(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre.
Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system. It is right that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily, but a sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system, including for those we are removing from the UK. That is why the allegations made by Channel 4 about Serco staff at Yarl’s Wood are serious and deeply concerning, it is why they required an immediate response to address them, and it is why the Government have ensured that that is being done.
All immigration removal centres are subject to the detention centre rules approved by this House in 2001. Those rules, and further operational guidance, set out the standards that we all expect to ensure that the safety and dignity of detainees is upheld. No form of discrimination is tolerated. In addition to the rules, removal centres are subject to regular independent inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and by independent monitoring boards that publish their findings. The chairman of the independent monitoring board for Yarl’s Wood is Mary Coussey, the former independent race monitor. The most recent inspection by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found Yarl’s Wood to be a safe and respectful centre that is continuing to improve. The last annual report of the independent monitoring board commented positively on the emphasis placed on purposeful activities within the centre and the expansion of welfare provision, and raised no concerns about safety. None the less, the Home Office expects the highest levels of integrity and professionalism from all its contractors and takes any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the recent allegations, Home Office officials visited Yarl’s Wood to secure assurances that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner.
The director general of immigration enforcement has written to Serco making our expectations about its response to these allegations very clear. We told Serco that it must act quickly and decisively to eradicate the kinds of attitudes that appear to have been displayed by its staff. Serco immediately suspended one member of staff who could be identified from information available before the broadcast, and has suspended another having seen the footage. The company has also commissioned an independent review of its culture and staffing at Yarl’s Wood. This will be conducted for Serco by Kate Lampard, who, as the House will be aware, recently produced the “lessons learned” review of the Jimmy Savile inquiries for the Department of Health. However, more needs to be done. The Home Office has made it clear that we expect to see the swift and comprehensive introduction of body-worn cameras for staff at Yarl’s Wood. In addition, we have discussed with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons how he might provide further independent assurance.
This Government have a proud record of working to protect vulnerable people in detention. We have reviewed the Mental Health Act 1983 and set out proposals for legislative change as a result; held a summit on policing and mental health, highlighting in particular the concerns of black and ethnic minority people; and commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to undertake a review of vulnerable people in police custody that will be published shortly. Before these allegations were made, the Home Secretary commissioned Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, to lead an independent review of welfare in the whole immigration detention estate. We will of course invite him to consider these allegations as part of that overarching review.
This country has a long tradition of tolerance and respect for human rights. Detaining those with no right to remain here and who refuse to leave voluntarily is key to maintaining an effective immigration system. But we are clear that all detainees must be treated with dignity and respect. We will accept nothing but the highest standards from those to whom we entrust the responsibility of their care.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and the Minister for her answer and her explanation of why the Minister for Security and Immigration is not here today. I am very pleased to see the two local MPs, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller).
Channel 4’s film on Yarl’s Wood, shown last night, revealed shocking footage about the detention centre, which has been under heavy criticism for the treatment of its 400 detainees since 2001. What was uncovered was deeply disturbing. Serious questions were raised over standards of health care in Yarl’s Wood. What was detailed included examples of self-harm by detainees, including three women who jumped from the stairs and people slashing their wrists in an attempt not to be removed. It took a freedom of information request to reveal that there were 74 separate incidents of self-harm needing medical treatment at the centre in 2013. Guards who appeared in the footage merely dismissed information about people harming themselves as “attention seeking”. Will the Minister explain why her ministerial colleague, Lord Bates, told Parliament on 24 February that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm taking place in the past two years?
Arguably the most concerning element was the contempt that was shown for detainees through the use of racist, sexist and generally abusive and degrading language. We saw a guard advocating violence towards a person who was detained there. One guard said:
“Headbutt the bitch…I’d beat her up.”
Another was recorded as saying:
“They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
These are appalling statements that should never be tolerated by anybody, particularly from employees of a company in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Yarl’s Wood is not a prison but an immigration centre that has a duty to protect some of the most vulnerable, who are in most cases escaping violence and instability in their countries of origin in search of a better life. Frankly, some are there because the Home Office has taken such a long time to deal with their cases. Instead of being protected, detainees are verbally abused and poorly treated.
