Illustration by Ben Jones

The asylum king

How one man has made millions from Britain’s broken immigration system. A joint investigation by Liberty Investigates and Prospect
July 9, 2024

The accommodation did not meet Graham King’s expectations. The fittings were too old, the refreshments overpriced, and one of the rooms smelled musty. “The hotel should have been renovated 20 years ago,” King wrote on Tripadvisor in February 2023, reviewing a luxury Italian establishment. “I doubt I’ll stay again if this is what they think five stars are.”

King knows a thing or two about hotels. As the founder and majority shareholder of Clearsprings, he was de facto one of the largest hotel operators in the UK. Since founding the business shortly before asylum seeker accommodation was opened up to private sector providers in 2000, King had won a succession of Home Office contracts, gradually seeing off numerous competitors to become one of just three key accommodation providers across the country. By the time that King posted his Tripadvisor review, Clearsprings was accommodating around 24,000 asylum seekers in taxpayer-funded hotels, working with a network of subcontractors, and the company was generating a higher turnover than Travelodge.

Asylum accommodation does not operate by the same rules as the mainstream hotel sector. Residents have little choice over where they stay, and cannot turn to Tripadvisor to share reviews. There is, however, an official complaints system. While King was complaining about the price of mineral water from the Italian hotel’s minibar, new documents disclosed by the Home Office after a lengthy freedom of information battle reveal that, in the first few months of 2023, Clearsprings residents made numerous allegations of mistreatment by hotel staff, describing racist abuse, physical assault and confiscated belongings. Others compared their experiences to being in prison.

In the absence of much market competition, it falls to the government to enforce asylum accommodation standards. But evidence suggests the Home Office is failing to monitor standards let alone take action, holding no up-to-date records on the many private subcontractors involved in the system, and claiming it has no centralised data on accommodation providers’ performance.

All three key asylum accommodation providers—Clearsprings, Serco and Mears—have faced accusations about substandard accommodation and inadequate care. However, my analysis reveals potentially concerning differences between them. A comparison of asylum seeker population data and a cohort of 153 deaths that Home Office records indicate occurred at accommodation run by the three providers between 2020 and 2023 suggests the mortality rate among Clearsprings residents was significantly higher. The number of complaints per resident was also significantly higher in regions where the contracts were held by Clearsprings, analysis of Home Office figures for the six months to March 2023 suggests. Meanwhile, former Clearsprings employees have suggested that residents’ welfare isn’t taken seriously and the company is unduly focused on its bottom line.

That bottom line has looked increasingly healthy in recent years. While Serco and Mears generate significant revenue from other business interests, making it difficult to calculate their income from asylum accommodation, the vast majority of Clearsprings’ revenue comes from just two Home Office contracts, providing asylum accommodation across the south of England and Wales. When those contracts were awarded in January 2019, the government estimated they would cost around £1bn over 10 years—an estimate that did not take into account the pandemic, a mounting asylum claims backlog and an increasing reliance on hotels. Last year, Clearsprings shot past its expected 10-year income in just 12 months, reporting revenue of nearly £1.3bn. The entire Home Office budget for 2022 to 2023 was £24.3bn, suggesting Clearsprings accounts for more than one in every £20 spent by the department—that’s including on police, fire and all other services.

A healthy bottom line: Graham King spotted leaving the offices of Clearsprings in 2000. Image: John McLellan A healthy bottom line: Graham King spotted leaving the offices of Clearsprings in 2000. Image: John McLellan

King maintains a low profile, despite his runaway success. Clearsprings tends to refer media enquiries to the Home Office and King has never appeared before a parliamentary committee. (When asked for a response to a detailed outline of this article, the company said: “Thank you for your email but we would make no comment.”) According to my analysis, verified by independent forensic accountants, he has extracted more than £74m in cash earnings to date, much of it in the past three years. King’s true earnings are likely to be considerably higher; salary and pension information is unavailable for several years, and Clearsprings’ expenses include numerous payments to other firms with links to King, including more than £16m in fees to a consultancy firm, which appears to be registered offshore. In May, he entered the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated net worth of £750m.

