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Town and Country Planning (Napier Barracks) Special Development Order 2021

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 7 April 2022

Motion to Regret

Moved by

That this House regrets that the Town and Country Planning (Napier Barracks) Special Development Order 2021 (SI 2021/962) extends the planning permission for the Napier Barracks to continue to be used as asylum accommodation despite (1) a High Court judgment on 3 June 2021, which found standards and operational systems at the barracks to be unlawful, (2) concerns being raised over the unsanitary and crowded conditions, and (3) reports of intimidation and mistreatment of residents; and that, despite the current expiration date on planning permission being known for 12 months, the Order was laid when the House was not sitting.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument).

My Lords, I start by suggesting that there may be a form of discrimination going on in this House. It seems that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, the Minister, always seems to get last business on the day before Recess. I know she is far too diligent and industrious to complain herself, so I thought I would put that on the record.

I move that this House regrets this order, which permits continued use of Napier barracks despite a High Court judgment which found standards and operating systems at the barracks to be unlawful, with concerns being raised about unsanitary and crowded conditions and reports of intimidation and mistreatment of residents.

The 13th report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of this House drew the House’s special attention to this order. The fact that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and the High Court had concluded that Napier barracks was unsuitable for long-term use, should have been disclosed to Parliament, yet there was nothing in the order nor in the Explanatory Memorandum about those things. It criticised the Explanatory Memorandum for lacking detail about proposed improvements to the living accommodation and amenities on site and said that better arrangements for physical and mental health care were a matter of urgency. The committee also criticised laying what was in effect an emergency provision, when the date of the current planning permission had been known for 12 months in advance, reporting

“we found this reason for laying a potentially controversial instrument when Parliament was not sitting unconvincing.”

This House recently discussed Napier barracks being used to house asylum seekers in our debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill. On 3 February, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who regrets she cannot be in her place today, told the Committee that the APPG on Immigration Detention had received evidence, all of which was “overwhelmingly negative”,

“from stakeholder organisations and from those with experience of living in Napier”—[Official Report, 3/2/22; col. 1014.]

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, whose contribution to that debate I am relying on heavily today.

Placing large numbers of asylum seekers into one location is not good for integration or good relations with local people, providing a focus for anti-immigrant protest, including harassment of asylum seekers. The larger the centres, the less the residents feel that their humanity is recognised and the more likely the centres are to attract hostile attention, working against social cohesion and integration.

The use of dormitory-style accommodation means a lack of privacy, which can be particularly problematic for gender and sexually diverse residents. It can lead to sleep deprivation, affecting mental health and well- being. Five years ago, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that room sharing, where asylum seekers have to share sleeping accommodation with people they are not related to, should be phased out across the asylum estate. The use of former military barracks can be traumatising for those who have suffered abuse or torture. For these reasons, evidence to the APPG from a dozen organisations said that accommodation such as Napier barracks was inappropriate for people seeking asylum, representing a threat to public health and impeding medical care. People have little to motivate or occupy themselves in such accommodation, making them increasingly desperate, particularly when their detention exceeds six months and they are still unable to work. The current time limit of six months in places like Napier is being removed by the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Even those with vulnerabilities are being housed in Napier barracks. We know from the experience of those who have suffered significant trauma that they are unlikely to readily identify themselves and, although a Minister in the other place gave an assurance that torture victims receiving treatment would not share sleeping quarters, there is no guarantee that those who have suffered significant trauma will be readily identified.

In the same debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, reminded the Committee of the judgment in a case against the use of Napier barracks in June 2021, where the courts found that there were inadequate health and safety measures, that there was a failure to screen victims for trafficking and other vulnerabilities, and that the Home Office continued to use the barracks, against Public Health England advice. A Covid outbreak affecting 200 residents was described by the court as “inevitable”. Some 70% of those in Napier barracks accessing clinical services disclosed an experience of violence in their home or transit country, according to Doctors of the World, demonstrating their vulnerability and the inadvisability of their being detained in Napier. Placing too many people in one place was also likely to overwhelm local health services.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, told the House that, because of the “poor health” experienced by residents, “deaths within the centres” and the other reasons that I have already mentioned against the use of places such as Napier to house asylum seekers, the Republic of Ireland is phasing out accommodation similar to Napier by 2024. Meanwhile, this Government are extending the use of Napier barracks by five years and using it to inform the final design of how accommodation centres will operate under the proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill. What plans are in place for similar accommodation to Napier being brought into use?

