Staff working with children and vulnerable adults in asylum accommodation in Northern Ireland have not undergone checks or training, a report has found.

An inspection of contingency asylum accommodation for families with children found that they were placed into unregulated emergency accommodation.

The report states that basic clearances and training for some contractor staff had not been undertaken.

This inspection also heard evidence from health visitors that young people were losing weight because they were refusing to eat culturally unfamiliar food.

The report came following a request from senior officials in the Home Office after concerns relating to safeguarding issues in hotels in Northern Ireland occupied by family groups of asylum seekers were raised.

Among the key concerns flagged in the report was the length of time that asylum-seeking families were having to spend in hotels in Northern Ireland.

As of May 28 last year, the average length of stay was 201 days, but many families who met with inspectors had been there for more than 12 months.

David Neal, the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration
Former borders watchdog David Neal said systems for recording and monitoring safeguarding incidents also remained in development (ICIBI Corporate Services/PA)

The contingency accommodation is designed to be an interim measure for initial accommodation until longer-term accommodation becomes available.

The report also warned that statutory services responsible for health, social care, and education reported serious concerns about their ability to meet the complex social, physical, and mental health needs of families.

They warned that their needs became more difficult to resolve over time, which was exacerbated by a lack of funding for the additional demands on services, budget cuts, and staff burnout.

The report also stated that some families said they experienced negative attitudes and a lack of respect from some staff working in hotels.

Health professionals also reported incidences of young children losing weight as they would not eat the unfamiliar food, which was not culturally appropriate.

Non-governmental organisations also expressed concerns about bedrooms being accessed by staff without notice, and families separated across floors.

David Neal, the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), said the concerns needed to be addressed urgently.

In his report, sent to the Home Secretary in August last year, Mr Neal said: “Worryingly, the inspection found that basic clearances and training for some contractor staff had not been undertaken, resulting in a number of staff working with children and vulnerable adults for many months in hotels who had not undergone checks or training.

“Systems for recording and monitoring safeguarding incidents also remain in development.

“These are basic building blocks of a safe and effective service which really should be picked up by internal assurance mechanisms rather than the statutory inspector.

“These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

He added: “The challenges faced by families and those involved in supporting them in Northern Ireland are no more problematic than those in any other parts of the UK’s contingency asylum accommodation estate.

“The Home Office needs to improve its assurance activity to ensure that contractors are delivering what they are required to in terms of safeguarding families with children.”

The report made five recommendations, including the clarification of responsibilities of all agencies involved in safeguarding; ensuring the views of children and young people inform service delivery; a review of the AIRE (Advice, Issue Reporting and Eligibility) contract; improved data quality and recording; and strengthened assurance arrangements.

In a response, the Home Office said it accepted two of its recommendations and partially three of its recommendations.

“Work is already under way to take forward the recommendations in this report to ensure that we continue to meet not only our statutory obligations in Northern Ireland but also to support the delivery of the Home Office’s broader aims in the UK, in responding to the findings,” the Home Office said in a statement.