accommodation will only be acceptable if safe, clean, secure and, crucially, self-contained. People are being urged to contact their local council only if they have a spare second home, rather than a spare room, the Times has reported.
Under that definition even the offers made by the Geldof and the Archbishop are likely to go mostly unheeded – Geldof told Irish radio that he was willing to take in four families, three in his Kent home and one his London flat living alongside his family, while the Archbishop has offered a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth palace large enough to home two families. The rules would seem to limit each property to being occupied by only one family at a time.
Zoë Fritz, a consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, has collected names of 4,200 people willing to offer shelter. She said: “It’s the equivalent of health-and-safety craziness. I’m a doctor and when there’s an emergency, you have to use a different approach. You have to stop the bleeding and make sure the patient is breathing. That’s what’s happening here. There’s an acute problem that requires an acute solution. They are not thinking outside the box.”
Quoting Voltaire, she added: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I have been so moved by all the people willing to make significant sacrifices in the face of an extraordinary crisis. Of course, there need to be proper checks. I recognise it needs to be safe, and I know it cannot be a long-term solution, but for the government to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ to 4,200 people is unimaginative and defeatist.”
Contrary to the government’s box ticking, UKIP’s Mark Reckless said that the offers of help are likely to be the best way to proceed as it allows those who want to help to do so, while not impacting British people who may have been waiting years for social housing to come available.
Reckless told Sunday Politics South East: “Some people are making a particular effort to say they’d like to welcome people. Where people are offering up their spare rooms and giving significant offers like that, I wonder whether that might be a better way of supporting people than expecting the council to be leading with housing that might otherwise be going to people on the housing waiting list.
“Certainly there are some people who feel very strongly that we should give a stronger welcome. There are many others who are worried simply by the scale of immigration we have already. What’s important to understand is that this 20,000 would be on top of the 650,000 people, record immigration, that we’re having every year. It’s that combination which people find very difficult.”
Councils have already been coming under fire for promising to leapfrog Syrian refugees to the top of social housing lists, despite long queues of unemployed and disabled people looking for a home. Tower Hamlets has promised to take in refugees, despite there being 19,374 people on its waiting list, nearly 1,400 of whom had been waiting in excess of 12 years for a home.
Liverpool council has offered to take 100 refugees, despite having more than 22,000 people on its waiting list.
Brighton and Hove has nearly 20,500 people on its waiting list and a £23 million funding gap this year alone, yet has offered to take refugees immediately. They have slammed the government for not giving councils enough information on which to act.
Labour councillor Emma Daniel said: “I think the people of Brighton and Hove have been a bit let down by the government’s slowness to respond to the crisis. Brighton and Hove is a small city, we have problems, but we’re ready to act in the face of a global humanitarian crisis.
International development secretary Justine Greening yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the government was coordinating its response to the refugee crisis across departments and NGOs, but was unable to give any figures on how many refugees will be arriving in Britain next week.
“We’ve set up a taskforce that works across not just three government departments – principally Home office and Communities and Local Government, also DFID – but also includes the Local Government Association too,” she said, “So that means that we are working in one team together.”
A new minister has also been appointed, she said, “to make sure that this resettlement process happens in a sensible way.”
Marr put to her that it was “rather extraordinary” that she was unable to give precise figures on who was coming, asking: “presumably arrangements have to be made to 5 receive them and find homes for them, accommodate them, feed them, educate them if they’re children and so forth. If you don’t know how many people are coming in, how are we going to do this?”
She responded “I’m not going to give you the numbers, but we are well coordinated across government and also working with the Local Government Association.”