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Napier Barracks Asylum Accommodation

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 10 June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the judicial review judgment on Napier barracks contingency asylum accommodation.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Happy birthday from me as well, Mr Speaker. I made my maiden speech on your birthday when you were in the Chair as Deputy Speaker six years ago.

I am answering this question on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who has sadly suffered a family bereavement and therefore cannot be here this morning.

Covid-19 has had a major and unprecedented impact on the asylum system. We make absolutely no apologies for doing everything in our power to provide shelter to those in need during these exceptional times.

Between March and October last year, nearly 12,000 extra people needed to be housed as a result of the pandemic, nearly 10,000 of whom ended up in hotels, at huge public expense. Every accommodation option had to be considered.

Those accommodated at Napier barracks are catered with three nutritious meals per day, with options for special dietary or religious requirements. There is a recreational building with a library. Prayer rooms are available and scheduled activities now include yoga, English conversation and art. There is a nurse on site and access to a GP. All asylum seekers housed at Napier have access to a 24/7 advice service, provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help.

Napier barracks has been happily used for many years by Army and police personnel. The army itself has continued to use barrack accommodation around the country during the pandemic, when needed. While we are disappointed by some of the judgment, the High Court found in the Home Office’s favour in a number of areas. It rejected the claim that conditions at Napier amounted to “inhuman or degrading treatment.” The judge declined to rule that dormitories or barrack accommodation could never provide “adequate accommodation” for asylum seekers, and the judge rejected the claim that the expectation that residents would be back on site by 10pm amounted to a curfew or unlawful imprisonment.

Furthermore, the judgment was based on conditions in the past, before several significant improvements. These include a stronger cleaning regime, reopening of communal areas with staggered access times, limiting the period of residency and using lateral flow tests three times a week. The overall capacity of the site has also been reduced. At all stages, the Home Office believed it was taking reasonable steps to respond to Public Health England suggestions on public health, where possible.

We have published the suitability criteria that we use for assessing who is suitable to be accommodated at Napier. If it becomes apparent that someone is resident but unsuitable, a transfer is then arranged.

Through our new plans for immigration and the upcoming sovereign borders Bill, this Government are taking action to increase the fairness and efficiency of our asylum system but also to fight illegal and unnecessary migration, such as that by small boats coming across the English Channel. I hope Members will support that Bill when it comes forward, as it is sorely needed to support reform of the system.

In January, there was a major covid outbreak at the Home Office centre at Napier barracks. Some 200 people got covid, both residents and staff, impacting on the local community too. Last week’s damning court judgment said:

“The ‘bottom line’ is that the arrangements at the Barracks were contrary to the advice of PHE…The precautions which were taken were completely inadequate to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection, and…the outbreak which occurred in mid-January 2021 was inevitable.”

The Home Office put people in dormitory blocks, with shared facilities for up to 28 people, at the height of a pandemic.

When the Home Affairs Committee asked the Home Secretary about this, she said that

“the use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice, and…working in line with public health guidance…so we have been following guidance in every single way.”

The permanent secretary told the Committee

“we were following the guidance at every stage”.

But the court judgment and the evidence from PHE shows the opposite is true.

An internal Home Office email from 7 September records PHE advice as

“advice is that dormitories are not suitable”.

Public Health England told the Home Affairs Committee they

“don’t know how dormitories can be COVID compliant.”

They told the Home Office to follow youth hostel guidance—single rooms only and dormitories to be closed, except for household groups. They and Public Health Wales advised that if the Home Office were going ahead, they should at least limit the number of beds to six, keep people in bubbles with clear isolation facilities and have strong cleaning regimes. None of those things happened at Napier.

Instead, the independent inspectorate and local health officials found poor ventilation in dormitories, inadequate shared washing facilities, a deficient cleaning regime and no proper arrangements for self-isolation, with those testing positive and negative all kept in the same large dormitories. The Home Office was clearly not following public health advice in every way or at every stage. The Minister has an obligation to correct the record, so will he now admit that the Home Office did not follow public health advice and apologise for the inaccurate information given?