In recent years, even Conservative ministers have taken to describing Britain’s asylum system as “broken”. While it may be failing the taxpayer and anyone seeking asylum, for one man it’s worked very well indeed. How did this broken system turn an aspiring entrepreneur from a fading seaside town into one of Britain’s richest men—and how have successive governments stretching back 25 years helped him on his way?

There was never much doubt that Graham King would follow his father into business. Jack King was a successful entrepreneur and Conservative councillor, well known on Canvey Island, Essex, who bought a caravan park in the late 1950s and built it into a thriving holiday destination. Graham was born in 1967, and by his mid-twenties was already the director of several family companies, including the holiday camp and a racehorse dealership. The family enjoyed significant wealth. In 1993, the Independent reported Jack had bid £180,000 at auction for the personalised number plate K1 NGS. (He was said to have been outbid by the Sultan of Brunei.) When Jack died in 2016, the Southend Echo paid tribute to “Mr Canvey”.

In 1999, Graham founded a new company, Clearsprings (Management) Ltd. Initially, he appeared to be set on following in his father’s footsteps by building a holiday park. By the following year, however, plans had changed. The New Labour government was creating a National Asylum Support Service, striking contracts with a network of local authorities, voluntary organisations and private companies to disperse asylum seekers into housing across the country, relieving the burden on councils in London and the southeast, where asylum seekers tended to arrive. In March 2000, Clearsprings signed a five-year contract to become part of this network.

The dispersal system, as it was known, was controversial from the start. The same month that Clearsprings signed up to the scheme, the home secretary Jack Straw wrote to Tony Blair: “We are taking a big hit on asylum in Labour areas. Dispersal of asylum seekers around the country is necessary. But it has also dispersed asylum as a political issue.” Two months later, the Observer published an article titled “Asylum barons cashing in”, reporting that Clearsprings had “dumped nearly 100 asylum-seekers from a dozen countries” in Lancashire and was negotiating to place 7,500 more across the northwest of England. The following week, the paper pictured Graham King leaving the Clearsprings office. Under the headline “The king of asylum slums”, King was described as a “millionaire asylum baron… who often does business from his mobile phone in the back of a black stretch limo”.

Even Conservative ministers described our asylum system as ‘broken’

By September the following year, Blair’s advisers were discussing whether the system could ever be made to work. Justin Russell, who went on to become the UK’s chief inspector of probation, argued the system was “an improvement on the chaos which went before”, but conceded it had become “reliant on dodgy landlords”. The following month Straw’s successor as home secretary, David Blunkett, wrote to Blair outlining plans for a “coherent system which replaces the present shambles”, scrapping the dispersal system and building large accommodation centres to house hundreds of asylum seekers. However, Blunkett’s plans for accommodation centres faced local opposition and by 2005 they were abandoned. Instead, the dispersal contracts were renewed.

It had been an eventful few years at Clearsprings. There had been costly business disputes and litigation. King had been forced to hand over a share of his company to a former business partner, who successfully argued in court that he had been cut out. A judge presiding over a different dispute said that King came across as “a determined, somewhat ruthless man who would say what he wanted in order to get his way”. Over a three-year period, Clearsprings had managed to boost turnover from £16.4m to £49.9m and increased net profits six-fold to £6m, emerging as a leading provider of asylum accommodation. In February 2006, the company won dispersal contracts in five regions across the country, more than any other provider working on the scheme.

Clearsprings began exploring new opportunities. Less than two years after signing its five-region Home Office deal, the company won a major Ministry of Justice contract, operating the new Bail Accommodation and Support Service. Like the dispersal system, the scheme immediately sparked controversy. Councils claimed to be kept in the dark over plans for bail accommodation, despite Clearsprings’ obligation to consult locally. In Lewisham, the mayor said its failure to do so over several new bail hostels was “completely unacceptable”. In Crewe, a newspaper tried to contact agencies that Clearsprings claimed to have consulted, only to find some did not appear to exist. In response to those allegations, Clearsprings said at the time it could verify from “detailed records” that it had “consulted with the agencies and interested parties listed”. There were also safety concerns. In July 2008, a Clearsprings whistleblower told Channel 4 News that staff were under-protected and overworked, describing the situation as “an accident waiting to happen”.

