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Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration: Site Visits

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the findings of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s site visits (1) to Penally camp, and (2) to Napier barracks, published on 8 March.

My Lords, during the pandemic, the number of accommodated asylum seekers has increased and we have sought alternative accommodation options, including two MoD sites. We expect the highest standards from providers and have instructed them to make improvements following the interim report from the independent chief inspector. We await his full report on contingency accommodation and will lay that in Parliament with the department’s response, as usual, after the inspection is completed.

I have been assured many times that the Penally camp and Napier barracks sites are adequate, safe, secure, habitable and fit for purpose as accommodation for refugees. Then the inspector’s report comes out. It is totally contradictory and supports the views expressed by Public Health England, the Red Cross and others that these sites are not suitable. Some of the words describing them, such as “filthy” and “decrepit” are totally unacceptable. Then we find that in Napier, 197 of the refugees are infected with the virus. What is the difference between what the Home Office sees as adequate accommodation and the damning report of the inspectorate?

My Lords, as I said, this is an interim report from the independent chief inspector, which made important findings that we are of course acting on. We look forward to seeing his report in full, once it is complete. It is important to remember the context in which we are operating—the additional pressures that the Covid-19 pandemic has put on the asylum accommodation estate. Establishing extra sites to react to that has been challenging. We recognise that there is room for improvement and we look forward to seeing the full report so that we can continue to improve.

My Lords, this latest, albeit interim, report reveals that the health of all the residents at Napier barracks is at risk. A third are reported to be suicidal. Although the report is interim, it joins the reports of the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate and Public Health England in presenting a damning picture of the place. At Christmas, I attended church with residents of Napier barracks. It shames us all. We know that it is not easy to be a Home Office Minister but what more does the Minister require before the Home Office stops placing people in the barracks and decants those who are there, before we see loss of life and still further damage to the United Kingdom’s international reputation for human rights?

My Lords, the Home Office has been working with Public Health England and Public Health Wales, as well as the Crown fire inspectorate, in respect of Penally to make sure that the temporary accommodation that we have had to set up in light of the pandemic is safe and in line with their recommendations. As of last Friday, 12 March, there are 48 people at Napier and 55 at Penally. This is temporary accommodation and we are working to make sure that it is indeed that.

My Lords, my noble friend has a difficult task today because he will be aware that this issue was raised by noble Lords on 11 February, when we were told that the accommodation was

“safe, warm, fit for purpose”.—[Official Report, 11/2/21; col. 489]

It is clear from the latest findings of the ICIBI that this is not the case. What is the Government’s response now in relation to the findings about what is actually going on in these barracks? Serious safeguarding concerns have been raised, specifically in relation to people who have self-harmed and those at high risk of doing so who have been relocated to accommodation that is unfit for human habitation.

My noble friend is right to point to the fact that many people who come to the UK seeking asylum have been through traumatic experiences and have important safeguarding needs. Given that, safeguarding has been at the heart of the activity of the Home Office in the setting up and running of Napier and Penally. An on-site nurse and migrant help are available at both sites to ensure that people who are at risk of harm get the help that they need. We are continually improving our safeguarding measures, including in the light of the interim report from the chief inspector, and we have commissioned further work from our providers to make sure that all staff are fully trained in this important area.

My Lords, in answer to a previous Question, a Minister in the other place said that the barracks

“were good enough for the armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/21; col. 10]

However, on 3 February the National Audit Office said that the barracks had suffered from “decades of under-investment” and that troops were living in substandard accommodation. Is the Home Office saying that substandard accommodation is more than good enough for those seeking sanctuary in this country?

My Lords, we do not think that this is substandard accommodation. The noble Lord is right to point out that this is accommodation in which we ask those who serve our country and put their lives at risk to stay. We have undertaken work to improve the sites at Penally and Napier to make them safe and habitable for those who are coming here seeking asylum.

My Lords, some years ago I stayed in Napier barracks and more recently, about four years ago, I showered and had lunch there at the start and end of a charitable bicycle ride around France. The barracks are comfortable. While they are pretty basic, they are warm and dry, the food is good and the showers work. Can my noble friend explain how it can be that these barracks have been used for many years by soldiers, who defend us and our country without complaint in the House of Lords, and yet now for people who understandably have fled poverty and violence in their own countries and have almost certainly come through a safe country—namely, France—they are deemed not to be acceptable?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks from personal experience which I think might be unique in your Lordships’ House. He is right to point to the fact that we have tried to make the accommodation suitable for those who need to be there. We want them to stay there for as short a time as possible, but because of the constrictions of the pandemic, in some cases they have had to stay for longer than we would have liked.

My Lords, I declare an interest in having a home that is half a mile away from the Napier barracks, and I must say that the site has looked near derelict for several years. However, in November a letter was sent to the Home Secretary and the Department of Health signed by Doctors of the World, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists saying that these premises were not suitable, that in a time of pandemic they were positively dangerous, and urging the Home Secretary to close them down immediately. Can the Minister tell us why, despite that letter and other evidence to the contrary, the Home Secretary has continued to insist that these premises are safe, although nearly half the inmates have contracted Covid?

As I have said, we are working with Public Health England and Public Health Wales to make sure that the accommodation is in line with recommendations. We have taken additional measures to mitigate the risks of Covid transmission, such as increased distance between beds, staggered mealtimes, one-way systems and advice for the people staying there. I am pleased to say that there have been no positive tests for Covid at Penally and no people currently in Napier testing positive for Covid either.

My Lords, the findings of the chief inspector are shocking and scathing about the failures in the preparation of a Covid-safe site, poor leadership, “inadequate oversight” by the Home Office and “serious safeguarding concerns” at these unsuitable locations. Does the noble Lord agree that the report is shocking and scathing, and can he tell me who is taking responsibility for these failures?

My Lords, this is an interim report, but there are some troubling findings and we are acting on them. We look forward to seeing the full report so that we can do that. The Home Office takes this issue very seriously. While the full report has not yet been given to the Home Secretary, when it has been, she will take it very seriously.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister indicate what action will be taken to improve fire safety at Napier?

My Lords, we have been working with the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate throughout and have had further advice from the Kent Fire and Rescue Service. We are grateful to them for their proactive work and we continue to work with them both to make sure that the accommodation is safe.

Sitting suspended.