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Oakington Immigration Removal Centre

Volume 493: debated on Monday 8 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ms Butler.)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House conditions at Oakington immigration removal centre.

Since I was first elected to Parliament in 1987, immigration and asylum have been at the heart of my concern. They are contentious subjects and there are no votes in them; none the less, whether the House is prepared to take them seriously and afford immigrants and asylum seekers—even failed asylum seekers—humane treatment and due process is a test of our democracy.

A few weeks ago, I visited Oakington immigration removal centre. Following that visit, I want to raise several concerns. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration knows that Oakington is a centre with a troubled past. It was subject to a High Court hearing about its lawfulness as a place for detaining asylum seekers. It was also the subject of a shocking BBC documentary about racist and physical abuse of detainees and, most recently, it received a less than complimentary report from the chief inspector of prisons.

Although I will speak specifically about conditions in Oakington, I do not believe that the problems are unique to Oakington. From recent reports on the United Kingdom’s 11 immigration removal centres, it appears that the comments of the chief inspector of prisons also apply to other centres.

I was in the House when it was announced that we would set up detention centres. Like many hon. Friends who were here at the time, I believed the Government when they said that detention would be for a short time and that vulnerable people would not be detained. However, the picture that emerges from reports is of people being kept in detention for longer and longer and of vulnerable people being detained, despite detention being potentially dangerous to their health and well-being.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the fact that in 1999, one of his predecessors said, when the opening of Oakington was debated in the House,

“it is important to deal with the claims speedily, and to deal with the people humanely.”

She also said that,

“people will stay for only short periods so that their applications can be processed.”—[Official Report, 9 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 1013.]

We have moved a long way from that and people are being kept in Oakington for unconscionably long periods.

I referred to the history of Oakington and I shall expand on that a little. It was opened in 1999 as a fast-track asylum centre and was seen as a flagship scheme to help deal with the backlog of applications, which existed then as now. It was supposed to house asylum seekers with simple cases, who would stay there for about 10 days before their cases were decided. In September 2001, however, a High Court judge ruled that Oakington was unlawful. The crux of the ruling was that asylum seekers living at Oakington were not allowed to leave the site.

In 2005, the BBC sent in two undercover journalists to work at Oakington and find out how detainees were being treated by private security staff. The programme found that a significant minority of staff were racially and physically abusing detainees. Staff were found boasting about the abuse that they doled out and were also filmed racially abusing detainees. A further cause for concern was that footage was recorded showing those responsible for handling complaints explaining how they either talked detainees out of making complaints or felt protected by their unions.

As a result of that documentary, 15 members of staff were suspended from duty. At the time, Home Office Ministers and Group 4 were quick to say that the shocking footage was the result of the proverbial few bad apples. However, an inquiry into racism at the centre conducted by the prison ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, found a subculture of racism, casual violence and abuse, which he described as a “subculture of nastiness”. Visiting the centre recently, I was shocked to find that the very same G4 security manager who was in charge of Oakington at the time of the BBC documentary is still in place. That is unsatisfactory.

The most recent report on Oakington was conducted last October, by the chief inspector of prisons. She said that the centre failed three of the inspectorate’s four tests for a healthy establishment. Only 60 per cent. of detainees found that staff treated them with respect, while half the detainees did not feel safe. She concluded:

“This was a disappointing inspection of an establishment which seemed to have lost direction and purpose. The uncertainty about the centre’s future was undoubtedly a factor in this, making planning difficult and inhibiting necessary investment…However, this appeared to have infected managers and staff with a short-term, reactive approach. It is important for the UK Border Agency to clarify the future of the centre as soon as possible”.

I will return to that.

One of the issues that has been raised with me—not only in relation to the inspectorate’s report, but by the many groups and individuals involved in the work at Oakington—is health care. I visited the health care centre, which was clean and seemed well organised, but there are issues with translation, the treatment of HIV-positive detainees and mental health care. Medical Justice is concerned that it no longer receives many referrals from Oakington, now that the Refugee Council does not have a presence there. That may mean that the incidence of mental health issues is smaller, but it may also mean that mental health problems are not being spotted. Medical organisations have evidence that victims of horrific torture, imprisonment and rape are being kept at Oakington. That cannot be a humane way to deal with them.

The other issue that was raised with me, and which I took the opportunity to look into when I visited, was the lack of welfare provision. The Refugee Council had a contract to provide welfare support that was terminated in September 2008. The inspector expressed regret at that. It seems that welfare now rests with either volunteers or the chaplaincy. The chaplains, who are under enormous pressure, do their very best, but I do not think that that provision is appropriate.