Will the Minister tell us what is happening now? Leading local health professionals have warned that the site still cannot be considered safe, and the Home Office’s own documents show local health professionals saying that another outbreak is inevitable. Charities have told me that there are still 12 to 14 people in a room and 28 people in shared blocks. Is that true, even after a damning inspectorate report and a damning court judgment, and even after 200 people caught covid on the site? The Home Office has a responsibility to keep people safe. Why has it been ignoring public health advice in the middle of a pandemic and putting public health at risk?

First, the Select Committee Chair should take into account the context that pertained last September: 60,000 people needed to be accommodated in the middle of a pandemic—an increase of 12,000 people in just the space of a few months. With the best will in the world, it is operationally extremely difficult to accommodate 60,000 people in a pandemic—an extra 12,000 people at a matter of a few weeks or a few months’ notice.

The reality is that in the middle of a pandemic outbreaks in some places occur. We have had outbreaks in the hotels that have been used. In other parts of Government—in prisons and other places—there have been covid outbreaks. We have had covid going around Parliament as well. I have caught covid myself; in fact, 5 million people have tested positive for covid. The virus knows no boundaries, and it is very difficult to manage 60,000 people in those circumstances. The measures taken to combat covid on site included rigorous cleaning built into the contract, hand sanitisers, social distancing, personal cleaning equipment provided to service users, isolating and cohorting arrangements. They have now been enhanced further, with more cleaning, staggered access to communal areas and, three times a week, lateral flow testing. We have also reduced the numbers currently on the site.

Public Health England wrote to the Select Committee Chair on 1 June. I have the letter in front of me. In the second paragraph, it says:

“PHE has been in a positive ongoing dialogue and working collaboratively with Home Office (HO) colleagues on a range of COVID-19 related issues since spring 2020.”

Moreover, public health guidance published on on 15 December 2020, which she will be aware of, said that ideally accommodation providers would

“identify single-rooms with en suite bathroom facilities”.

That is difficult to do for 60,000 people. However, it then said that

“if single occupancy accommodation is not available”—

thus acknowledging that that will not be possible in all cases—

“accommodation where cohorting is possible should be provided”.

We have maintained a close dialogue with Public Health England. Where possible we have followed its guidelines, and a number of improvements have been made in recent months.

Whatever people’s view on the asylum situation in this country, people in Folkestone are united in their opposition to the use of Napier barracks in this way. It has been destructive to the community, not least because the barracks have been the focal point of protests—both people protesting about migrant crossings and people protesting about the use of the barracks. It has been a drain on other public services as well. Does the Home Office intend to renew its lease on Napier barracks, which expires in September?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the tireless work that he has done on behalf of his constituents, liaising with the Home Office, Kent County Council, Folkestone and Hythe District Council and others, and representing his constituents extremely effectively. Unfortunately, very often the local population is not terribly keen on accommodation centres of this kind, for the reasons that he outlined.

We are obviously working hard to mitigate those impacts. Kent police, for example, have received extra funding, and we are working closely with the local health service. The current arrangements on the site are due to run until September. No decision has been made beyond that, but I assure my hon. Friend that he will be closely engaged with at all stages as any further decision is taken.

I, too, wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on securing this urgent question. The recent High Court judgment was a further shameful indictment of the Government’s approach to asylum accommodation. My right hon. Friend highlighted the failure of the Home Office to listen to the public health advice about Napier barracks that led to the covid outbreak affecting 197 asylum seekers and staff and posing a danger to the wider community.

On 30 November, as a result of a fire safety inspection at Napier, the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate concluded that

“identified individuals or groups of people would be at risk in case of fire.”

In January, a fire broke out in Napier. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration noted that the CPFSI’s concerns had not been addressed prior to the fire. Can the Minister tell me why the Home Office ignored the advice of Public Health England and the CPFSI? Can he give me a categorical assurance that the Home Office will now follow all future advice from PHE and CPFSI, and publish the advice it was given by PHE?

The Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group’s infection prevention report outlined that the site did not facilitate effective social distancing. Quite simply, how on earth did this happen in the middle of a global pandemic?

I have said already that having to accommodate 60,000 people in the middle of a pandemic, and an increase of 12,000 in a few months, poses very substantial challenges. Where we were able to, we followed suggestions that were made. The hon. Gentleman asked about publishing PHE advice. I said in my first answer that it was published on on 15 December last year. He said that a fire broke out. A fire did not break out; there was an act of deliberate arson by the people who were accommodated there, which was disgraceful, outrageous, unjustifiable and unconscionable. It did not break out; it was arson.

In relation to the points about public health, I have already listed, in answer to the Select Committee Chairman, the measures that have recently been taken to improve conditions at the Napier site.

The residents of Blackpool South were absolutely appalled by the recent High Court judgment. Many of them have questioned why accommodation that was previously fit for our brave troops is somehow inadequate for those who are supposedly fleeing persecution around the globe. Indeed, some have asked why so many people want to remain in the UK at all if the accommodation is so bad. Does the Minister agree that the High Court judgment only highlights the need for urgent reform of our asylum system as a whole, and does he agree that we now need to look at processing asylum seekers outside the UK as part of this plan?

The judgment, as I said earlier, did not find that the conditions were inhuman or degrading, and it did not find that using dormitory or barrack accommodation was inherently unsuitable, so I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question.

We certainly need to reform the system. The people who are coming across the English channel on small boats are making a journey that is not only dangerous and illegal, but unnecessary. France is a safe country, Germany is a safe country, Belgium is a safe country and Italy is a safe country. The right thing to do—the safe thing to do, and the legal thing to do—is to claim asylum in the first available place. In relation to his last question, yes, all options are being considered.

The utterly damning judgment said expressly that if the MOD had treated soldiers in this way, that, too, would have been unlawful. But let us just run with the idea that this was six soldiers instead of six asylum seekers, and they were put in conditions where a covid outbreak was inevitable, where the fire inspectorate highlighted serious or significant risk of harm, where self-harm and attempts at suicide were occurring because of the prison camp conditions, and where failed screening processes meant that that group of soldiers included those who were particularly vulnerable to covid or mental ill health. Imagine MPs were then told that use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice, without us ever getting to see that advice, and then a court case established that the opposite was true. [Interruption.] Yes—only thanks to the court case.

Knowingly placing soldiers or anyone else into a covid trap and a fire trap would lead to outrage, resignations and sackings. Why are the consequences not exactly the same when it is six torture and trafficking survivors from Eritrea or Sudan? Will the Minister apologise for telling the House that conditions at Napier were good enough for the armed services? If he thinks that, it is insulting to the armed services. Will he accept that the conditions are not good enough for the Government to use the barracks for any cohort of people, and what does he think the Home Secretary can learn from the precedent of Amber Rudd’s resignation for inadvertently misleading the Home Affairs Committee?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the publication of the public health guidance. It was published online. He said it was only published because of the court case. It was published on 15 December—long before the court case was registered.

The hon. Member said the people there were sick. There are screening criteria to make sure that people who should not go there do not go there. If they become vulnerable during the time of occupation, they get moved out. I should also add that the people accommodated there are all young single men, almost entirely aged between 18 and 40. On the number who got covid—along with 5 million, or more than 5 million, other people in this country—not a single person was hospitalised that I am aware of. That is why we are taking further steps to make sure the site is covid-secure. I have listed some of them already: lateral flow testing three times a week now, numbers being reduced and enhanced cleaning. Those are sensible steps in response to the pandemic and in response to the court judgment.

A very happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.

The Home Office has worked incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances to improve conditions, and covid security particularly, for the men temporarily housed at Napier barracks since the evidence informing the High Court ruling was submitted. However, I represent a large Army community that will be wondering why conditions considered fine for servicemen and women are considered not good enough for asylum seekers, including those who have made the illegal and perilous journey across the channel. How am I to advise my constituents?

