The Government is scrapping plans to temporarily remove licensing requirements for asylum seeker accommodation following a High Court challenge from refugees.
The “last minute” U-turn by ministers was revealed at a hearing in London on Wednesday, where a judge was due to consider eight asylum seekers’ legal action against the Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
The court heard that their claims had been withdrawn on the basis that they were “academic” in light of the Government deciding not to pursue a policy of exempting asylum accommodation from houses in multiple occupation (HMO) licensing.
Critics previously warned that the now abandoned policy of temporarily removing licensing requirements on landlords for two years would put asylum seekers’ safety at risk.
Lawyers representing the asylum seekers said after the hearing that their case alleged the draft secondary legislation was unlawful, amid “grave anticipated consequences” including “heightened fire risks and overcrowding”.
Law firm Duncan Lewis said the draft regulations would have removed “basic protections” in properties occupied by asylum seekers and their families.
Housing minister Felicity Buchan previously told MPs that the draft regulations was “part of a broader suite of measures that the Government was implementing” to “speed up” the moving of asylum seekers out of hotels.
The plans were condemned by Labour MPs as meaning “no minimum standards whatsoever” would apply to asylum housing.
Mrs Justice Lang, who is set to approve a final order confirming the end of the legal challenges, was told that the legislation would be withdrawn on Thursday.
The court heard that in a November 2022 letter Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove had told the Prime Minister he was “strongly opposed” to the policy and could not support the removal of HMO licensing.
Mr Gove said there was a “significantly higher risk of fire in HMOs”, adding that he had seen “no evidence” that the licensing system was a barrier to housing asylum seekers, adding that the move “risks incentivising lower quality housing”.
But Jack Holborn, representing the Government, told the court that after this “political opinion” some “mitigations” were agreed and Mr Gove laid the draft legislation before Parliament.
Jeremy Bloom, a Duncan Lewis solicitor representing the asylum seekers, said the Government’s “last-minute withdrawal of regulations that would have reduced protections for asylum seekers housed by the Home Office is a spectacular U-turn”.
He said the asylum seekers “now have the enduring protection that they will not be placed in accommodation which does not meet licensing standards, which are so vital to fire safety and to prevent overcrowding”.
Mr Bloom accused the Government of “wasting the court’s precious time and taxpayers’ money in defending a wholly indefensible claim”, adding that during litigation “our clients and thousands of vulnerable people have been living in fear of being moved into unacceptable, unlicensed accommodation”.
“Questions should be asked as to why it didn’t withdraw the regulations months ago,” he said.
The Home Office and DLUHC had previously defended against the claims.
A Government spokesperson said: “Our success maximising the use of existing sites and delivering alternative accommodation means it is no longer necessary to pursue the removal of licensing requirements for houses in multiple occupation.
“We are making significant progress moving asylum seekers out of hotels, which cost UK taxpayers £8.2 million a day.
“We have already returned the first 50 to their communities and we will exit more in the coming months.
“We continue to keep all policies under review as we work with local authorities to identify alternative accommodation options which are more suitable for local communities.”
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), which had backed the legal action, said it welcomed the Government’s U-turn on the issue.
Louise Hosking, executive director of environmental health at CIEH, said: “These draft regulations risked creating a two-tier system for enforcement of standards in HMOs.
“They could also have incentivised unscrupulous landlords to move into the supply of asylum-seeker accommodation.”