This is not the first time that Yarl’s Wood has been the subject of parliamentary criticism. The Home Affairs Committee has been highly critical of the centre’s performance following damning reports of sexual misconduct and excessively long detentions. Of course I welcome the suspension of one of the people involved, and the fact that an independent inquiry is to be established, but the Minister is absolutely right that more needs to be done. We need a timetable for that inquiry. Will she send in her inspectors not just to visit but to write a report having spoken to detainees?
Has the Minister spoken to Rupert Soames, the chief executive of Serco, to express the Government’s concern? Serco’s right to bid for other contracts should be suspended pending any review. Despite reports of catastrophic failings in November last year, Serco was awarded an eight-year, £70 million contract at Yarl’s Wood. Will the Minister look at her procurement processes? All of Serco’s contracts should be reviewed immediately. The Select Committee has recommended in the past that those who fail the taxpayer should be put on a register and should not be given any other contracts. Only a few months ago, the Lord Chancellor sent in the Serious Fraud Office in order to discover why Serco had overcharged the taxpayer by £70 million.
I agree with the Minister that this treatment is inhumane. The United Kingdom has a reputation as a world leader in human rights—that is clear from the number of people who risk their lives to come here—and we simply cannot allow this behaviour to continue in a centre that has a duty to protect them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, for all that he and his Committee have done over many years to highlight problems in immigration detention centres. In 2009, his Committee reported specifically on UK Border Agency immigration detention centres, and this Government legislated to implement its recommendations.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are all shocked and appalled by the evidence we have seen, and action must be taken. Hon. Members should be under no illusions: this Government are breathing down the neck of Serco, and we want to see action swiftly.
The right hon. Gentleman said that one person has been suspended. In fact, one person was suspended before the broadcast. We were unable to see the programme before it was broadcast, but on the basis of evidence available before the broadcast, one person was suspended. Another has since been suspended, and I know that Serco will shortly look at whether to suspend others.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a comment about self-harm by my colleague the noble Lord Bates in the other place. In fact, Lord Bates said that there were no cases of suicide or attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood, and that is correct. There is evidence of self-harm, which we take extremely seriously, but there have been no suicides or attempted suicides.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the language and behaviour of the staff is completely and totally inappropriate. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that this Government and this House take that very seriously. The message to Serco is that this needs to be sorted out and needs to be sorted out quickly.
I spoke this morning to the chair of the independent monitoring board at Yarl’s Wood, and she is shocked and horrified about what was shown on television last night. There is no justification for what we saw, and the action taken by the Government and Serco is quite right. What bothers me is that we are here again: this is not new. I am also bothered by the disparity. The Minister was quite right to refer to a series of reports from the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, whom we all know, and to the report of Mary Coussey of the independent monitoring board, but those reports are at odds and at variance with such individual incidents. These incidents keep happening, and I do not know who is missing what.
As the review takes place, as it must, I urge the Minister to look at this point in particular. Over a period of time, I have pleaded with the Government to allow proper journalistic access to and transparency in Yarl’s Wood—if the press cannot get in one way, they will get in another. There is also the refusal to allow the UN rapporteur the opportunity to go in. The regime in Yarl’s Wood is completely different from the one originally set up by the previous Government. I have seen it change over many years, but there is no way to convince people of that unless they can get in. As well as dealing with this incident, will she look at the disparity between the reports and such incidents, because we should not have to meet in the Chamber and discuss this again in future?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all his work, as the local constituency MP for Yarl’s Wood, in highlighting problems in the past. I am sure he agrees that to have a fair immigration system, there comes a point at which some form of detention is needed for people who refuse to leave the country voluntarily, but they must be detained with dignity and fairness to ensure that they are treated with respect.
My right hon. Friend will know that Stephen Shaw is carrying out a review of the whole immigration detention estate, and I look forward to that report. He will also know that the independent monitoring board has the keys to Yarl’s Wood: it can access Yarl’s Wood at any time. Knowing that, and given the review that is taking place, we will look at everything to make sure we have certainty and can be confident that detainees are treated with dignity.
The revelations on Channel 4 were shocking, but they were not at all new or even surprising for many of us who have worked with people in Yarl’s Wood over the years. It is eight years since I worked with a 13-year-old girl who attempted suicide in Yarl’s Wood and was taken to Bedford hospital, where she was shackled to her bed by prison guards. Since then, we have had numerous reports from charities and independent monitors about sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, self-harm and mental health problems left untreated. This is not just about isolated individuals.