I think my right hon. Friend is raising an extremely good question. It is precisely because of that question that we will be introducing a Bill in the near future, announced in the Queen’s Speech, to reform our system to make sure that the asylum system is fair, as of course it should be, to those in genuine need, but that we deal with these claims quickly, effectively and fairly, and also prevent unnecessary illegal migration, which puts enormous pressure on the system of the kind we are discussing.

The British Red Cross, which I think we would all acknowledge as the expert in the area of provision of accommodation of this sort, made a recommendation in its recent report that the Home Office

“should introduce a formal, independent inspection regime for asylum…accommodation with publicly available reports,”

in order to better

“monitor the quality and effectiveness of support provided and improve transparency and accountability”

for decisions. Surely, in the Home Office’s own interests, that would be preferable to a status quo where it is left to mark its own homework or to be called out by the courts.

We do not mark our own homework; we are very widely inspected. In fact, there was an inspection by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration just a few months ago into Napier.

Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.

One of the most shocking aspects of Napier barracks was the detention of vulnerable people who had already survived serious human rights abuses, including torture and trafficking. Given that people’s immigration cases can be resolved more humanely, efficiently and cost-effectively by supporting them in the community, why is the Home Office opening a new detention centre for vulnerable women in County Durham?

I am afraid to say that the hon. Lady is getting a little muddled up there. The Napier site is not for detention; it is an accommodation centre, and people are free to come and go, as the court case found. The centre up in Hassockfield in Durham is a detention centre prior to removal for people whose appeal rights are exhausted and who have no legal right to be in the country. They are two completely different things.

Would the Minister agree with me that the problem is not Napier barracks, but people crossing the channel illegally from France? Is not the simple solution that, when these people arrive in England, we put them on a Royal Navy boat and take them back to France, because France is a safe country and that is where asylum should be claimed? If we did that, it would stop the problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these channel crossings, which are now running at extremely and unacceptably high levels, are completely unnecessary because France is a safe country and people do not need to make the crossing. It is dangerous and it is also illegal, so I completely agree with those sentiments. In relation to the decisive action needed to stop these crossings completely, I can assure my hon. Friend that every single option is under very active consideration.

The Home Secretary told the House in January that Napier barracks was

“in line with Public Health England guidelines.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 177.]

She reiterated that earlier this week when she told the House that her Department worked fully with PHE, but it is not true, as the High Court ruled last week, with the honourable Justice Linden writing that

“the arrangements at the Barracks were contrary to the advice of PHE”.

The ministerial code states that Ministers must give

“accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

So I ask the Minister, given this blatant discrepancy between the facts and what the Home Secretary said, why is she not here today to correct the record, or will she learn from her predecessor, who resigned as Home Secretary for inadvertently misleading MPs?

I have already read the quote from the letter from Public Health England to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee dated 1 June in terms of the work we have been doing with them, and it says in the second paragraph:

“PHE has been in a positive ongoing dialogue and working collaboratively with Home Office…on a range of COVID-19 related issues since spring 2020.”

I wish you a long life and happiness of your birthday, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) rightly said that the problem here is the illegal crossings from France. May I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and his colleagues for doing everything they can to reform the asylum system so that it helps those who actually are vulnerable and need it most? Can he confirm that under the new proposals we will be opening more safe routes to the UK while clamping down on the people smugglers who prey on the most vulnerable?

My hon. Friend, as always, puts it exactly right. We intend to stand by those in genuine need with schemes like the resettlement scheme, which has taken vulnerable people directly from places of danger and resettled them, and has done so more than any other country in Europe, but when it comes to illegal migration we intend to clamp down hard.

Happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.

