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Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre (Detainee Death)

Volume 578: debated on Monday 31 March 2014

I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our very sincere condolences to the family of the woman who died at Yarl’s Wood yesterday. This was tragic news, and I was certainly very sorry to receive the information. The House will understand that what I can say at this stage is limited.

The established procedure in this situation is to bring in the police to look at the circumstances. Bedfordshire police are currently leading that work. No cause of death has yet been established. Once police inquiries are concluded, the established process is that the prisons and probation ombudsman will begin an investigation. That will happen in this case. However, our focus in the immediate aftermath must be to support the family and to keep public comment to a minimum until the circumstances of yesterday’s sad news become clearer.

Following any death in detention, we ensure that detainees are offered counselling and access to a support plan. We review the detention of any individual in the centre who is considered to be vulnerable and ensure that they are given appropriate support. That also applies to staff working in the detention centre.

What I can say, in general, is that the operation of immigration removal centres is a serious responsibility that falls to the Home Office. Nobody involved in this work is in any doubt about the seriousness of the role. In taking on my role as Minister for Security and Immigration, I made it an early responsibility to visit an immigration removal centre to help me understand fully the range of issues connected to detention in such an environment; I visited Brook House and Tinsley House in February.

Like other immigration removal centres, Yarl’s Wood is subject to oversight from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, whose most recent report was published last October. There were some key recommendations for the Home Office to review. However, the assessment of the regime in general was that it was improving. I commend to the House Nick Hardwick’s overall introduction to the report, which succinctly highlights the difficult circumstances of women in detention and the improvements that have been made to the regime. The report, and the Home Office’s response to its recommendations, have both been placed in the Library.

The responsibility for the detention of immigration offenders is taken seriously by everyone involved; I underline that it is a personal responsibility. I hope that the House will understand that it is far too early to draw conclusions at this stage and that to indulge in speculation would be distressing to the family and irresponsible, given the seriousness of the issues involved.

Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system. It is important that our centres are well run, safe and secure and that our detainees are treated with dignity and respect, and provided with the proper facilities. Detainees’ welfare is extremely important, which is why are committed to treating all those in our care with such dignity and respect. The House will be as distressed as everyone to hear of this news and will want the family and loved ones of the lady involved to know that they are in our thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.

The whole House will agree with the Minister that the news of a 40-year-old detainee dying in Yarl’s Wood is extremely sad. All our thoughts must be with the family and friends, and it is important that they should get appropriate support.

I welcome the Minister’s response that a full investigation is in place. He will be aware that there are unconfirmed reports that the detainee was initially denied medical assistance. Can he assure the House that all those reports are being fully looked into as part of the police and wider investigations? He will also be aware that there are reports that Yarl’s Wood had turned down offers of help from the local NHS for other women detainees who were distressed after witnessing the death. Is that the case, and what further support was provided to others at Yarl’s Wood yesterday?

The whole House will agree that immigration rules need to be enforced, and that does require deportations. Some people need to be detained in advance of deportations, and that is never easy. The House will also agree that this must always be done humanely, with high standards and safeguards in place. Last October’s prisons inspectorate report on Yarl’s Wood referred to some dismissive responses from health staff within Yarl’s Wood, and research by Women for Refugee Women says that many women detainees felt that they were not believed by health staff and raises concerns about physical and mental health support. What action has been taken about that?

What action have Ministers taken since last year’s deeply disturbing reports of abuse of vulnerable women by Serco employees at Yarl’s Wood, including having sex with women detainees and sexual bullying? We have not yet seen a full investigation into what happened and what action has been taken to prevent it from ever happening again.

The inspectorate has also said that women who had been abused or trafficked are still wrongly detained in Yarl’s Wood. These are clearly very vulnerable women who need support, so what is being done to stop them being detained?

The Minister will be aware of the case of Yashika Bageerathi, who is being placed in Yarl’s Wood just before her A-levels despite the Home Office guidance about not separating families and not moving teenagers just before exams. In the light of the concerns raised, will he personally review Yashika Bageerathi’s case?

Given the continuing concerns about Yarl’s Wood, will the Home Secretary commission a joint inquiry on its operations and the Serco contract by the prisons inspectorate and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, and will she then report swiftly back to the House?

I welcome the Minister’s response to the question. He and I both agree that while immigration rules must always be enforced, detainees must be treated humanely, and it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that both take place.

I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone of her comments and the points she has made about this tragic incident. I certainly agree that it is important that we have a system that is firm but fair and treats those who are in our immigration removal centres in a humane and appropriate way. That is certainly the standard that I expect, and I know that that view is shared by the Home Secretary and all of us who have responsibility in this regard.