The prediction came to pass. In March 2009, a 24-year-old man named Mark Bradshaw was living at a Clearsprings hostel in Stockton while on bail for assault. A court would later hear that a young woman accused him of taking drugs in front of her child, prompting the woman’s partner and another man to attack him, before dumping him in an alleyway. Bradshaw died from his injuries. Passing sentence on his killers, the judge raised serious concerns about the “disturbing” circumstances that led to the death, noting that the woman had been staying at the hostel without permission. “I would invite further inquiries as to who has the responsibility for running this hostel and why the matters I’ve heard, if they’re right, were not picked up and acted upon,” he said. “That would have saved a life.”

Rumours swirled that Clearsprings would be stripped of the contract. In December 2009 the justice secretary, Maria Eagle, told the Home Affairs Committee her department had conducted an internal inquiry and enforcement action had been taken. Asked whether Clearsprings should continue operating the contract, she said: “The contract is being re-competed in the not-too-distant future, so that, of course, will be taken into account the quality of the work that they manage to produce.” The following year, a new provider was appointed.

A spokesperson for Eagle said she could no longer recall why Clearsprings lost the contract. The Ministry said it did not hold records of the inquiry “because there is no legal or business requirement” for it to do so. But one former government minister told me that the contract was “constant trouble” and that “performance was under expectation from the start”.

In 2012, two years after the Ministry of Justice replaced Clearsprings as its bail accommodation provider, the Home Office awarded six major new asylum accommodation contracts, known as “Compass”, replacing 22 contracts operated by 13 suppliers. It’s not clear if the Home Office consulted other departments or whether Clearsprings’ performance for the Ministry was considered. In any event, G4S and Serco won two contracts each, while two more went to Clearel, a joint venture between Clearsprings and security firm Reliance. When Reliance pulled out, Clearel rebranded as Clearsprings Ready Homes and took on the contracts alone.

Near the end of the working day on 9th February 2016, Clearsprings’ managing director, James Vyvyan-Robinson, took his seat in a committee room at Portcullis House, a parliamentary building across the road from the Palace of Westminster. He was there to face questions from the Home Affairs Select Committee, including one about the salary of chairman Graham King (who, his Tripadvisor account suggests, had been skiing in the Austrian Alps in the days prior and was not in attendance). Vyvyan-Robinson appeared self-assured as he was questioned by the committee. Occasionally, however, he betrayed signs of frustration. When one committee member observed that Vyvyan-Robinson’s salary exceeded that of the prime minister, the Clearsprings executive replied tersely: “I think the prime minister gets rather more fringe benefits than I do.”

It was nearly four years into the Compass contracts and hopes were fading that they would be simpler, more cost-effective or less controversial than those they had replaced. After two years, the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises the value for money of government projects, had reported: “The transition to six new regional contracts… and their operation during the first year, did not go well”, describing the standard of accommodation as “unacceptably poor”. Just a couple of weeks before Vyvyan-Robinson’s appearance before the select committee, Clearsprings made headlines when it emerged that residents were being required to wear red wristbands in order to receive meals—a practice they said marked them out for abuse. (The policy was quickly scrapped.)  

Still, Vyvyan-Robinson defended his company’s record: “We give a compliant service… We are able to do that and make a very slim profit.” He pointed to the low number of resident complaints. The SNP’s Stuart McDonald was sceptical: “Either you have hit upon producing a service that is a miracle… or there might be something wrong with the complaints procedure.” So it would turn out. In early 2016, Clearsprings reported it had received 70 complaints over the course of 12 months. By 2020, when an official complaints system had been established, Clearsprings was accommodating around 60 per cent more people but generated 872 complaints during the year—an increase of 1,146 per cent compared with when the company was marking its own homework.

Despite Vyvyan-Robinson’s assertions, in the years afterwards it also became clear that Clearsprings’ service was a long way off compliant. Nearly three years after the committee hearing, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration published the results of Home Office property inspections over a 22-month period. Just 27 per cent of Clearsprings properties were found to be compliant. Remarkably, this record was better than G4S or Serco, which between them achieved compliance of 23 per cent. However, nearly 15 per cent of inspected Clearsprings properties were judged “uninhabitable”, while one in 50 fell into the worst category of “unsafe”, far more than the other providers.

