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Yarl’s Wood

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what requirements were set in the contract for Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre recently reawarded to Serco regarding the dignity and privacy of women detained there.

My Lords, contracts for the operation of immigration removal centres require service providers to comply with the Detention Centre Rules 2001. This is in addition to the contracts’ operational specifications, which contain measures to ensure the dignity and privacy of women.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. In June last year Yarl’s Wood was the subject of 31 allegations of sexual misconduct. Those were investigated and a number of staff were dismissed. None the less, in November the Serco contract for Yarl’s Wood was extended for eight years. However, the harassment goes on. The January report by Women for Refugee Women documented inappropriate behaviour by male staff towards female inmates—themselves already the victims of sexual abuse. Can the Minister tell us when innocent women who have committed no crimes can expect to be treated with respect?

I think that the answer to the noble Baroness is: right now. I believe that the standards provided by Serco, the current operators of the scheme, are of a very high level. Yarl’s Wood was inspected by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and he found it to be a safe and secure place. In addition, there is an independent monitoring board. Just two weeks ago, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary set up a special review of all immigration removal centres to ensure that they are of the highest standard. I read the report by Women for Refugee Women very carefully and the most critical point was that it was felt that women’s privacy was invaded and that there were insufficient female staff. One of the key elements in the contract offered was that the proportion of female staff should increase. The proportion is going up from 42% to 60%, and that is a step in the right direction.

My Lords, my noble friend may have read the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission about deaths in custody, published only recently. Does he accept that the organisations and institutions do not deliver the standards outlined and recommended in the EHRC report and that they are therefore at risk of being in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights? In the light of that, does he accept that it is time for HM Inspectorate of Prisons to carry out a thematic review of how these standards are being observed at the Yarl’s Wood centre?

Her Majesty’s inspectorate’s last visit was in June 2013. These are not planned visits; they are meant to be surprise visits to try to get an accurate picture of what is going on. They are meant to happen every two years, so we are expecting one fairly soon. Following the very serious allegations, some members of staff were suspended, and Bedfordshire Police is undertaking criminal investigations in that respect. The inspectorate returned to Yarl’s Wood to undertake 50 further interviews to make sure that its conclusion that it was a safe and respectful place could be upheld.

My Lords, I have visited Yarl’s Wood in recent years. Can the Minister confirm that no pregnant women are held there now? Will he agree that many detainees feel very cut off there and do not know when they will be released? Can he tell the House how many suicides or serious attempts at self-harm there have been in the past two years?

At Yarl’s Wood, in the past two years, the answer is, fortunately, none. These are very vulnerable people; we accept that totally. The noble Lord asked about pregnant women in particular. There is a limit which says that no women past the 24th week of pregnancy can be held or put into the detention fast track. The point is that they should be in Yarl’s Wood only for a very short time. They are people who are identified for quick return and their stays should be no more than a few weeks.

My Lords, I welcome the Secretary of State’s review of the welfare of detainees, but I am anxious to know whether it will include a review of whether the decision-making is to the appropriate standards. The evidence shows that victims of abuse in these centres feel greatly traumatised by the very fact of detention. Surely the reviewer should be encouraged to meet ex-detainees as present detainees might be reluctant to speak of some of the things that have happened to them. Would it not also be good if he met members of organisations that work closely with traumatised victims who have been detained—organisations such as the Helen Bamber Foundation, which deals with victims of torture; Freedom from Torture, and Women for Refugee Women? Will the reviewer meet those people, and will he review the very decision-making as to whether people should be detained at all?

It is, obviously, set up as an independent review, so it will be for Stephen Shaw to do that. However, as he is a former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman I would expect that his attention will be drawn not only to the current detainees but to former detainees and also to those excellent charitable organisations. To the list of excellent charitable organisations that the noble Baroness mentioned I would add Hibiscus, particularly at Yarl’s Wood. It does an outstanding job of providing humane care, advice and friendship to people in that situation.

My Lords, over the past two years Yarl’s Wood has developed a reputation, and not a very good one, for the way that it treats women in the centre. Can the Minister say a bit more about whether the number of girls under the age of 18 being detained there has gone down? The Minister rightly said that people should not be held there for great lengths of time. Can he tell us what the average length of stay is now?

Certainly; the latest statistic we have is that 92% of people are held for less than six months, and about 48% for less than 42 days. We want that to come down because, as I say, this is used very much as a last resort. In relation to children, as a result of action taken in your Lordships’ House children are, fortunately, no longer detained in immigration removal centres, and that is a good thing.

My Lords, in view of the concerns expressed only last Friday by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about women and girls who claim to have been victims of violence and are detained at Yarl’s Wood under the fast-track process, can the Minister tell us whether the Government have any plans for a screening process for people in that position?

This is subject to a very careful screening process, and the decision to send someone to Yarl’s Wood is not taken lightly. There are medical reviews by a GP and reports are provided to the caseworkers before any decision is made. The point is that these are people who have overstayed their stay, their asylum immigration applications have been denied and, therefore, they are about to be deported imminently. That is the reason they are there. However, that does not mean that they should be treated with anything less than the highest standards of dignity and respect.

My Lords, the review that has been announced is very welcome, as is what the Minister has said, but the terms of reference of the review do not explicitly include women generally; they refer just to pregnant women. The Minister himself has said that all the women about whom we have heard evidence from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, are vulnerable. Will he now confirm that the review will look explicitly at the treatment of women, many of whom have fled gender-related violence in their home countries?

I would have thought that the noble Baroness might welcome the fact that the Shaw review will range much wider. Of the 30,000 people who are held in detention, around 80% are male, and it is important that their needs are reviewed as well. However, I am sure that the noble Baroness’s observation will be fed back to the review.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is no concern at all about any of the detention centres that we have in the UK, or is there any detention centre that is really causing a worry at the moment?

How do we define “worry at the present time”? We have rigorous systems of independent monitoring boards at every single centre. They consist of 12 independent people. We have the inspectorate carrying out its review. We have the independent review that we announced. We are happy that the places are safe and secure, but we are not complacent. These are vulnerable people and need to be protected.