Skip to main content

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement given in the other place by my honourable friend Karen Bradley.

“Mr Speaker, 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 whom 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 this is being done.

All immigration removal centres are subject to the detention centre rules approved by this House in 2001. These, and further operational guidance, set out the standards we all expect to ensure that the safety and dignity of detainees is upheld. No form of discrimination is tolerated. In addition to these rules and standards, removal centres are subject to regular independent inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and by independent monitoring boards, which publish their findings. The chairman of the independent monitoring board for Yarl’s Wood is Mary Coussey, the former independent immigration 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 which 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 on the expansion of welfare provision, and raised no concerns around 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 provide 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 in response to these allegations very clear. We told it that it must act quickly and decisively to eradicate the kind of attitudes which appear to have been displayed by its staff. Serco immediately suspended one member of staff who could be identified from information available before broadcast and 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 by Kate Lampard, who the House will be aware recently produced the lessons learnt 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 a 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 we 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 and set out proposals for legislative change as a result. We have held a summit on policing and mental health, highlighting the particular concerns of black and ethnic minority people, and commissioned HMIC to undertake a review of vulnerable people in police custody, which will be published shortly. That is why, 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 who refuse to leave the country 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”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I listened to the Government’s Answer with great care. We are told again that the most recent inspection found Yarl’s Wood to be,

“a safe and respectful centre which is continuing to improve”.

The Minister said, in repeating today’s response:

“As soon as we were made aware of the recent allegations, Home Office officials visited Yarl’s Wood to provide assurances that all detainees were being treated in a safe and dignified manner”.

How could they provide such assurances without an investigation? What was the evidence on which they based such assurances? Serious allegations of abuse are well documented, such as those from women who have had male staff enter their rooms when they are naked, in bed or even on the toilet. We have heard that a pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage without medical treatment and of guards referring to women as “animals”.

The Government’s response today refers to Serco’s response. What about the Government’s response? Yarl’s Wood is the Government’s responsibility. On 28 January, when I raised this issue in your Lordships’ House, the Minister said of the allegations about Yarl’s Wood that,

“if the information is supplied to us, it will be investigated very thoroughly indeed”.—[Official Report, 28/1/15; col. 197.]

Has such a thorough investigation—which must be independent and specific to the allegation at Yarl’s Wood—started? If not, why not?

The noble Baroness is right to be concerned and shocked about this. I watched that documentary on Channel 4, and quite frankly I was sickened. I think most decent people will have been sickened by the attitudes that were on display there. That is the reason why we have had that immediate reaction to this, and why there is the Stephen Shaw review into the entire detention estate.

I have to say that this is a story which is not going to go away. There are a number of things coming. The first is the Stephen Shaw inquiry, which is coming down the path. The independent monitoring board will be publishing its latest report, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons will be visiting again for an independent review. We have had the very thought-provoking report from the all-party group published just today by Sarah Teather, and there is also the work being done for women refugees, which raises a great deal of concern. So we are very conscious that there is a lot of evidence building, and pressure is mounting on Serco. We are very much on their case and watching them like a hawk. I have to say to the noble Baroness that we are following a process here. Evidence has been produced; we will be acting; and we expect Serco to act in the interim.

Perhaps the Minister is aware that we are the only country in Europe which does not currently have a maximum time limit for detention in immigration cases. Can he comment on the report published only today by the APPG—of which I had the honour to be a member—in which we recommended that the maximum limit should now be set at 28 days? If that were adopted, would it not go quite a long way to solving the sort of problem which has arisen at Yarl’s Wood?