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham visited Napier barracks earlier this year and described the conditions at the camp as “far from ideal”. He said that he remained “deeply concerned” after visiting. Military helicopters flying overhead and landing next to Napier, so loud that visitors could not hear each other speak, were likely to have a retraumatising effect on residents, for example. The right reverend Prelate made the important point that

“People thrive in communities. A more compassionate and effective asylum system would give people accommodation within communities that allowed for proper social integration and proper access to education and healthcare”.—[Official Report, 3/2/22; col. 1022.]

He said that this would people to better “integrate” in the long term.

In the Explanatory Memorandum, the Government blame the Covid pandemic for not being able to follow the previous regime, where asylum seekers spent only a few weeks in “initial accommodation” such as Napier barracks before moving to “dispersal accommodation”, generally flats and houses, with hotels sometimes being used as a short-term contingency. The Government claim that the usual turnover, where asylum seekers leave the asylum support system and make their own way in society, was disrupted because of Covid. However, the numbers claiming asylum also significantly reduced because of Covid.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham quite rightly pointed to the fact that asylum application processing needs to be quicker and more accurate so that time spent in asylum accommodation is shortened rather than extending the use of accommodation such as Napier barracks, as this SI does. The Government also try to blame those crossing the channel in small boats to claim asylum in the UK, yet the overall numbers claiming asylum is about half of what it was more than a decade ago.

The Minister may say that conditions at Napier have improved but today, the APPG on Immigration Detention published its report of its visit to Napier barracks on 2 February this year. In summary, it found: inadequate safeguarding of vulnerable people such as victims of torture and trafficking, with little done to identify residents in need of support; the physical environment of the site was run down, isolated and bleak, with many buildings in an extremely poor state of repair; a near total lack of privacy and private spaces at the site, with residents continuing to be accommodated in dormitories of up to 12 to 14 people and having to share showers, toilets and other facilities; high noise levels in the dormitories, and the sleep deprivation and the negative impact on residents’ mental health resulting from this; inadequate access for residents to healthcare and legal advice and the difficulties they face in engaging with their asylum claim at the site; the site’s prison-like nature and military features, including security checks upon entering and the presence of security guards patrolling; and the lack of autonomy, choice and control over the daily lives that residents experience at the site.

In 2016, Louise Casey, now the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, in her report on social integration called for more to be done to bridge divides between people in order to bind communities together. The continued use of Napier barracks as set out in this statutory instrument will have the opposite effect: a detrimental effect on residents both within and around the barracks and on social integration generally. This House should regret it, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for bringing this Motion. It is regrettable that the poor Minister is here yet again—clearly, someone thinks she has not worked hard enough this term—but I thank both her and the noble Lord for making this possible. It is a source of huge regret that we are still in this place with Napier barracks and the asylum detention estate more generally, which is too large and overcrowded because we detain too many asylum seekers. If we can learn something from recent weeks and months and from the public response to the Ukraine crisis—the way people in our country have been prepared to open their hearts and homes to refugees and asylum seekers from Ukraine—we might extrapolate from that a broader policy change in relation to all refugees and asylum seekers, regardless of the conflict and the continent from which they are escaping.

I refer noble Lords to the very recent annual global Amnesty International Report, which your Lordships will know covers the entire world and cites profound human rights concerns from Amnesty. In the section on the United Kingdom, the accommodation of asylum seekers in former military accommodation is cited as “inhumane conditions”. That is what Amnesty International says about the United Kingdom. That must be a source of embarrassment and shame, not just to those of us in your Lordships’ House but to most people in the United Kingdom, were it brought to their attention.

I just hope that, in her reply, the Minister might look to future planning. We are where we are for the moment with Napier barracks, and this is highly regrettable given the High Court judgment and all the reports which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, pointed out. Can the Minister give us a glimmer of hope for a vision of what asylum accommodation might look like in the months and years ahead? Is there some inspiration to be drawn from this Ukraine response?

I visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre a few years ago, which is supposedly nothing as bad as Napier barracks, and I found that to be a wholly traumatic visit. It took about a year to be granted permission, even as a Member of your Lordships’ House, to attend Yarl’s Wood detention centre, with the former shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP. What I saw there, in the treatment of these human beings in both the medical facility and the general accommodation, has not left me. I really think that we can do better nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for raising this issue again and, as others have, I pay tribute to the Minister for the hard work she has done throughout this Session and hope that she has a very good Recess.

I speak on this issue because I regularly drive past Napier barracks and, even though there have been improvements—which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham acknowledged—it is still an extraordinarily sorry sight. For anyone to be incarcerated there for more than a few days must be deeply depressing. Clearly, 12 to 14 people in a dormitory is better than the 26 who were originally there, but it is by no means perfect. The sooner we can get people out of Napier barracks, the better.