When it came time to replace the Compass contracts, the Home Office considered radical solutions. Options included embarking on a housebuilding programme or allowing asylum seekers access to mainstream benefits. But despite extending Compass by two years, the Home Office concluded it had not left enough time for major reforms, opting for an approach that the National Audit Office described as “close to the existing COMPASS model”.

The Asylum Accommodation and Support contracts generated little commercial interest. Two regions received no bids at all, and the competition had to be restarted. At the end of the process, three contracts were awarded to bidders who faced no competition. As the Public Accounts Committee put it: “The department became a customer in a seller’s market.” Eventually, three companies shared seven contracts between them: Serco, Mears and Clearsprings.

Since the winning bidders were announced in January 2019, complaints about asylum accommodation have continued. Researchers have suggested poor food standards are causing malnourishment. There have been serious concerns that children in hostels are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Home Office data I obtained via a freedom of information request reveals there are thousands of reports of self-harm and suicide among asylum accommodation residents every month.

Former Clearsprings employees allege that safeguarding is a box-ticking exercise. One former housing officer says she had responsibility for 230 service users, many with complex needs. “The mental health of service users, that’s not of paramount importance,” she says. A former safeguarding officer, who did not work on Home Office contracts but looked after asylum-seeking children as part of Clearsprings’ contract with a local authority, says the company focused on profit over people’s welfare. “They were worried about the money,” she said. This officer said managers would blame service users when issues arose: “It was very derogatory: ‘They are always a problem, they are always going to be a problem.’”

Napier Barracks, near Folkestone in Kent, has housed asylum seekers since 2020. An independent inspector found the accommodation to be “impoverished”. Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images Napier Barracks, near Folkestone in Kent, has housed asylum seekers since 2020. An independent inspector found the accommodation to be “impoverished”. Image: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Meanwhile, costs have soared. The National Audit Office recently revealed that the Home Office expected to spend £3.1bn on hotels alone in the year to March 2024—nearly eight times its initial estimates for all asylum accomodation. Much of that can be attributed to hotels, accounting for £3.1bn in the last financial year. Despite spiralling costs, a risk assessment in the Home Office’s 2022 to 2023 annual report warns of the possibility that “the asylum support and dispersal system fails” and “the department fails to prevent the loss of lives in the immigration system”.

This appears less a risk than reality. Last year, seven asylum seekers are thought to have taken their own lives in asylum accommodation in just four months. Among them was Victor Hugo Pereira Vargas, a 63-year-old from Colombia, who was living at a Home Office hotel in Sussex. An inquest into his death will now seek to determine if there were safeguarding failings. In June, a pre-inquest review hearing heard that Clearsprings had outsourced the contract to another company, which had in turn outsourced to a third company which owned the hotel. Among these three firms extracting a share of the profits from asylum accommodation, it was unclear who was looking out for residents’ safety. As Pereira’s family looked on, the coroner questioned lawyers for the Home Office and Clearsprings about which company held a contractual duty for safeguarding. Neither party could provide immediate answers.

Documents disclosed by the Home Office in response to a freedom of information request indicate the department does not know exactly who is involved in providing asylum accommodation. While its three providers are contractually required to maintain up-to-date lists of subcontractors, the department advised these had not been updated in five years, and the documents disclosed were found to be missing several firms known to be providing accommodation. Providers appear to face few consequences for contractual failings. In March this year, the High Court noted Clearsprings’ “persistent failure” to meet at least one of its key performance indicators but found the home secretary had “not once used his contractual power to enforce the… performance standards”. Of course, poor performance cannot be penalised if it goes unnoticed. When asked to provide performance data for Clearsprings, the Home Office declined on cost grounds, stating it would take several days to gather the information. (The Home Office also declined to comment for this article.)

Judged by one metric, Clearsprings has outperformed all expectations. Its published accounts show that turnover has risen from £59.3m in January 2019, just before the current contracts commenced, to reach £1.3bn in the year ending January 2023. Net profits have increased by a factor of 413 to £60m. In recent years, Graham King has been enjoying the rewards from his business success, riding horses in the ocean off Antigua and relaxing on a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea.