Yesterday, I was made aware of a serious matter that could revolutionise our equality laws. Professors gave evidence at the Women and Equalities Committee and said that buildings—not people—could be something akin to aggressive or threatening. So I think the illegal immigrants at Napier may perhaps have acted in self-defence when trashing and torching the barracks. We should all be aware of their vulnerabilities and sensibilities, so will the Minister agree to send a delegation from the Committee to assess this building aggression, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), whose sensibilities make him ideally suited to the job?

I am not quite sure where to start. I certainly do not agree with the comments made about building aggression; they seem absurd. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for incidents such as the terrible act of arson we saw back in January.

A very happy birthday to you today, Mr Speaker.

The Minister’s description of Napier barracks sounds like a propaganda film—yoga, three meals a day, regular cleaning. However, in reality refugees and those seeking asylum are living in squalid accommodation, bitten alive by bedbugs and with inadequate health support. The Government’s accommodation policies are entrenched in controversy, so can the Minister explain how the £1 billion contracts are monitored, and does he agree with the High Court ruling that the use at Napier barracks was unlawful and shameful?

I have explained that many aspects of the judgment found in favour of the Home Office, and I have also explained that improvements have been made subsequently. The contracts are monitored on an ongoing basis, but I repeat again that the challenges of managing 60,000 people in asylum accommodation in the middle of a pandemic are very considerable.

I see this issue about public health in a pandemic as a little bit of a distraction technique, frankly. Pandemic or no pandemic, I am pretty sure that most Labour Members would rather have these people, who are largely illegal immigrants, in elaborate hotel accommodation for as long as possible—potentially indefinitely. Does the Minister agree that if we are going to do what the elected Government were asked to do, which is take back control of our borders, it might be necessary in time to be open to looking at human rights law, because it seems that these judges, who are so often out of step with public opinion, are a blockage to us doing what we need to do?

I think the public do expect us to reform the system and to control our borders, which is why we are bringing forward a new Bill very shortly to do exactly that. On the question of human rights, which my hon. Friend rightly raises, there is a review going on currently into the operation of the Human Rights Act 1998 that will be reporting, I think, later this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) has reminded the House that quite recently a Home Secretary resigned for inadvertently misleading the Home Affairs Committee. Other hon. Members have asked the Minister whether the current Home Secretary misled the Home Affairs Committee in oral evidence on 24 February this year. In response to those questions, the Minister keeps referring to a Public Health England letter from June this year that talks about full co-operation from the Home Office since spring of this year.

Of course, when the Home Secretary gave evidence on 24 February, she was talking about what had happened before then, not what happened this spring. Evidence presented to the High Court suggests that what she said—that the Department had previously followed public health guidance regarding Napier barracks in “every single way”—was simply not factually correct. The High Court has said that the fact that that public health evidence was ignored meant that the covid outbreak was “inevitable”, so why is the Home Secretary not tendering her resignation, as Amber Rudd had the grace and decency to do?

The hon. and learned Lady refers to the letter of 1 June and says that it post-dates the Home Affairs Committee appearance on 24 February, which it does. However, the paragraph that I quoted says that the positive ongoing dialogue and collaborative working had been ongoing “since spring 2020”.

Many happy returns of the day, Mr Speaker.

The High Court judgment was absolutely damning. The judge said:

“I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the Claimants.”

The Government are housing people 14 to a room. As we have heard, more than 200 people contracted covid. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that people are protected from covid? How many people have been vaccinated at the barracks, and what are the future plans for housing asylum seekers in accommodation that is fit for human habitation?

Just to be clear, the court judgment found that there was no article 3 infringement. It did not find that the conditions amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. Moreover, the judgment did not find, in relation to the requirement to be back at 10 o’clock, that a curfew had been imposed; nor did it find that the barracks or dormitory accommodation were inherently inadequate in the context of asylum accommodation. It is important that the House understands those important aspects of the judgment.