I have one specific question for the Minister about the people who are not at Napier barracks but are housed at nearby hotels: the youngsters and adolescent boys. At the height of the summer, those youngsters were in the hotel with windows closed and guards outside ensuring that no one came or left the premises. Can the Minister assure us that innocent children are no longer housed in accommodation such as that hotel with no means of getting fresh air, and that this will never be allowed to happen again in this country?

My Lords, I spend my life in a state of barely supressed fury at the things which this Government do, particularly in their treatment of vulnerable people—whether they are poor, disabled or whatever. When it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, the Government surpass themselves in their cruelty and inhumanity, and I simply do not understand how anyone can accept that.

The High Court judgement was nearly a year ago— 3 June last year—so I ask the Minister: are we sure that, in Napier barracks, the reported intimidation and mistreatment does not happen anymore? Are the conditions still unsanitary and crowded, and are the standards and operational systems still unlawful? These are people who are traumatised. Where I live, we have been discussing what would happen if we got stormed by Russian tanks and, quite honestly, most of us feel that we would just up and run with whatever we could carry—and this is the condition which many of these people are in. Sometimes they have almost nothing; they are traumatised, possibly injured and damaged in all sorts of ways, psychologically and physically, yet we treat them like this. I do not know how it is acceptable; I really regret that we will pass that Nationality and Borders Bill and that we are just going to carry on treating them badly.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for putting down this regret Motion. He introduced it very fully and, though I doubt he will, if he were to move it to a vote, we would support him. I have a number of questions, some of which have already been put by noble Lords who have spoken.

There was a major outbreak of Covid-19 at the barracks at the height of the pandemic. At that time, 28 people were sharing a dormitory with access to only two showers and two lavatories, and no ability to self-isolate. What are the current arrangements for Covid? What testing is available and are there now facilities for people to self-isolate?

Napier barracks is a symbol of the failures of the asylum system and this order shows that what was intended to be a short-term solution is now having to be relied on in the longer term, in spite of the poor reports we have heard about. Those concerns were raised by not only the Opposition but Conservative MPs and, crucially, the High Court and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

What has been done on overcrowding? We have heard that the numbers have gone down to about 12 to 14 in a barrack room. What has been done about the run-down buildings, the fire risks and the “filthy” conditions which the High Court referred to? People with serious medical conditions were housed in the dormitories at Napier, including those with diabetes, cancer and tuberculosis. What is the policy now on holding vulnerable asylum seekers in this type of accommodation? Is it still the case that Napier barracks is classed as contingency accommodation, rather than an accommodation centre, despite now being used over the longer term? What impact does this designation have on the Government’s duties in the operation of Napier barracks?

Turning to mental health concerns, major safeguarding concerns were raised with Napier barracks. A survey conducted by the inspectorate found that one in three people had felt suicidal during their time there.

The Government have included plans in the Nationality and Borders Bill to move to a model of large accommodation centres for asylum seekers. These plans will essentially replicate Napier barracks and this style of accommodation on a wider scale. After the track record we have seen, it is obvious why there is concern about this, as we have heard from other noble Lords. What other similar barracks-like accommodation is being used or considered for use to house asylum seekers? This question was also put by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. How will safeguarding be approached in these accommodation centres, so that none of the same failures is repeated?

Members of both Houses and the Home Affairs Select Committee were repeatedly told that all public health guidance was being followed and that the site was safe and fit for purpose. Independent inspections showed that neither of these things was the case. What are the oversight arrangements now for Napier and what will be the oversight arrangements for accommodation centres that are to be set up?

I end by saying that I am particularly intrigued about the answer to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I had not realised that there were adolescent boys in neighbouring hotels in that area. I thought her question was an important one, and I look forward to the Minister’s answer.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who brought it forward. I just thought I would clarify that I do not think the right honourable Diane Abbott visited Napier under the previous Home Secretary—I am being told that it was not Napier.

A number of noble Lords have referred to Napier as a detention centre but it is not a detention centre—I will go into further detail on that. It is being used as contingency asylum accommodation, which enables the Home Office to continue to meet its statutory obligation to accommodate and support destitute asylum seekers. As noble Lords will be aware, the accommodation at Napier was set up in response to the enormous pressures that were placed on our asylum accommodation by the Covid pandemic. The pressure to accommodate individuals continues to grow, and it has been exacerbated by the rise in the number of dangerous and illegal small boat crossings of the channel.

The use of Napier barracks was against that backdrop. In September 2020, the Home Office approached the MoD regarding the use of Napier barracks. The Covid pandemic, coupled with pre-existing pressures on the asylum system, meant that this significant number of people had to be accommodated at considerable speed. The use of Napier barracks was intended to be of a temporary nature, and it was expected that the MoD would retake possession of the site in September of last year. The Home Office therefore originally took occupation of it for an initial six-month period under permitted development rights for Crown land in response to the pandemic. In December 2020, those rights were extended for a further six months.