Another issue that was raised with me, and which I saw with my own eyes on my visit, was the visitors’ room. It is a small, dingy and poorly ventilated room, with tables and chairs that are nailed to the floor. Given that people can be held in the centre for months and months, that is not a suitable place for families to visit. Generally, the facilities at Oakington are clean, but they are starting to look worn and scruffy, all of which flows from the uncertainty about the centre’s future.

I thank the hon. Lady immensely for raising this important subject this evening. May I draw her attention to another recent development at Oakington that is extremely disturbing? Legal advice is no longer available on a 24-hour basis, even though detainees are likely to be brought into the centre at any time. There used to be comprehensive legal cover, but now the Immigration Advisory Service is to be allowed to offer that advice only during office hours, yet, because of the withdrawal of advice from the Refugee Council, which she mentioned, the IAS was basically doing welfare work too.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue.

I want now to talk about the problems of self-harm at Oakington. One of the issues that has been raised with me is the way in which detainees with high levels of distress are treated. One problem is that, when someone is self-harming or has attempted suicide, they are taken to a close care and observation room, allegedly for the purpose of observation. I have visited the room, and it consists of completely bare cells with mattresses on the floor and a guard watching over it. This facility is located in the same part of the building that is used to isolate detainees who have misbehaved. It does not feel like a therapeutic environment; it feels like a place where people are sent to be punished.

I used to work for the Home Office years ago, and for the prison department, and I know that that area looks like a place where rule 41 prisoners are placed in isolation. There was a guard outside the close care and observation room who looked in from time to time. I cannot begin to imagine the effect of that kind of isolation on prisoners who are depressed or have mental problems. That is not a suitable way to hold people with psychological problems. Even the head of the independent monitoring board—who I think could perhaps ask a few more questions about the way in which Oakington is run—said that the close care and observation spaces were a problem.

I am also concerned about the increasing use of force at Oakington. The prisons inspector found that there had been 53 uses of force since 2007, 34 of which had taken place in the first six months of 2008. There is also the question of legal advice, which the hon. Gentleman has just raised. On-site legal advice is provided by the Immigration Advisory Service, which is doing the best it can but is now restricted to offering the service only during office hours, between 9 and 5, even though detainees can be brought to Oakington at any time of the day or night—that is the nature of the system. The independent monitoring board raised concerns in its annual report that the reduction in legal advice services would be harmful to detainees, particularly those with poor English or little knowledge of the availability of legal services and processes.

The Refugee Council is concerned about the inadequate access to legal services, which can lead detainees to be detained for longer than is necessary because they are unable to apply for their right to bail. Home Office statistics show that, in the first quarter of 2009, 2,015 people had been detained there for longer than a year. I put these questions to Ministers when the matter was initially discussed in the House in 1999, but we were never told that these centres were meant to hold people for a year or more.

Of particular concern are the people from certain communities in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe who are being held at Oakington. It is unsafe to deport them, so they are being held there indefinitely. Some of those people are among the most depressed and unhappy people at Oakington. That kind of detention—which appears to be indefinite to those unfortunate detainees—is completely unacceptable. There is also the question of age-disputed cases, given the rise in the number of detainees who claim to be under 18 at Oakington. I was concerned about the lack of information about those young people.

The independent monitoring board at Oakington is manned by a group of volunteers, but there has been difficulty in recruiting members. There are only six active members on the board. The board is doing a good job, but I am concerned that it is understaffed. I have also had reports from local residents that they do not think that the board is doing enough to disseminate information about what is going on at the centre.

I was lucky enough to visit Oakington on 15 May, and I met Phil Schoenenberger, who is employed by the United Kingdom Border Agency as the detention services area manager, and Penny Lambert, the chair of the independent monitoring board, as well as Susan Ward and Colin Hodgkins, the long-serving centre manager. I took the opportunity to question them on the chief inspector of prisons’ report, and I have to say that their response to its findings was one of the most shocking aspects of my visit to Oakington. Not even Penny Lambert, who is supposed to be the chair of the independent monitoring board, was prepared to admit that something had gone seriously wrong at management level. Instead, what I found was a distinctly defensive attitude and a rejection of what the prison inspector’s report had said.

Whenever I raised specific points from the inspector’s report, I was greeted with excuses. I asked why the incidents of self-harm had risen and I was told that the centre was getting more distressed detainees. I asked why half the detainees said that they did not feel safe in the centre and Colin Hodgkins said that there were problems with the inspectorate’s methodology. In effect, he said that he did not accept the inspector’s report. Our inspector of prisons has a deservedly high reputation, but it looks like the response to her report will be a box-ticking exercise because these people will not accept that there is something systematically wrong with the management of Oakington.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the chief inspector failed Oakington on three or four of its tests, finding that

“detainees expressed high levels of anxiety”,


“the living environment was poor”

and that the

“management of race and diversity was inadequate”.