I would say to the Minister that a system run for profit and to targets leaves very little room for compassion or humanity. Although it is absolutely right that individuals are prosecuted and brought to justice for the shocking things that we saw on Channel 4 last night, it is about time that we got a grip on the system. Will she make sure that the review of detention includes the impacts of private sector, for-profit involvement in detention on some of the most vulnerable people in this country?
The hon. Lady talks about having worked in this area for many years, including things she saw eight years ago. I agree that things were wrong and that they need to improve. This Government are proud of the measures we have taken—for example, on stop-and-search and mental health in custody—and the review we have instigated from Stephen Shaw is the next step in a natural progression to ensuring we safeguard people while treating detainees with appropriate dignity. I do not think that the question is about whether that is done through the public sector or the private sector; the question is about how we make sure that people in detention are treated with the dignity that they should rightly have. We are all shocked by what we have seen, and we need to make sure that it is rectified.
I have chaired a cross-party inquiry on the issue of immigration detention, and our report was published this morning. The panel’s concern is that if the response to the scandal at Yarl’s Wood focuses only on conditions, it is likely to tackle just symptoms, rather than the underlying causes. The Minister says that the question is about how people are treated in detention, but our question is why some of these people are in detention in the first place. Our evidence suggests that most of the problems arise because we detain too many people for far too long and inappropriately.
Will the Minister commit the Government to responding in full to our inquiry? In particular, will she look at the international evidence we have presented, which suggests that there is a cheaper, more humane and more effective way of operating by making better use of community alternatives?
My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on this issue, and I pay tribute to her and her committee for the report. I have a copy of it, and I have to say that it is quite lengthy. I have not had a chance to get through all its points, but I assure her that I will look at it, and I will make sure that we respond to it.
My hon. Friend talks about the fact that more people are detained. It is important to make it clear that we have taken measures so that when people arrive clandestinely in the UK, we can be certain who they are—their nationality and identity—and ensure that they pose no risk to the British public. I do not apologise for putting the safety and security of the British public first and foremost when someone arrives clandestinely by making sure that they are who they say they are, while treating them appropriately.
Women in Yarl’s Wood are detained on the instruction of the Home Office, and the Home Secretary is therefore responsible for ensuring that they are treated humanely. There is a history of problems at Yarl’s Wood going back many years, but we were told that it had been dealt with.
Yet in September 2013 it was reported that women at Yarl’s Wood had been sexually assaulted by guards from Serco, which the Home Secretary had contracted to manage the centre. I called on her to set up an independent inquiry, but she did not. In March 2014, a woman died in Yarl’s Wood. I asked an urgent question in the House, and again called on the Home Secretary to set up an independent inquiry. She would not come to the House, and she did not set up an inquiry. In May, more allegations came out, including that another vulnerable woman was sexually assaulted, and that a woman who poured boiling water over herself was left for hours in a state of shock. I called on the Home Secretary to set up a proper independent inquiry, and I again called on her to do so at the end of last year.
The Home Secretary has repeatedly refused to establish an independent inquiry, refused to investigate allegations of rape and sexual abuse, refused to let even the UN rapporteur visit and refused to come to this House to answer for it.
Instead, in November, the Home Secretary renewed Serco’s contract. She gave the company whose guards stand accused of abuse a contract for another eight years. We called on her to have an inquiry before she renewed the contract and she refused. Last month, she said that she would review the policies and procedures in detention centres. Again, that should have been done before the contract was renewed.
Here we are again with even more serious allegations. A pregnant woman was left to have a miscarriage without getting all the medical support she needed. Guards are calling women “animals”, with one saying,
“Take a stick with you and beat them up.”
Those are the Serco guards to whom the Home Secretary gave the contract just a few months ago. There is no point in Ministers pretending to be shocked at the news of abuse—it is not news. Even now, Ministers have not set up an independent inquiry; Serco has. We are leaving it to the company to set up the independent inquiry that should have been set up by the Home Office.
The Home Secretary should have come to the House today to answer this question. What has been happening is an utter disgrace, as is the continued failure to look into it. The Minister has been sent out to defend the indefensible. She should go back and tell the Home Secretary to take some responsibility for a change, to stop pregnant women and victims of sexual violence being held in Yarl’s Wood, and to hold a proper independent inquiry, because this is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch, and it needs to end now.