The right hon. Lady asked about the level of support provided to those at the centre. I have spoken to the centre director, John Tolland, about that. He has underlined the fact that there has been increased staffing, increased counselling is being provided, and additional pastor support has been arranged for those at the centre.

I am not in a position to comment on the specific points that the right hon. Lady raised, but I can assure her that they will have been heard by those with responsibility in the police and the inspectorate. Certainly, I would expect all issues to be thoroughly analysed and investigated appropriately, given the nature of this incident.

The right hon. Lady highlighted the issue of medical support and the overall regime at Yarl’s Wood. She will be aware that the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, conducted an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood, and it is worth highlighting his concluding remarks. He said:

“Yarl’s Wood has had a troubled past, punctuated by serious disturbances and controversy surrounding the detention of children. This inspection found that the improvements we have noted since the detention of children ended have continued. Nevertheless, despite the good progress made, improvement continues to be necessary.”

I entirely endorse that. There is a need for continued focus to ensure that we see further changes and improvements at Yarl’s Wood. That is something that I will continue to focus on.

On health service support, specific recommendations that were contained in the inspector’s report have been pursued and there has been further analysis of the health support required there. That has been sent to the NHS commissioners.

I reassure the House of the seriousness that we attach to the incident. We expect all issues to be properly investigated and pursued.

Given what we have heard about Yarl’s Wood today, how does it make sense for my constituent, Yashika Bageerathi, to have been detained there for nearly two weeks now, away from her traumatised mother and family? Her plight has been championed by the students at Oasis Academy Hadley school and by over 170,000 people in an online petition. They want her back to continue her studies and to complete her A-levels in May. Given that Home Office policy says specifically that someone who is three months away from sitting a major exam will not be removed, will the Minister order the release of Yashika today and allow common sense and compassion to prevail?

I know that my hon. Friend has raised concerns about this case and I commend him for his customary focus on supporting his constituents, which he has underlined again in respect of this individual case.

We consider every claim for asylum on its individual merits and this particular applicant was not considered to be in need of protection. The case has been considered carefully not simply by the Home Office but by the courts and tribunals, and has gone through the proper legal process. The decision has been upheld and supported by the courts. Given those circumstances and the extent and level of judicial and other scrutiny, the Home Secretary has indicated that she does not feel that it is appropriate to intervene. That remains our position.

I associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). The Minister is right to have started an investigation and to await its outcome, but the deaths of Jimmy Mubenga and Alois Dvorzac remind us of how careful we need to be in these matters. Last year the chief executive of Serco wrote to me to say that seven of his employees had been dismissed for inappropriate conduct at Yarl’s Wood over the past few years. Does the Minister agree that even before the inquiry concludes, he needs to contact the private sector companies to remind them that they have a huge responsibility when dealing with people’s lives, that they ought to treat those lives with great care and that they must have staff who are properly trained?

The right hon. Gentleman has highlighted some significant issues. There have been some shocking and disturbing cases in the past few years and he has referred to them. He will know that there are ongoing police investigations and criminal proceedings in those cases, which makes it difficult for me to comment on any specifics. I underline to him that the Home Office has conducted a review of the methods of restraint and the use of force in the difficult circumstances of removal. The development of new bespoke training packages for escorts during the removal process has been undertaken by the National Offender Management Service. An independent advisory panel for non-compliance management, chaired by Stephen Shaw, a former prisons and probation ombudsman, was appointed to assess the restraint techniques and the safety of the proposed systems. That panel’s work is literally due to conclude in the next day or so and I look forward to its recommendations, because it is important that staff are fully cognisant and trained. Certainly, I underline the key message of holding responsibility for managing those in detention.

During my various visits to detention centres, I have been alarmed by the number of times I have heard from detainees that they have difficulty accessing health care, usually in direct contradiction to the reports being put out by management. The situation is particularly alarming given the number of detainees with serious health problems. The Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has referred to a report by Women for Refugee Women that highlights the number with particular health difficulties, and we know that those in detention often find that things get worse. What is the Minister doing to get underneath the skin of the data that management put out about access to health, and what is he doing to ensure that those with serious mental health and physical problems are not in detention at all?

I know that the hon. Lady has taken a close interest in these matters for some time, and I welcome her involvement and question. On the chief inspector’s recommendations for Yarl’s Wood, a health-needs assessment was conducted on behalf of the NHS last August. It has been shared with the NHS more broadly and I will certainly pursue the issues involved. I reassure the hon. Lady that those in detention are held there for the least amount of time practical and possible. Indeed, the advice and guidance on rule 35 reports —with which she will be familiar—have been refreshed and underlined. I certainly take the issue of medical support for those who are in need of assistance extremely seriously, and we will continue to focus on ensuring that appropriate medical support is provided in our immigration removal centres.