The independent monitoring board also noted the pressure that the centre was under, with

“officers at Oakington… now working in more stressful conditions”,

and it noted

“the length of detention… generally… extended… and there is very little organised occupation”

for the detainees. It is clear that part of Oakington’s problems are systemic, so I cannot understand why a manager who has presided over the centre for such a dark period in its history is still there.

Another key problem is the uncertainty, so I would like to ask the Minister to give the House some reassurance that a final decision on Oakington’s future will be made very soon. I believe it unacceptable for the centre to be put under more pressure with more detainees staying for longer without recourse to the amount of funding necessary to maintain the buildings and raise the level of service. A lot of the problems I have talked about tonight are attributable to detainees being kept at Oakington for long and unforeseen periods of time.

My final point is a simple one. If the Home Office insists on detaining people for what are essentially administrative purposes, given that they have, after all, committed no crime, those people must be detained humanely. Immigration detention is not intended to be punitive, although some of us argue that it seems to be becoming so, and it should not be treated as such. What I have seen of Oakington with my own eyes, heard from visitors and individuals working there and read in the inspector’s report suggests that the centre is not providing a service under which detainees are detained humanely. I think that the experience people receive at Oakington, over and above the deprivation of liberty, is in many ways punitive. I would like to know what Ministers are doing to cut the length of time that immigrants are detained in immigration detention, what the Home Office is doing to improve the lot of those who are detained and, above all, when Ministers are going to reach a decision on the future of Oakington detention centre.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate, continuing her long-term interest in both this particular facility and in the wider issues. I also welcome the intervention of the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who has tabled questions and corresponded with me. I believe that the centre is just outside his constituency. The centre is also close to the constituency of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—[Interruption.]—I apologise, it is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is good to see him in his place this evening and I thank him for his correction.

Let me try to answer the questions put to me. The wider context is that the UK Border Agency has 11 immigration removal centres, providing 3,000 bed spaces, predominantly for individuals who are awaiting removal or whose applications are being processed under the detained fast-track arrangements. Detention is an essential part of the Government’s commitment to operate a firm but fair immigration and asylum policy by assisting us to remove those who do not qualify for leave to remain here and who refuse to leave the UK voluntarily or who would otherwise abscond.

The estate provides a range of types of accommodation to meet the needs of the agency and detainees. Oakington is one of the centres used to hold lower-risk individuals. That is reflected in the security arrangements, and in the way in which the centre operates. As my hon. Friend said, it has been functioning since 2000, when it opened as a reception centre for new asylum applicants. It now accommodates up to 408 detainees, all of whom are single men. It has limitations in design, but detainees enjoy freedom of movement during the day. Indeed, the amount of open space provided is acknowledged by the chief inspector of prisons to be a real asset for them.

In 2008, when for some time the centre had been holding a mixture of detainees whose applications were under consideration and detainees whose applications had already failed, my predecessor decided to concentrate services for new applicants under the detained fast-track process at Harmondsworth removal centre. That decision not only created a number of savings for the agency, but gave detainees access to the benefits of the legal services and advice provided at Harmondsworth. As a consequence, Oakington is now predominantly used to hold individuals whose immigration applications have been refused by both the UK Border Agency and, where appropriate, the independent courts. We detain individuals in that centre for removal only after they have been given every opportunity to leave the UK voluntarily but have failed to do so, when we need to establish identity, or because they are to be deported. The expectation of the agency is that it is a removal centre, and that should be the expectation of detainees as well.

I genuinely welcome the independent scrutiny to which our immigration removal centres are subjected both by the independent monitoring boards, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which operate on a daily basis in all the centres, and by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, whose team makes periodic visits on an announced and unannounced basis. The insight and commentary from both those organisations cause the UK Border Agency and its contractors to review their policies and procedures continually to ensure that removal centres are operated safely, that they meet the standards laid down by the 2001 detention centre rules and associated operating standards, and that detainees are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

According to the report that followed the visit of the inspectorate in June 2008, Oakington had a number of positive attributes—notably a dramatic reduction in the number of escapes, efficient and friendly reception procedures, a good standard of health care provision, good pastoral and practical welfare support for detainees, and improved recreational facilities. However, the inspectorate also found that detainees’ perceptions of safety and security had been reduced, that immigration advice was limited—that was mentioned by my hon. Friend—and that the local UK Border Agency team lacked experience.

