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The Discriminatory Asylum Vouchers

IMC Birmingham | 14.10.2006 18:11 | Anti-racism | Migration | Birmingham

Over 5,000 'failed asylum seekers' in the UK receive £35-a-week vouchers instead of cash for their NASS support under Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, despite concerted efforts by the Home Office to open routes of enforced and 'voluntary' return to get rid of them. The so-called "hard-case support" claimants are stigmatised, demeaned and discriminated against on a daily basis. Yet, the House of Commons have recently debated extending the use of vouchers for more asylum seekers, 4 years after the original Asylum Voucher Scheme was abolished following huge public pressure [1 | 2] and a lot of criticism.

Read: Shaming Destitution: Citizen Advice Bureau's report | the Home Office review of the voucher scheme (pdf) | Token Gestures: the effects of the voucher scheme on asylum seekers (pdf) | Joint parliamentary briefing (pdf)

Links: Birmingham No Borders | other No Borders groups in the UK


The Asylum Voucher Scheme was first introduced in the UK in April 2000, under the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. The scheme was set within the then Home Secretary Jack Straw's broader 'support package', which also involved the dispersal of asylum seekers away from London and the South-East to other parts of the country on a no-choice basis.

Under the scheme, a single person aged over 25 was entitled to voucher support of £36.54 per week, amounting to 70% of basic income support. Only £10 of that was redeemable in cash. If meals were provided by a landlord, then the amount received by the asylum seeker was reduced.

When the Bill that was to become the 1999 Act was being debated in Parliament, it was envisaged that such 'hard case' support would be delivered by Home Office-funded 'voluntary' organisations such as the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, but eventually no such delivery system materialized. The production of the vouchers was, instead, contracted at the time to French multinational Sodexho Pass International, which operated a similar scheme in Germany. The vouchers were only valid in designated chains and retailers signed up by Sodexho, and they were not permitted to give change. In fact, keeping the change was a further incentive for these corporations to subscribe to the scheme.

Unsurprisingly, the voucher scheme then created massive opposition. An alliance of anti-racist and anti-deportation groups, trade unions and NGO's eventually put enough pressure on the government so that in October, 2001, David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, announced that vouchers would be abolished. Indeed, the scheme was scrapped in April, 2002, and replaced by cash payments.

Hard Cases

Under Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (commonly known as "hard-case support"), failed asylum seekers who have come to the end of their asylum process, including appeals, but who cannot be returned home immediately, may apply to the National Asylum Seeker Service (NASS) for accommodation. Clause 43 (Accommodation) of the the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill 2005 gives the Home Secretary the flexibility to provide by order for additional needs of failed asylum seekers receiving Section 4 support. Currently, those in receipt of Section 4 support receive full-board accommodation. This takes the form of a bed and either three meals a day and no financial support or £35 vouchers to purchase food and toiletries. The legislation does not specify how Section 4 support should be provided, nor does it provide the flexibility to address essential needs which do not result from accommodation.

Further, Section 10 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 (Treatment of Claimants etc.) requires failed asylum seekers in receipt of Section 4 support to participate in community activities. In this way, in the words of the Home Office, "persons in receipt of state support, who have no basis of stay but cannot leave immediately, will be able to give something back to the community in return for their board and lodging."

Throughout 2000 and 2001, the number of 'failed asylum seekers' in receipt of such 'hard case support' at any one time remained relatively small. From late 2001 onwards, however, the number of applications (and grants) rose slowly. This was largely due to the Home Office's announcement that Iraqi-Kurdish 'failed asylum seekers' would be considered to "have exceptional circumstances for the purposes of hard case support", due to the "lack of a viable route of return to northern Iraq." By late 2003, when NASS was supporting some 80,000 asylum seekers and dependents, there were approximately 300 in receipt of 'hard case support' at any one time. By October 2005, they were more than 7,600.

Initially, Section 4 support was provided in the form of full-board, hostel-type accommodation close to Heathrow and other airports. These locations were apparently chosen to "convey the message" to supported individuals that they were "on their way out of the UK". Accordingly, supported individuals received no separate subsistence support. However, as the number of applications for (and grants of) such support rose, supported individuals were placed in similar, full-board accommodation (mostly provided by the YMCA) in several areas around the UK. As the numbers rose further, some of the growing number of NASS-contracted Section 4 accommodation providers began, with the agreement of NASS, to allocate self-catering accommodation instead, and to provide supported individuals with £35 per week subsistence support. At first, such support was mostly provided in the form of vouchers, but increasingly it came to be provided in cash. By March 2005, fewer than 440 (8 percent) of the 5,180 'failed asylum seekers' then in receipt of section 4 support were in full-board accommodation (i.e. including food), with the remainder receiving £35 per week of subsistence support in vouchers or, in most cases, cash.

In early 2005, however, NASS instructed all accommodation providers to cease providing Section 4 subsistence support in cash and, instead, provide it in the form of vouchers. The decision as to the exact nature of these vouchers was left to the then six separate accommodation providers, with most choosing to provide Luncheon Vouchers, and others choosing to provide supermarket vouchers or swipe cards, like ASDA Gift Vouchers, for example.


