A charity believes that thousands of asylum seekers have faced hunger during the past ten days because of problems with new cash cards given to them by Home Office contractors.
The charity Positive Action in Housing said the Home Office internally estimated on 28th May that about one third of asylum seekers had experienced problems with the new cards, either not receiving them or not being able to activate them.
Approximately 61,000 asylum seekers are receiving Home Office financial support. More than 55,000 receive support in the form of debit cards, known as Aspen cards.
The facilities management company Sodexo previously had the contract to provide £39.63 per week to asylum seekers via these cards. However, on 21st May Prepaid Financial Services took over.
Asylum seekers and charities across the UK supporting them have reported problems including new cards not arriving, people receiving cards with other people’s name on or no money showing up on the new cards once activated.
PFS had previously been criticised by the payments systems regulator. It is one of five companies that the consumer group has provisionally found to be involved engaging in cartel behaviour for public sector welfare payments.
Managing director of the Payment Systems Regulator, Chris Hemsley, issued a statement this year condemning the companies including PFS.
“By colluding in this way we consider the parties were acting as a cartel. Collusion in payments is absolutely unacceptable. Where we see it happening, we will take action, stop it and seek to impose significant penalties”.
The Home Office said PFS had been awarded a contract following a competitive tendering process that included due diligence checks on the company, but added that it would take any allegations of wrongdoing seriously.
One asylum seeker said he and his wife, both teachers, accommodated by the Home Office in Glasgow, were only surviving thanks to support from charities such as Positive Action in Housing. He has made a short video about going hungry as a result of the problems with the new Aspen card.
He said that he had been sent three new cards in the past few weeks, all of which had various problems.
“I was distressed, not only by my own situation but by other asylum seekers in the same situation. Every time I tried to contact Migrant Help, the line was busy. Eventually, after being left to go hungry for more than a week, my housing provider gave me an emergency payment”.
A further asylum seeker said: “We have not received our Aspen card and it is more than a week now. We used to live in London and were moved to Bradford on 7th May. We have an eight month old baby”.
“Without a supermarket voucher from West London Welcome, a charity that has been supporting us, we would have had nothing to eat at all. I did a lot of different jobs in my country and would like to work here but we are not allowed so we need that Home Office support just to survive”.
Deputy director of West London Welcome, Leyla Williams, said: “Approaching half of our asylum-seeking members have experienced problems with the new Aspen card. This is really a dangerous situation for the Home Office to have put people in”.
“Some of the people we are in touch with who have been dispersed out of accommodation in west London are very vulnerable and most are very isolated in their new accommodation, particularly parents with young children”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “A new service to provide asylum seekers with financial support went live last Monday and we have worked closely to develop customer services processes and plan for a number of eventualities”.
“We provided clear advice to asylum seekers that they must activate their new cards prior to the service going live and the vast majority of individuals did so in advance, or have done so since”.
“Migrant Help remain available to respond to queries from asylum seekers and anyone experiencing issues can contact the 24/7 hotline”.