It is perhaps not surprising that the number of detainees who felt unsafe at Oakington had increased since the inspectorate’s previous visit, in view of the significant shift from holding individuals whose applications to remain in the UK were still under consideration to holding those who were about to be removed. I imagine that people who have travelled halfway around the world to start a new life in the UK are bound to feel uncertain about what their future holds when their applications to stay have failed and they are being sent back to their own countries.

It is of course disappointing for me, and for my officials, if the inspectorate found that detainees did not feel that they were treated with dignity and respect by staff. That is not the experience of the on-site UK Border Agency contract monitor and her staff, who recognise that the staff deal with some very difficult situations in a centre whose open layout means that particular skill and expertise are required for the maintaining of a safe and secure environment.

I met the contract manager during my visit, and it seemed to me that she was in collusion with the staff. It was “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil”.

I am sorry if my hon. Friend believes that to be the case, but I think that my earlier observation is pertinent. As she acknowledged, the facility operates in difficult circumstances. However, I do not wish to deflect her criticism. I think that it is right that my hon. Friend raises her concerns, and I commend her for doing so. She said at the outset that there was no electoral advantage for her in doing so; she is doing the right thing and I accept the integrity with which she is doing it. That is why I take this Adjournment debate especially seriously, and I must measure the comments she and other Members have made against the advice I am given in forming judgments, particularly as to the future.

I think it is fair to say that the points that have been made not only in reports but more generally over the past months have been listened to carefully. I am thinking particularly of the report from the inspectorate, however. As a result, there have been a number of significant improvements at the centre. They include the introduction of a dedicated induction unit which allows all those who have just arrived to be located together while they settle into the routine of the centre; and the introduction of an information leaflet for detainees which is given to them on arrival. It is published in 11 languages and sets out expectations about why they are detained, the role of the local UKBA team and how to access its services, how to seek independent legal advice—I note my hon. Friend’s point on that, and I shall look into it—the role of the independent monitoring board and how to raise grievances and complaints.

Every detainee is seen on arrival by a team especially dedicated to that, and it is available thereafter upon request to answer questions about individual cases. That team is led by an experienced manager who has worked at the centre for a number of years. There has also been the introduction of regular surgery visits by the criminal casework directorate to accelerate the process of deporting ex-foreign national prisoners. There is also a revised and simpler complaints system with guidance to detainees on how to complain and how they can expect their grievances to be handled. A new library provides enhanced services in a far larger and more comfortable environment for residents. The relocation of the health care centre inside the perimeter makes it far more accessible to detainees. A far larger and better equipped fitness suite has also been provided.

I recognise that the continued uncertainty surrounding the future of Oakington may have left the inspectorate with the impression that the centre had “lost its way” and that it has not experienced the same levels of investment as other centres over the past few years. However, the UKBA has sought to resolve this matter and has been in discussion with the Homes and Communities Agency, Oakington’s landowner, for some time about its future in light of recent decisions to grant planning permission for a new centre at Bullingdon in Oxfordshire and at Bedford.

Following those discussions, a decision has recently been taken that Oakington will close within the next two years. The UKBA is currently considering a number of options in preparation for that closure, and a decision will be reached shortly as to when it is likely to occur. However, that will not stop the agency continuing to invest in the centre in the interests of maintaining a safe and secure environment for both detainees and staff.

In respect of that point, I thank my hon. Friend. When it is known that a centre is to shut, it is—perhaps—human nature to allow it to wind down. We will not allow that to happen; we will ensure as best we can that standards are maintained and resources are expended to ensure that. Improvements and upgrades in the services and facilities provided will continue throughout this year, which will directly benefit the detainees. They will include: refurbished sanitary ware; a larger and enhanced arts and craft room; an operating standard for welfare services; and more information for detainees to help prepare them for removal.

To conclude, Oakington is not an easy centre to operate in view of both its layout—the original design—and, as I have acknowledged, the fact that it will close within the next two years. However, having looked at the report, the advice available to me and the correspondence from hon. Members, I am satisfied that it provides a satisfactory level of service to detainees, especially bearing in mind the response that the agency has had to the inspectorate’s report. The vast majority of detainees stay for only a matter of a few weeks. My hon. Friend spoke about speeding up the system. Of course, nobody knows better than I the desirability of that, but there is not the time to go into the legal reasons why delays occur. The level of care and commitment provided by the staff is high, as has been acknowledged by the independent monitoring board.

I give the commitment to the House to examine the additional specific points that my hon. Friend has raised from her visit and to ensure that Members are given the information that they desire to satisfy themselves that a proper process and proper facilities are available at Oakington and the UKBA’s other facilities—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.9(7)).