Facing pressure over the ongoing cost of asylum accommodation, the Home Office has again been searching for new solutions. Organisations including Refugee Action have called for a return to a non-profit asylum accommodation system, operated by local authorities. Instead, since 2020 the Conservative government has been pursuing a “large sites” programme — the same idea first attempted by David Blunkett more than 20 years ago. In March, the Home Office set out its rationale, saying it was “making every effort to… limit the burden on the taxpayer”. That same month, the National Audit Office reported the department had in fact calculated that large sites would be more expensive than hotels. Of course, money was not the only motivating factor. Robert Jenrick, who served as immigration minister until December 2023, said earlier that year: “We need to suffuse our entire system with deterrence. That is why we are bringing forward new sites.”

As the Home Office pivoted away from hotels, Clearsprings pivoted with them. In September 2020, the government appointed Clearsprings to manage asylum accommodation at two former military sites: Penally Camp near Tenby and Napier Barracks near Folkestone. When the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration visited, he found the camps were “impoverished” and “run down”. Residents were “depressed and hopeless”. “Managers at both sites lacked the experience and skills to run large-scale communal accommodation,” the inspector wrote. In July last year, the Home Office began moving asylum -seekers to the MDP Wethersfield, a former RAF barracks in Essex, also managed by Clearsprings.

On a Monday afternoon in late June, the sun beams down on thatched roofs and village greens around Wethersfield asylum centre. Metal fences topped with barbed wire mark the camp boundary and signs advise visitors that CCTV is in operation. Green netting obscures the view beyond the fence, but staff in high-vis jackets can be made out around the low-rise buildings. Two security guards at the gate examine my press accreditation then radio to ask if a journalist should be allowed inside. The radio crackles back: “That’s a negative.”

As well as limiting access to outsiders, the Home Office says it has taken steps “to minimise… the need to leave the site”. Residents can, however, use a shuttle bus that runs three times a day to nearby towns, and so Ibrahim, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan who asked not to be identified by his real name, sits down at a cafe in Braintree to describe life inside the camp. Every day is the same, he explains. There are few activities, apart from informal games of football in the sports hall and access to a gym with broken equipment. Ibrahim pulls up a photo on his phone of his accommodation: a cramped space inside a temporary cabin housing six men, each allocated a single bed, the room a wash of white and grey. “It’s like prison,” Ibrahim says.

There are thousands of reports of self-harm and suicide in asylum accommodation every month

After seven months at Wethersfield, Ibrahim is suffering. In Sudan, he was an engineer; he’d hoped to continue his career in the UK. “But I spent seven months waiting, without doing anything,” he says, feeling “desperate” and in “despair”. Visits to the on-site medical staff had not been helpful. “They just provide you some tablets to sleep.” There were few people he could turn to for support. “Everybody there is thinking about how to get out,” he says. “They are not thinking to make friends.”

In May, Médecins Sans Frontières and Doctors of the World published a report based on 122 patients seen at a mobile medical clinic outside the camp. “A mental health crisis is unfolding”, it read. More than four in 10 patients described “suicidal ideation”. Despite regularly raising concerns with Clearsprings and the Home Office, the charities noted: “We do not receive acknowledgement from Clearsprings Ready Homes.” Humans for Rights Network recently said it had received reports of 14 attempted suicides at the camp during the first five months of this year. Katie Sweetingham, field operations manager at Care4Calais, a charity that supports asylum seekers at Wethersfield, says she has “not met a single resident unaffected” by the accommodation, adding that the fact that “private companies are pocketing huge profits from operating such sites… is utterly shameful.” This July, the High Court will hear claims that conditions at Wethersfield risk the UK breaching the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Home Office says the maximum stay at Wethersfield should be nine months, and Ibrahim hoped he would soon leave. But, in practice, stays can be extended if the Home Office is unable to find alternative accommodation. It’s currently unclear where that might be. During the election, both the Conservatives and Labour pledged to end the use of hotels for asylum accommodation, but stopped short of setting out an alternative accommodation system, focusing instead on tackling demand by “stopping the boats”. Clearsprings offered an assessment of this prospect in its most recent financial filings. “The number of arrivals per year is expected to continue at a high level for the foreseeable future,” the company said, adding it “is looking to expand its involvement in large non-hotel accommodation sites, such as ex-army camps” and “is well placed to bid for new accommodation contracts when tenders are invited by the Home Office.”