My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft asked about the use of hotels. I will go on to give further details about the barracks, but on the use of hotels, if we did not put people in them, those children would be without somewhere to stay. Such were the pressures on the system at the time, but it is by no means an ideal situation.

It is not merely a question of them being housed in hotels. It is the manner in which they are kept in hotels, and the fact that during the hottest days, when people were on the beach, which they could see from their windows, they appeared to be kept indoors with guards outside.

I probably should not have brought this aspect up. As I am going on to say, these centres are not detention centres; people are not detained in them. Therefore, it may be something to do with the pandemic, but if I am wrong in my assessment of why people might be inside, I will clarify that. I am assuming that they may have been self-isolating, when the restrictions were quite severe on absolutely everybody in this country.

Going back to the continued use of Napier, following the outcome of NB and others’ litigation in June 2021, the Home Office progressed work to ensure that the department could continue to use the barracks and avoid any potential breach of planning control given under permitted development rights. These were due to expire in September of last year. Given the urgency to ensure that there was additional capacity in the system and the statutory obligation on the Home Office to provide support to destitute asylum seekers, the only viable option was to proceed with a special development order. I should add that the tenancy agreement with the MoD confirms that the site will be handed back in March 2025—in three years’ time—to support the full decommissioning of the site.

On the conditions of the site, I note comments by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about Napier. Maybe I just listened to what I want to hear, but the right reverend Prelate seemed to confirm that things had significantly improved; although they were not absolutely perfect, things had improved significantly at the site. As I have said, the site is used to provide temporary accommodation for around 300 otherwise destitute adult men for up to 90 days. The average length of stay is about 70 days. Service users staying at Napier are free to come and go as they please—they are not detained at Napier. The accommodation at Napier meets our statutory obligations. It is safe, warm, dry and it provides a choice of good hot meals, as well as proper laundry and cleaning facilities.

Turning to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, a significant amount of work has been carried out to make improvements to the conditions at Napier barracks—hence, possibly, the right reverend Prelate’s comments about it. There is a prescribing nurse; dental care is provided on site, and there is access to local GP services. There is also a prayer room and a multifaith room. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham confirmed, sports and recreational activities have been re-introduced. Additional furniture, table-tennis tables and a library have been installed, and CCTV and night-time courtesy patrols have also been put in place. The Home Office has significantly improved the management and oversight at the site, with an emphasis on identifying issues early and ensuring that the accommodation is safe and well maintained. The frequency of inspections and visits has also increased.

Finally, all residents of Napier have been offered Covid-19 vaccinations. There is Covid-related signage in multiple languages, and residents have been provided with personal cleaning kits. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who asked about isolation if Covid is detected. Given that the general regulations have changed for the wider population, I imagine that it is in line with that, but I will provide more information to him if I can.

We have engaged with community stakeholders, including charities and NGOs, in relation to the site. There are regular meetings at which matters relating to the site’s operation are discussed and issues can be raised. These meetings are attended by Home Office officials, alongside representatives of the NHS, the UK Health Security Agency, the police, Folkstone and Hythe District Council and Kent County Council. In addition, several NGOs sit on the Home Office strategic engagement group and the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum, where they can raise concerns and receive updates on the site.

We have recently welcomed the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration to Napier to conduct a follow-up inspection at the site. We look forward to the publication of his report, which may identify further ways in which we can improve the service provided there. We remain fully and firmly committed to delivering an asylum system that is fair and effective and works in the interests of both the people of this country and those in need of refuge and sanctuary.

My Lords, I thank all noble Baronesses who have spoken in this debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I thank them for raising other important issues and for their support for this Motion. I also thank the Minister for her response.

Whatever the pressure on the asylum system, and whatever the problem, Napier barracks is clearly not the answer. The Minister kept talking about destitute asylum seekers. Most asylum seekers are destitute—for example, those fleeing the war in Ukraine. She appeared to choose to ignore the findings of the report from the APPG on Immigration Detention, published today, which I summarised. Both the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and I asked about further centres similar to Napier— whether they were being planned, developed or brought into use. These plans appear to be surrounded in secrecy. The lack of an answer from the noble Baroness today unfortunately adds to that. I think she is going to intervene on me now.

I am, because there is no conspiracy here. I completely neglected to answer both noble Lords on that point. Obviously, we keep our asylum accommodation estate under constant review and I will update the House with any developments if new centres are considered.

I am not sure whether that was an undertaking by the noble Baroness to write to us with any details of plans in the pipeline. She is nodding, so that is helpful.

It is regrettable that Napier continues to be used to house asylum seekers but bearing in mind that we are at the end of a very long Session, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 1.45 pm.