It is very disappointing that the right hon. Lady comes to this House, not having called for the urgent question, and makes comments about the Home Secretary not being here. She knows that the Home Secretary is at No. 10 at the moment dealing with child abuse—something that we all agree is an incredibly important, urgent matter that needs to be dealt with.
It is also disappointing that the right hon. Lady talks about abuses at Yarl’s Wood. Let us remember what the report on the announced inspection of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in 2008 said. Let us remember who was in government at that time. The report stated:
“we were dismayed to find cases of disabled children being detained and some children spending large amounts of time incarcerated.”
“Escort vehicles with caged compartments were inappropriately used to transport children.”
It is this Government who have legislated to end the detention of children for immigration purposes.
In 2008, just 68% of detainees said that most staff treated them with respect. The figure is now 84%. The report said:
“Not enough was done to communicate with detainees who spoke little English”.
“Women complained about the food. Healthcare needed further improvement, particularly to address mental health and child health needs.”
That was the report in 2008 under the right hon. Lady’s Government. It is this Government who have looked to ensure that those things are dealt with.
We have set up the review. We have set up the review into the whole immigration detention estate that is being led by Stephen Shaw. I am confident that he will uncover the abuse.
The right hon. Lady asked about the renewal of Serco’s contract. Let us remember what the policy is. The rules that determine the renewal of contracts were drawn up by Parliament in 2001. That is a rigorous and robust process, and it was set up by her Government. We will take no lessons on this matter from the Labour party. We have a proud record and we will root out the abuse.
The individual employees at Yarl’s Wood let down their colleagues, their company and their country with their vile comments, which were exposed on Channel 4. However, the issue is not just individual people; it is the policy of the overuse of detention in managing immigration. That policy was introduced by the last Labour Government and has been continued by the coalition Government. When will the two Front Benches wake up and smell the coffee? Immigration detention is costly, ineffective and unjust. It costs millions of pounds a year. Some 70% of people who go into immigration detention go back into the community. These experiences in Yarl’s Wood are a stain on the conscience of this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the work that he has done as the constituency Member of Parliament for Yarl’s Wood. He is right that the individuals in question have let down many people. He is also right that it is not just about the individuals. We need to get to the bottom of what is going on there and to understand it exactly. The measures that we have insisted that Serco undertake urgently, including the use of body-worn cameras by all staff, will make a difference by exposing where there is abuse.
My hon. Friend talked about people being in detention for too long. I agree that people have been kept in detention for too long. That has happened because the previous Government’s immigration system allowed up to 17 appeals. The Immigration Act 2014, which we brought in, brings that number down to four. I hope that we will see a difference in the length of time people spend in detention. It is not something that any of us want to see, but it is a necessary evil if we are to have a fair, robust immigration system.
I am disappointed that the Minister is reacting in the way that she is. This is a very important issue. It is a stain on our country’s reputation for human rights. Does she agree that we all have to learn from the tradition of using these big, monopolistic companies? G4S let us down at the Olympics, Serco is involved in this case, Capita was involved in the tagging of individuals and now the Government are putting our probation service out to one of these companies. When will we learn that these companies have poor management, the wrong ethic, the wrong culture and the wrong priorities? It is about time we changed all that.
I think it was the previous Government who used private contracts. Private companies are not necessarily bad; they just have to be properly managed.
Yarl’s Wood has been a disgrace for well over a decade. It was a disgrace under the last Government and it is a disgrace under this Government. When children were detained there, they were left at serious risk of harm. We now have adults being left at serious risk of harm. That is completely unacceptable. Yes, the individual employees were at fault; yes, the company is at fault, but changing that will not fix the system. Getting in a new company, a new organisation and new employees will not solve the problem. What we have to do, as is suggested in the report by the panel that was chaired so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), is completely rethink the system. No other country in Europe has indefinite detention and holds people for years on end. I hope that the Minister will look at that again. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State will look at the report and change their policy.
My hon. Friend referred to children being treated badly in Yarl’s Wood. He will know that this Government have taken action and stopped that. I will look at the report, as I have said. I look forward to seeing what suggestions have been made. It is worth repeating that we have reduced from 17 to four the number of appeals a detainee can make against their removal. It is also worth saying that 63% of detainees are released within 28 days. We need to get that percentage up, but we also need to ensure that the system is fair for those who play by the rules.