May I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)?

The Minister talks about the importance of treating detainees with dignity and respect. He will know that, before yesterday’s tragic incident, there has been a growing chorus of concerns about the experience of women in particular at Yarl’s Wood: there are stories of sexual harassment and a number of the women detained have experienced rape or sexual violence in their home countries and have mental health problems. Given those concerns and what happened yesterday, will the Minister commit to meeting Women for Refugee Women so that he can hear at first hand its concerns about its work with the women at Yarl’s Wood?

Certainly, I would be pleased to have such a meeting to hear the concerns and see whether any specific issues can be applied more broadly to the immigration removal centre system in general. I underline the fact that the chief inspector’s summary report notes that there are daily “individual needs” meetings at Yarl’s Wood to help discuss detainees who are vulnerable or otherwise of cause for concern before removal and they facilitate information sharing about risk. So much of this is about managing risk and highlighting need. Clearly, I want to see further improvements. It is right that there have been changes and advancements at Yarl’s Wood, but more needs to be done and that is why we will continue to keep that in focus.

The House will understand the Minister’s reluctance to comment on particular cases, but does he agree that the general record of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in these matters shows that there is no culture of impunity in this country for those involved in immigration detention, whether they are in the private or public sector?

That is why I have underlined the need to focus attention on how removals are conducted. They must be done in the right and proper way, with a sense of respect for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further in respect of individual cases, but I expect the highest standards to be undertaken. That is why we are also strengthening the training and guidance for those involved, to make sure that the highest standards are met.

I am afraid that I do not have the details to hand, but I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further information on the duration of detentions at Yarl’s Wood.

May I thank the Minister for his thoughtful responses to questions? Many outside observers of Yarl’s Wood would say that its management has improved in the recent past, but however good it is, we are still dealing with some very vulnerable women. Many of them have sought asylum here because they were victims of rape or abuse, and just because they could not prove that to an immigration official does not mean that it did not happen. The current process for detaining women for immigration purposes seems to me to be ineffective, costly and unjust. Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity, after this tragic incident, to bring a fresh pair of eyes to the whole process of the detention of women for immigration purposes?

I respect the close interest that my hon. Friend takes not simply in Yarl’s Wood, but more generally. I underline the fact that there have been improvements at Yarl’s Wood, and he referred to them. We are seeking to speed up decisions while maintaining high standards in asylum cases and more generally in the immigration system. That is why we took the decision to split the old UK Border Agency, with visas and immigration as a specific command in the Home Office—responding to and accountable to Ministers—to ensure that we improve our decisions and their timeliness.

When previous reports of abuse against women in Yarl’s Wood surfaced, a number of women believed that witnesses and victims were deported early to avoid their cases being followed up properly. Will the Minister absolutely assure the House that all relevant evidence, including witness evidence, will be gathered in the inquiries that he has instituted? When deportations are envisaged of people who might have evidence to offer, will the process be looked at very carefully so that the information is obtained properly?

It is right and proper that the ongoing police inquiry is pursued, and that the police should follow the evidence where it takes them. That is the right process. Clearly, we will support them in their ongoing investigations to ensure that they reach appropriate conclusions and, once they have finished their criminal investigations, that subsequent investigations are also concluded. I am certainly very clear that that needs to be pursued robustly and clearly to get to the facts of what has happened.

All Members of the House are greatly saddened to hear about the death of a woman in Yarl’s Wood. Many of the people in Yarl’s Wood are likely to be victims of the criminal gangs who got them into this country illegally. What measures is my hon. Friend taking to try to identify and deal with those criminal gangs?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point about immigration, crime and the trafficking of people into this country, which I have described as the trade in human misery. That is why we will introduce a modern slavery Bill. It is also why the immigration enforcement command in the Home Office is working with the National Crime Agency and others to secure the best intelligence for pursuing the organised criminals exploiting and trafficking people into this country so that they can be brought to justice and feel the full force of the law.

Before the news broke on Sunday morning, someone called me to describe the scene that had been reported to them when talking directly to detainees. This person told me that the mood was panicked and that other women detainees had passed out from shock at what had happened. Will the Minister give me an assurance that additional resources were deployed to help with the situation as early as Sunday morning?

