On Monday 24th May 2021, the Home Office introduced the new *Aspen card, that would function in a similar way to its predecessor, however would operate under a new provider and assume a "new look".
The transition was spurred by the Home Office's decision to end the contract initiated with facilities management company "Sodexo" , in order to facilitate a new contract with financial technology firm "Prepaid Financial Services". This company is currently in hot water after an investigation was launched in May into their supposed involvement with money laundering.
The process of switching to the new cards began on Friday 21st, with the old Aspen card being deactivated to allow a balance transfer. This resulted in a "blackout period" which took place over Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd, to allow the cards to be ready for their Monday 24th launch.
Automatically, a number of issues arose throughout the transition, particularly in regards to the distribution of the cards. This left many within extremely difficult situations, and a complete state of deprivation. It is believed that over 19,000 men, women and babies were affected. The Home Office privately admitted that thousands of asylum seekers were left without access to their funds for more than ten days after they initiated the transition due to the contract changeover.
On Monday 7th June, Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft MP told the Public Accounts Committee:
"There was an error on the card that did last for a short period of time, like for instance a weekend, but now that has been resolved".
The charity PAIH (Positive Action in Housing) stated how they had "received multiple reports that cards either have no money on them, or they work once and then stop working a few days later" . They explained how they were in "a full-scale crisis" further criticising the Home Office for "giving an impression that Aspen Card crisis is a four-day glitch affecting a small number of people".
We provided advocacy support to women from the week before the transition. We started by sharing documents circulating from the Home Office about the card transfer to over 100 women on our whats app info group. On the Monday after the transfer we emailed the specialist team set up to deal with queries over cases that women were unable to resolve themselves due to the phone lines at Migrant Help not being answered. We provided over 10 case studies to Asylum Matters regarding cases where women had issues with the transfer. They lobbied in the NASF (National Asylum Stakeholder Forum) in partnership with ASAP for the rights of of women and families directly affected by the ASPEN transition fiasco in the West Midlands, two cases are detailed below:
Emily hadn't received her card by the 24th, she had 3 kids and no food left in the house. We emailed the Home Office in order to get a new card sent out, it took over a month for her card to be delivered, as it was resent twice to the wrong address. She had emergency tokens for supermarkets provided in the interim.
Hattie received her card, and was promised that it would be working by the 24th. However, when activated, there were no funds available, she was left without access to money or basic essentials for over a week.
Feedback from Emma Birks at Asylum Matters, who met with the Home Office ASPEN card team, and voiced the concerns of those throughout the community said:
"I believe we did express the distress this has caused, as well as the voluntary sector’s frustration in having to bridge that gap and how that has had a significant impact on capacity and resources.
The main issue of cards not being sent to the correct addresses or people not receiving any card or information was raised along with problems with ECP provision, activation of cards and the fact Migrant Help were overwhelmed".
In an email update that we also received from Alice Webb at ASAP (Asylum Support Appeals Project), she reported the details of a meeting that was held with the Home Office regarding the ASPEN transfer:
"the Home Office reported that 93% of service users now have activated cards (note that’s activated card, not they have resolved all problems including issues to do with underpayment etc)."
"Of the 7% that remain, HO were hopeful that within days (not weeks) they would be able to work through outstanding cases. They are concerned about a small number within that 7% who it would seem have not made any contact with them at all".
Despite the slow rectification of individual cases, many still remain to be affected by the transition and constantly contact the Home Office via Migrant Help, or voluntary sector charities to resolve this issue. The access to these funds are a lifeline for many within the UK Asylum Community who are unable to work and find other modes of supporting themselves and their families.
*The Aspen card allows Asylum Seekers to receive a weekly allowance from the Home Office of £39.63 if they are in a house, and £8 a week if they are in a full board hotel. It has become a way for the Home Office to monitor the expenditures, and track the location of Asylum Seekers.
Baobab support a 'Lessons Learned document' produced by Asylum Matters asking that:
The Home Office publish the results of its “lessons learnt” review of what went wrong with the ASPEN transition, including an action plan setting out how it will apply these learnings to ensure the asylum support system consistently meets the needs of the vulnerable people within it. As part of this, the Department must set out how it will improve the monitoring, transparency and accountability of the asylum support contracts and meet its own obligations to prevent the destitution of those who are entitled to support.
In addition it must:
● Ensure accommodation providers are more consistently involved in their residents’ welfare; and that residents are able to contact their housing provider directly.
● Review the decision to have Migrant Help as the single point of contact.
● Review and update the data held by the Department and by accommodation providers, notably the addresses of residents must be kept up-to-date.
● Improve its engagement with the voluntary sector and with service users; and particularly in cases like this involving transformation of significant aspects of the system, for that engagement to be early and meaningful.