Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 5:54 pm, 10th February 2010

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise matters relating to Yarl's Wood detention and removal centre. As I am sure the House is aware, it is the largest immigration detention centre for women and children in the United Kingdom and is located in my constituency.

I sought this debate before a protest began at Yarl's Wood last week, a hunger strike that became rather more serious on Monday. However, a number of the matters at the heart of the protest are pertinent to the remarks that I shall make. It is fortunate that we have a little more time than we normally would for an Adjournment debate, and I acknowledge the presence of Patrick Hall, who has always taken a keen interest in the centre.

I shall briefly give some history of the centre, because it is pertinent. Some of the problems inherent at the outset of Yarl's Wood still bedevil it and the system that it symbolises. It was built on a deceit. Terrified by the rise in the number of asylum applications resulting from changes in policy in 1997, the Government needed to react to growing public concern prior to the general election of 2001. The then Home Secretary plucked a figure for removals out of the air, and Yarl's Wood was built to accommodate that fictitious figure and the attempts that followed to remove people from the UK as part of the process.

The centre was appallingly built, without adequate fire precautions, and on Valentine's day 2002, following a disturbance started by former prisoners who should not have been there, half the centre burned down, risking more than 300 lives. The insurance claim disgracefully launched against Bedfordshire police has not yet been settled, eight years after the event.

If the Minister or the House believe that I have made a somewhat prejudiced and partial opening, they should read the excellent report by Mr. Stephen Shaw, the then prisons ombudsman, following his inquiry into the circumstances of the fire. I doubt that he would take issue with anything that I have just said.

The relevance of that history today is that something built upon sand may never recover from its poor foundations. The problems of the backlog in the system that resulted from the early policy changes of the current Government have never been adequately dealt with, and they still bedevil the system today. Similarly, Yarl's Wood's reputation from its opening days has rather unfairly lasted to this day. Perhaps I can deal with that first, as there is much concern and some misunderstanding about what happens there among groups outside Yarl's Wood who care deeply about detainees.

In April 2007, Serco took over the contract to run Yarl's Wood from Group 4. Since then it has made a number of changes that have markedly improved the atmosphere at the centre. It can never be a happy place, as it contains women and children who have come to the end of their attempts to move to, and live in, the United Kingdom. The vast majority know that at some stage, they will be required to leave. Many do not wish to do so, and that understandably makes for a difficult atmosphere in the centre.

However, Yarl's Wood is not a prison, and it is not run like one. The staff, a number of whom are my constituents, have to manage a balance between ensuring that the place is secure-people are there because there was a fear that they might abscond-and recognising that the majority have committed no criminal offence and should not be treated as prisoners.

The original Yarl's Wood regime tended more towards a prison regime, partly because of the haste in which the centre was built and the circumstances that I described earlier, and partly through a lack of thought as to what it was really about. However, through the patient work of both Group 4 and Serco, the atmosphere has changed. Internal doors have been taken down and there is much more free association among those who are detained. Facilities for education and recreation have steadily improved. The uniform of officers has changed, and the ratio of women to men officers has changed for the better and is more appropriate to the large number of women detainees. Internet access, for which I have repeatedly asked over the years, was finally installed in June 2007, and efforts have been made to improve access to external support organisations.

Those efforts have been helped by the repeated work of many people. The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, has taken a particular interest in Yarl's Wood and her comments have helped to improve the situation. The Children's Commissioner has raised the issue. There has been sterling work by two local bodies, the independent monitoring board and the Yarl's Wood befrienders. I thank the chair of the independent monitoring board, Jane Leech, and all its members, for their work. Those volunteers are regularly at Yarl's Wood to observe what happens there and to be available to people. The befrienders are not a statutory body but often from a faith base, and they take care of detainees on a personal basis, particularly those who may have no one else to turn to. The involvement of both groups, which are staffed locally by volunteers from my constituency, is important and necessary. Yarl's Wood is not perfect, but not to recognise the efforts that have been made to improve the regime over the years would be unfair to those who work there, the Home Office, and others who try so hard to make things better in difficult circumstances.

However, last Thursday, a protest began at Yarl's Wood. It was partly about conditions, but more specifically about the asylum process and the length of time that some detainees are held. Over the weekend, the protest escalated, until on Monday, four detainees were isolated as alleged instigators. In response, a group of some 70 women peacefully occupied a corridor known as the avenue. At some stage in the afternoon, a group of women broke out of the corridor into a yard outside by climbing through windows.

I have spoken to Serco officials, the chair of the independent monitoring board, Jane Leech, and to Chief Constable Gillian Parker, who was kept abreast of the situation even though police did not need to enter the premises, for their accounts of the incident. I understand that Yarl's Wood staff contained the protest, both outside in the yard and in the corridor, and that it gradually came to a peaceful conclusion. That must be the first responsibility-the welfare and safety of detainees and staff. Women held in the corridor were not allowed access to food, water or toilet facilities during the protest. Those were available if they left the corridor and therefore the protest, but they were not allowed to rejoin.

I understand that there were no serious injuries, nor any serious physical confrontation between staff and detainees, but that account is not entirely accepted by some groups outside Yarl's Wood who supported the protest and the women involved, and who have e-mailed me. I should make it clear that I do not support hunger strikes, which damage the welfare of individual detainees, nor protests that risk the health and welfare of staff or detainees. Having said that, it is essential, for the integrity of the asylum and detention process, and for the staff and detainees involved, that what happens in such situations is verified, and that that verification is available externally.

Therefore, will the Minister confirm that CCTV coverage was available for all areas involved in the protest on Monday? Will there be an independent inquiry, or at least a report, into what happened and the circumstances, and how it was dealt with and contained, possibly through the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers? Will the CCTV coverage be available to her?

Can the Minister say what happened to the four women detainees who were allegedly held without access to facilities for most of the day, and who have now been dispersed to other centres? I understand that they were taken to the reception area and held there during the day, and that they were moved later, but what precisely was their condition during the day and who was looking after them? Were any injuries received by either staff or detainees? How were such injuries treated and were medical staff available at all times?

As I indicated, I sought this debate before that incident, and I want to cover some of the origins of the frustration that led to the protest.

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