I have already outlined the measures that have been taken: an increased cleaning service, social distancing and lateral flow testing three times a week. All those measures are designed to ensure that users are safe. The hon. Member asked about vaccinations. The Government’s approach to vaccinations in general is that, outside of things like the NHS, vaccinations are done in the order that people are entitled to them based on age and clinical conditions, so the same rules that apply to the hon. Member, to me and to Mr Speaker will apply to people at Napier as well.

I wish you many happy returns, Mr Speaker.

After the second world war, my grandfather, Paul, who fought alongside British forces, was settled in the UK in a refugee camp. A few years later, my mother was born in the same refugee camp. That refugee camp was at an old Army base. Yes, conditions were not great, but they were thankful that they were born in that, because, had my grandfather returned to the Soviet Union, he would have returned to a gulag or perhaps even worse. Why were those conditions good enough for a hero who fought against the Nazis and for my own mother, but not good enough for this current wave of migrants?

My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful point. The experience of his mother and his family illustrates the service that this country does in providing asylum to those who genuinely need it. It puts today’s debate rather in context.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

The High Court judgment showed that Napier was unsafe in terms of fire safety, covid security and mental wellbeing, whether for armed forces personnel or asylum seekers, but it is representative of a generalised callousness with regard to support for refugees which leaves many in Newcastle living in inadequate accommodation with inadequate support to keep themselves and their accommodation clean and covid secure. How is the Minister going to change that? Will he say whether Nationwide Accommodation Services, which ran Napier day to day, has other contracts with the Home Office?

If the hon. Lady would like to raise that case in writing, I would be happy to look into it to find out the details and circumstances. We are accommodating 60,000 people across the country. The cost of running the asylum system now amounts to £1 billion a year, which is a staggering sum and makes the case for reform, for all the reasons that Conservative Members have been laying out.

Happy birthday from the people of Ashfield, Mr Speaker.

After five years of living in the back of a lorry fighting for King and country during the second world war, my grandad Charlie returned to these shores, to live in poor housing, with no heating and no hot water, and he made do with an outside toilet and no access to free yoga lessons. He then went on to work for 40 years down the pit and not once did he ever complain about his life. So does the Minister agree that if illegal immigrants entering this country do not like the housing, which has much better facilities than in my grandad’s day, one solution would be to return to France, taking their leftie lawyers and the Opposition with them?

My hon. Friend, as always, makes a powerful point. There is serious question to answer about why people who are in safe countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy and all these other European countries, are attempting these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys. What I say to them is that they are in countries that have a fully functioning asylum system and they should claim asylum there.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke cannot figure out what is wrong with an Army barracks that has provided free accommodation, food, sanitation and yoga to people who have entered this country illegally. Leftie lawyers have stuck their oar in and ensured that hard-earned UK taxpayers’ money is going to have to be splashed on expensive accommodation, such as hotels or buying properties, as seen in Stoke-on-Trent, adding further strain to local public services. Does the Minister agree that people entering illegally from safe places such as France should be returned immediately and that we should now look to Denmark and process asylum seekers outside the UK as part of our plan for immigration?

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s point, which he makes powerfully. We have already changed our inadmissibility rules to enable the sort of thing that he is describing, and we are in discussions to help make those operational. He rightly says that people should not be entering the UK illegally and dangerously having come from a safe place where they could reasonably have claimed asylum, and that most certainly includes France.

The Home Office’s treatment of asylum seekers is appalling. Will the Minister address the latest scandal: the failure to provide new prepayment Aspen cards, which has left many individuals and families without any money at all for several weeks? In my constituency, many asylum seekers are reliant on a local charity, West London Welcome, for food and necessities, because the Minister’s Department cannot or will not do its job.

There have been some delays with the new Aspen cards, which are in the process of being rapidly resolved. However, I categorically reject the allegation that the Home Office, the Government and the UK are not doing their reasonable bit to support asylum seekers. As I have said, the cost of providing asylum support to these 60,000 people now amounts to £1 billion a year, so any suggestion that there is a lack of generosity or there is a meanness of spirit is categorically and completely untrue.

I am now suspending the House to enable to necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.