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Immigration: Heathrow Airport

Volume 712: debated on Monday 6 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether it is the responsibility of the UK Border Agency or the British Airports Authority to ensure that actions recommended by the independent monitoring board for Heathrow Airport, in particular for the provision of proper washing facilities in the terminals’ holding rooms and for repair and maintenance of the detention accommodation generally, are implemented.

My Lords, the BAA is responsible for the provision and maintenance of holding rooms at Heathrow Airport, including providing basic facilities such as rest rooms. We are aware that the independent monitoring board does not consider the current facilities to be adequate. Since its report was written, we have opened Cayley House, which provides better facilities, including showers. The United Kingdom Border Agency and its contractors are committed to providing as comfortable an environment as is reasonably possible, and have been working with the IMB to consider its report’s recommendations in further detail.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. What direct relationship is there between the Home Office and the British Airports Authority to ensure not only that these facilities are adequate, particularly when children are being held in them for several days, as is often the case, but that the standards required by the monitoring board are in fact met?

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness takes a particular interest in this important issue. When I visited one of these holding rooms at Gatwick, I have to say that I was not overimpressed. There have been two reports; the first made 34 recommendations, and we accepted 32 of them, and out of the second report’s 47 recommendations, 38 were accepted. That shows that there is a lot to be done. In concert with BAA, we have produced an action plan; it was sent to the IMB on 29 May, and a copy has been placed in the House Library. We work very closely with BAA and, of course, G4S, which implements a lot of the personnel issues; the co-ordination now works well. I believe that we are putting right some of the faults that existed and are well on track to recover from the position we were in.

My Lords, there has been no response from the Home Office, UKBA or G4S to the report on the appalling conditions in these facilities. Does not the noble Lord think that in the circumstances, an instruction should be given to UKBA that no one is to be detained overnight in places that have no accommodation for sleeping and scarcely any facilities for washing and cleaning oneself? Could not the Government ensure that any detainee who is held temporarily in these places is transferred before 24 hours has expired to a proper place of detention?

My Lords, as I said, I think that the provision of Cayley House at Heathrow resolves that situation. It is not as though we provide nothing: we provide toiletry packs, clothes, blankets, newspapers, magazines, hot and cold food, eye masks in places where the lighting is difficult, family areas, telephones without SIM cards which people can use, DVD players, DVDs and baby changing facilities. We provide a lot, and it is getting better. We are meeting all these commitments, and I do not believe that there is a need for a statutory obligation. In close co-ordination, we are arriving at the right answer.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the contract for running the Heathrow centres expires in April 2010, and that the independent monitoring board has recommended some changes to the contract, such as a prohibition on moving families in caged vehicles and a requirement that a female officer is always present when women are detained? Can the Minister assure the House that these requirements will be in the new contract?

My Lords, I am not aware of all the details of the new contract being negotiated. As for there not being enough women officers, I am aware of that as an issue; there were not enough, and G4S is actively recruiting people to get around that problem. I should like to get back to the noble Baroness with details of the specific contract.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Border Agency’s response to many of the recommendations in the action plan is that recent changes in the G4S management structure at Heathrow will ensure contractual compliance. Can the Minister tell us today what these changes are and what it is hoped they will achieve?

My Lords, as the third partner, G4S has instigated its own action plan. It has changed its senior management; clearly, it was not providing the right answer. It addresses such things as appropriate stock levels for consumables, welfare items and so on. There is a training course for its staff because one of the issues that was picked up was the attitude of detention staff to detainees, which was not appropriate. There is one-to-one training for staff to make sure that their attitude is correct. Pressure has been put on G4S to improve collection times. Clearly, those times were not as good as they should have been. In one case, collection took something like 12 and a half hours; now the average is one and a half hours, and we are improving that so that detainees can be moved on to other facilities. All of those issues have shown a marked improvement, which gives a flavour of the sort of improvements that G4S has made.

My Lords, could the Minister confirm whether there are plans to improve family rooms in Terminals 1, 2 and 3 at Heathrow Airport, which are described in the report as being small and poorly equipped?

My Lords, the sort of issues and facilities that I have mentioned are being dealt with. What is extremely difficult—because the terminals have already been built—is, for example, providing showers and shower rooms. That is why we have constructed Cayley House, which has plenty of space and shower facilities. Therefore, we would move people from more cramped places to Cayley House if they are to be held for longer periods. At the moment, there are no plans to put showers in the terminals because Cayley House has been constructed and people can be moved there.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the concern raised in the report that pregnant women due for removal from this country were spending nine or more hours in the airport before their departure, when the target time is between three and seven hours? Are there instructions on this matter?

My Lords, I was aware of this issue and the length of time that removal was taking. Each woman is assessed on a case-by-case basis because pregnant women are not, of course, ill—they are just pregnant. Issues such as concern and timing depend on the stage of her pregnancy. There is no doubt that some cases were taking too long and shortening those timescales is one of the issues that is being addressed.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in many of these cases, interpreters are needed to ensure that detainees can communicate with the person dealing with their case? How much of the long time that some detainees spend in the holding centres is due to delay in providing an interpreter, and are there plans to improve the situation?

My Lords, the noble Lord identifies an issue. We are now trying to allow phone interpreters to speed this up.