I have been sickened by and ashamed at the reports about the treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood that we have seen this week and on so many previous occasions. I am also ashamed of some of the partisan comments that have been made in the discussion this afternoon. They are of absolutely no interest to the women I have met who have spent time in Yarl’s Wood and who have emerged incredibly distressed. I ask that we all think about the tone in which we conduct this discussion.
May I ask the Minister a specific question about the investigations and reviews that are taking place? In the past, there have been reports that women who have evidence to give or victims of abuse have been deported before their cases could be properly investigated. What assurances will she give that that will not happen, that all the evidence will be gathered in, and that those who have a story to tell will be heard and will remain in this country to tell it?
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is about the people—I absolutely agree with her about that. It is the victims of abuse that we really need to think about and put at the forefront of what we are doing. She will know that, through the Modern Slavery Bill, we are introducing new protections for victims of trafficking, including those who come to light in detention. I heard a horrific story recently about somebody who had been treated as a victim of domestic abuse, but it was only when her immigration status began to be questioned and she ended up in an immigration detention centre that she came forward and said that she was a victim of trafficking as well. It is absolutely paramount that front-line staff receive training to make sure that they can identify those victims so that we can get them into the national referral mechanism, give them the support they need and catch the evil perpetrators of those crimes. I totally agree with the hon. Lady that that must be at the forefront of what we are doing.
Detention is part of the immigration system, but we must ensure that all detainees are treated in a safe and dignified manner. On Sunday, I met a local family who are very concerned that a family member with mental health issues will shortly be detained before being deported. Although I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, will she say more about what is being done to ensure that those with mental health issues are safely detained if they need to be detained?
As my hon. Friend says, I cannot comment on the specifics of that case, but it clearly sounds like a heart-rending situation. We have taken action to make sure that those suffering from mental health conditions are not detained in police custody, and we are taking steps to ensure that they are not detained in immigration detention.
The Minister has said that about two thirds of the women in Yarl’s Wood are there for more than a month. Overwhelmingly, these are people who have not been convicted, or even accused, of any crime, but who are put in administrative detention for extended periods. What is the Minister doing to make sure that they have the high-quality legal advice and representation they require to make sure that their case is properly heard before she organises their removal?
To correct the hon. Lady, she said that two thirds are held for more than a month, but 63% are discharged within 28 days and either removed or released. The issue with the length of time for which people are detained is that the system that we inherited had too many layers, too many procedures and too many appeals, which meant that we could not get to the bottom of whether somebody was right to claim asylum or whether they should be returned to their home. By reducing the number of appeals to four, I hope we will see a shorter time period.
The managing director of Serco’s home affairs business has said that an independent review was required because the
“public will want to be confident that Yarl’s Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity”.
Given the catalogue of shame and controversy over many years, is not the only way to regain public confidence to strip Serco of its responsibility for running Yarl’s Wood?
I do not think that the answer is to strip Serco of its responsibility; the answer is to make sure that we get to the bottom of what has happened. My hon. Friend is right to say that any form of abuse is an embarrassment. We need the public not just to see that there are no problems, but to believe that there are no problems. We need them to be happy that detainees are being treated in an appropriate and acceptable way. We are holding Serco’s feet to the fire: I want to see action, we are making sure that it takes action, and we will take action against it if we need to.
In her opening remarks, the Minister said that a recent inspection had found Yarl’s Wood to be safe. Clearly, it is not. Could she explain the discrepancy between the reality and the inspection report, and what is she doing about it?
As I said in my opening comments, there have been a number of inspections of Yarl’s Wood by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and the independent monitoring board, which, as I have said, has the keys to Yarl’s Wood and can go in any time it wants. We have found no evidence that anybody is at risk. However, the allegations made in last night’s programme are very serious and we need to get to the bottom of them and take action.
The recent footage was disturbing, but, unfortunately, allegations of sexual abuse of vulnerable women and abuse at the centre are not new. Given the apparent gulf between official reports, what the Minister has said today and life at Yarl’s Wood, and given that we have seen so many repeated failures over such a long time and the reluctance of Ministers to act so far, can we be confident that change will really happen?
It is not fair to say that Ministers have been reluctant to take action—we have taken significant action. This urgent question follows an urgent question about Oxfordshire county council, and a summit on child sexual abuse is taking place at Downing street today. There needs to be a sea change in how all people in authority and all bodies treat allegations and victims. We all have a responsibility to take this seriously.