I can only say that the centre director, to whom I have spoken, has said that additional resources were deployed and that additional support has been given to those in detention. I am sure that all the facts of the case will be pursued and investigated, and that will certainly cover the manner in which the incident was handled after the news broke. The centre director has told me that, recognising the distress caused by this tragic news, reassurance was given to those in detention and that further ongoing support is being provided.

I add my support to the condolences and the plea for common sense in the case of Yashika. There is no doubt that Yarl’s Wood has improved, not least with the ending of child detention, which was simply inhumane—I am glad we have stopped it. However, this country continues to be unique in routinely detaining migrants without any time limit, at huge expense—according to one estimate, it is £75 million. Will the Minister look at alternative, community-based solutions such as in Sweden, which gets a higher returns rate, costs less and is more humane?

We always look at ways in which detention is minimised. However, in a system in which we seek to remove, detention can and should be a means of managing that process. Certainly, we continue to monitor the situation carefully. I hear the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but there are no easy solutions. Sadly, we need to detain in some circumstances to ensure that our removals process operates effectively.

What assessments are made of those women before they go into detention? Is there a medical check on their physical or mental status? How are they assessed?

Medical support is provided at each immigration removal centre and, when someone arrives, risk assessments are conducted. That was the process I saw on the visit I undertook to an IRC a few weeks back. It is about managing risk and ensuring that issues that need to be identified are picked up at the outset. I hope I can assure the hon. Gentleman that steps are taken when new arrivals appear at IRCs to ensure that issues or any support required are appropriately identified.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government are making improvements to the way in which the immigration detention centre estate operates, particularly at Brook House, Tinsley House and the family Cedars centre in the Gatwick area?

I have been to Brook House and Tinsley House to see for myself the operating environment and conditions there. I have seen the focus given to ensuring that immigration removals centres are humane places to be, and that appropriate standards are undertaken. An inspection regime underpins that, but I can assure my hon. Friend of the focus, seriousness and weight of responsibility that the Government feel on such matters to ensure that the regime is continually monitored. Improvements can be made—significant improvements have been made over the past few years, but we need to do more.

In an earlier answer, the Minister referred to a review being conducted by the National Offender Management Service, which is welcome, but on the allegations of inappropriate sexual contact at Yarl’s Wood, what examination is the Minister undertaking of Serco policy, management and staff supervision?

As I have highlighted, and as the chief inspectorate of prisons report highlights, further improvements are required. Steps have been taken, but serious reports have been made in the past. Yarl’s Wood has a troubled past, but steps have been taken to move it forward. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I, as a relatively new Minister for Security and Immigration, am focused on seeing that standards are further improved, and on ensuring that our immigration removal centres, which are necessary, do their work in a humane and fair way as part of supporting our immigration policy.

The appalling treatment of my constituent, Enid Ruhango, and her room-mate, Sophie Odogo, led to the damning 2006 report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. I am delighted to say that the courageous Enid is now living, as she should, as a member of the community in Leeds. Will the Minister tell me and the House exactly what was learned from that report in terms of access to medical treatment and humane treatment during transportation?

Significant changes and improvements have been made, including to the commissioning functions that the NHS has in respect of providing appropriate medical support in immigration removal centres. We constantly learn from cases as we seek to prevent further tragic incidents. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do that, and I will focus on these issues of medical support in respect of Yarl’s Wood. A report has been commissioned, and I will pursue the matter.

In reviewing this tragic case, will the Minister consider carefully the strong and passionate case that has been made over a long period by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)? Does the Minister also agree that too many people are in these institutions for too long, including the Dover removal centre, and we should hurry up the processing as much as we can?

I agree that we should always seek to minimise the time that someone spends in detention, but appeals can often delay matters. The Immigration Bill will reduce appeals from 17 to four. We want to ensure that we have a firm but fair system, and that is what we will deliver.

I wholeheartedly support the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). How can a Government who are rightly proud to have ended child detention for immigration purposes keep an 18-year-old, who is a star pupil at her school, out of the classroom and in detention at Yarl’s Wood? What lessons should her fellow pupils learn from this episode?

I understand the concern my hon. Friend has expressed. I should just mention that the individual is 19, not 18. This case has been considered carefully by the Home Office and the courts, and it has been ruled that humanitarian assistance is not appropriate. The Home Secretary has indicated that it is not appropriate for us to intervene in such circumstances.

Bill Presented

Recall of Members of Parliament

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Zac Goldsmith, supported by Mr Douglas Carswell, Mr Graham Stuart, Mr Dominic Raab, Nick de Bois, Mark Reckless, Mr Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Mr Michael Meacher and Caroline Lucas, presented a Bill to permit voters to recall their Member of Parliament in specified circumstances: and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed (Bill 193).