I listen to what the noble and learned Lord says on this of course. This subject was debated in your Lordships’ House in the context of the amendment to the Immigration Act proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in which she sought a cap of 60 days. We have to look at this, but we are making progress. One serious point—I am not making any cheap points here—is that it was not so long ago, in 2008, that children, even disabled children, were held at Yarl’s Wood. We have moved on from that. We are now focusing on pregnant women and the treatment of women there, and I expect us to continue to make progress in the way that we treat people who are in our care.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will understand if I say to him gently that there is a sense in this Statement of the Government distancing themselves from responsibility. Will he also accept that there is an underlying issue, not just of practice but of policy? We are one of very few countries in Europe not to have a maximum time limit on detention. Internationally, there are a lot of good examples of constructive engagement and alternatives to detention rather than a focus on end-stage enforcement. Detention is so often not needed. I was a member of the all-party group inquiry, and the Chief Inspector of Prisons said to us that,

“at least a third, and getting on for half, of all detainees are released back into the community. And this poses the question: if they’re suitable to be released back into the community at that point, why do they need to be detained in the first place?”.

The noble Baroness is right. Of course many people who have come here have entered this country clandestinely. We need to establish their identity, which sometimes takes some time to do. In the wider context of the security of the country, we need to make sure that if people come here clandestinely, we check out that they are who they say they are and their reasons for doing that before they are released into the community. I think people expect that. However, again, we need to look at this whole area. That is why we have asked Stephen Shaw to undertake his review. We will be studying the all-party report and, of course, the allegations that have been made against Serco very carefully and will come forward with responses to them.

My Lords, I raised the issue of Yarl’s Wood in this House three years ago and was assured at that time by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that he would invite representatives of the Home Office to the House to discuss the issue, which he did. Officials came along here, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy and I discussed with them what changes were desired to make the lives of the women tolerable. That was three years ago. A report that came out earlier this year, which I and the Channel 4 programme drew on, was behind the Question I asked last week. In answering, the Minister said that there needed to be a higher quota of women working there. The Minister speaks of process and of more reassuring reports, but could he undertake to tell me how soon, and at what date, we will know that there are more women staff in Yarl’s Wood?

There were to be 66%. Under its contract, Serco has to deliver that by 2015. We will make sure that it brings that forward. In addition, it has moved to ensure that there are body-worn cameras there, which can catch any incorrect activity and record it. That is a very good step. I will also take this opportunity to clarify something during that exchange on the Question the noble Baroness asked last week. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about the number of suicides and self-harm, but I heard it to be a question about suicides and said that there were none. Sadly, there are of course instances of self-harm, which are deeply regrettable and need to be investigated. I apologise for getting that wrong.

Can the Minister say what action is being taken to ensure that the children of detainees get a rounded education and are being treated fairly and properly?

Children are of course not held at Yarl’s Wood but at a family detention centre, often the Cedars, which is run by Barnardo’s, where they receive education. However, I agree that it is very important that children in particular are carefully looked after in this respect.

When I was Chief Inspector 15 years ago, there was something wrong and rotten in the culture at Yarl’s Wood. I remember looking into it then and strongly recommending that the Home Office install a regular system of oversight of what was going on, no matter who was carrying out the contract. I understand that system of oversight still does not exist, and we still have complaints about Yarl’s Wood. When is that oversight going to be installed?

I will look again at what the noble Lord said at that point. There is of course the independent monitoring board, which is headed by Mary Coussey, a former Independent Race Monitor. The immigration monitoring board has the keys to Yarl’s Wood and can go in and out at any point in time. Obviously, it will need to look very carefully at how it has undertaken its responsibilities, and the conclusions which it has drawn from its activities.

My Lords, it has happened more than once in this and related fields that a monitoring body reports all is well, and shortly afterwards it is revealed that all is very far from well. Is it not an occasion for a rigorous examination and consideration of the methods used by the monitoring body itself? How often is that done?

We need to look very carefully at that. We have had a report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and we have the independent monitoring board. I recognise that there are huge concerns, rightly so, in your Lordships’ House about the allegations which have been made and about what has been done up to this point. I also recognise that because of the limitations of time it is not possible for all noble Lords to get in. I am very happy to arrange an opportunity—perhaps in the next week—to meet with colleagues and to bring some Home Office officials so that we can hopefully provide some additional information about these very distressing concerns.