So, most of the current 'asylum vouchers' used are produced by Luncheon Vouchers, which is owned by Accor Services. Accor is one of world's biggest supplier of voucher solutions and a major provider of "human resource services". It has offices in 32 countries worldwide, 280,000 client companies and local authorities and 13 million users. In the UK, it is the biggest provider of employee benefits, work life solutions and government services, with over 7,000 clients and 600,000 daily users.

Luncheon Vouchers (or LV's, as they are commonly known) are ordered by more than 2,000 organisations for many different uses and are used by over 100,000 employees every day. Their clients include the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Service, N M Rothschild, Scottish Equitable, A C Nielson, Parity Training, Prada Retail, Birmingham Children's Hospital, Select Education etc. etc.

Created in 1954 by John Hack, LA's were immediately granted full exemption from National Insurance Contributions and a tax break of 15p. This meant that £1 was worth up to 33% more than £1 in cash. In April 1999, however, a change in the law led to the NIC exemption being brought into line with the tax break (i.e. 15p). This meant a tax and NI break of £36 a year. The reason for the Government's review of their policy on NIC and vouchers was that certain employers were found to have been avoiding paying NICs by paying their staff a very low wage and then topping it up with supermarket and gift vouchers. Accor campaigned relentlessly for LV's to be disregarded from the review, claiming they were a "canteen replacement" and a "social scheme". The appeal, however, was not successful. Ever since, the volumes of LV's issued has dropped, but has recently, according to their website, "stabilised".

About discrimination and other things

In most, if not all, cases, these vouchers are exchangeable for food and drink only, at prescribed retail outlets only (big chains, that is). This means asylum seekers are unable to buy clothing, footware and other essential needs; are unable to use public transport and telephones, never mind that most of them are required to 'sign on', on a weekly or monthly basis, at far-away immigration reporting centres. Further, it means they have limited access to culturally appropriate food (halal meat, for example) and cannot shop at cheap, local shops. Not even cheaper chains, like Lidl or Aldi, where most asylum seekers normally shop. Moreover, when asylum seekers are 'dispersed' out of inner city areas, they often have to travel a long way to get to a participating supermarket, which means that the token amount of benefit they receive in cash would soon disappear. And, of course, when the vouchers are presented at participating supermarkets, they receive no change, so they either get less than the face value of the vouchers or are encouraged by supermarket staff to make up any shortfall in often useless goods.

It comes as no surprise, then, that many asylum seekers living on subsistence vouchers are selling them in the black market, sometimes for half their worth. In fact, the 'voucher black market' is flourishing, with profiteers 'buying' vouchers, for as little as 50 percent of their face value, in return for cash. Others are forced to use their vouchers at certain local shops, which have 'special prices' for voucher holders, that is, they accept vouchers but for considerably less than their face value.

Of course, exposing such unscrupulous criminals would only mean that those who 'choose' to resort to such solutions would lose that option, given that the government is only strong for the powerless and most vulnerable. So we won't do that.


A dignifying alternative, obviously, is to swap the vouchers for cash without having to be exploited. And this is what some grassrooots activists have been doing recently with a limited number of asylum seekers. Many voucher recipients used to drop in at the Cottage Occupied Social Centre in Birmingham, where Birmingham No Borders held their meetings and activities, to 'swap vouchers'. This practice, however, has stopped as the Social Centre was violently evicted last month. The same has more or less been happening at the Food Not Bombs servings, which take place in Birmingham's city centre every two weeks on Saturday.

"It is very simple, really," says one activist, who prefers to keep anonymous. "All you have to do is find out who's getting vouchers, go over to theirs every week, take the vouchers and give them the equivalent in cash, then find someone who's willing to use them doing their usual shopping or whatever." "I mean, if people are shopping at these bloody chains anyway," he adds, "why not help others by the way?"

IMC Birmingham


more details

27.08.2007 07:04

List of accommodation providers providing section 4 accommodation to NASS:

  • Accommodata Ltd.

  • Angel Group

  • Capital

  • Caradon Estates Ltd.

  • Clearsprings

  • Gateshead Council

  • M&Q

  • RCA Sheffield

  • Safehaven

  • YMCA—Glasgow

  • YMCA—London

  • YMCA—Cornwall

  • YMCA—Liverpool

  • YMCA—Welwyn Garden City

  • YMCA—West London

Regional breakdown of numbers supported under section 4 as at 24 October 2005:


(6)Number supported

East Midlands


East of England




North East


North West




South East


South West




West Midlands


Yorkshire and Humberside




all figures are provisional and have been rounded to the nearest 5.

Section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999: Record of decisions made in 2005:





































Display the following 3 comments

  1. Thats the spirit! — good one mate:
  2. Asylum process — Emma
  3. Report on the Section 4 Voucher Scheme — stu