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Immigration: Harmondsworth Removal Centre

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Which recommendations of the Owers report on the Harmondsworth immigration removal centre they intend to implement.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons published her report of the inspection of Harmondsworth removal centre on 28 November. We are in the process of drawing up an action plan, in response to which we will incorporate initial lessons from last week’s disturbance.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. There was a major riot on 29 November, the day after the report appeared, which was described by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons as “the poorest report” she had ever delivered on any immigration centre. The riots began when a guard refused to allow the detainees to see on television Anne Owers’s report into their own detention centre. Will the action plan, which I welcome, look at the issue on which Anne Owers puts her finger: the very bad relations between the staff and detainees? More particularly, will it look at the fact that staff were not trained to recognise torture victims, of whom there were a substantial number in the detention centre? Incidentally, torture victims should not have been returned.

My Lords, we intend to look at all the issues raised by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons in her report. I can reassure the noble Baroness that many of the issues had already been raised with the contractors. She will be aware that we were in dispute with the contractors until September this year, when the matter was settled. We received £5,096,000 as a result, together with some guarantees about behaviour, but there is much to do.

My Lords, when I inspected Campsfield House immigration centre some seven years ago, one of the problems was a lack of line management by officials from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Can the Minister confirm whether it is true that officials from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate have been withdrawn from Harmondsworth for other tasks and replaced by administrators, which is not the same thing as regards helping the staff to look after detainees?

My Lords, the plan in place involves rigorous attempts to manage the situation in Harmondsworth. That was the basis of the concerns expressed and of the disagreement, therefore, between management. There is no suggestion that the management put in place by IND was in any way defective.

My Lords, why are so many failed asylum seekers detained for so long at Harmondsworth? I have read about some examples of the difficulties of deportation, which lies behind the high numbers being kept there for such long periods.

My Lords, the period that people now spend at Harmondsworth has greatly decreased. About 50 per cent now stay for approximately seven days, and I am given to understand that the longest period, for a small percentage, is about two months. The number of people going through Harmondsworth has greatly increased, as has the speed at which they do so.

My Lords, what about the risk posed by detainees transferred from the prison estate to Harmondsworth? The report clearly states that the information about the risk such people pose is still of very poor quality. Why has the Home Office allowed that to happen with information from prisons, when it prejudices safety at Harmondsworth? What will it do to address that problem?

My Lords, the director-general of the IND and the director-general of NOMS have been working very closely together for a number of months to ensure that the risks involved in moving detainees from one area to another are limited to the narrowest base possible.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, did the Minister notice that Anne Owers commented on the increase in the average length of detention from two to six weeks? To what extent does she think this is a product of the combined effects of the Legal Services Commission’s merits testing, cuts in legal aid in 2005 and the heavy burden of paperwork on practitioners, which has resulted in many going out of business or refusing to take some cases, leading to an increased caseload at Harmondsworth?

My Lords, I am not aware that that has made a significant impact but I shall be happy to find out what contribution, if any, it has made. The Legal Services Commission has been working very hard to enhance the quality of those who undertake that work because unskilled staff tend to work more slowly, to the burden of the system and the people they purport to advise.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that when 500 people—mainly young men, multinational and multi-faith—who are on their way out of the country are locked up in an institution and treated like some of the worst criminals in the Prison Service, that is a pretty lethal cocktail? Will she not only consider what needs to be done at Harmondsworth but look more radically at this policy?

My Lords, the question of relationship is very important, and I agree with the right reverend Prelate on that point. However, it is also fair to say that Anne Owers’s report identified good relations with senior officers and poorer relations with other officers and a need to change. We are addressing that matter; a new centre manager has been put in place. He was previously an inspector and knows precisely what needs to be done to improve the situation.