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Asylum Seeker Families

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) has been reviewing their processes and policies with a view to increasing efficiency and reducing numbers in emergency accommodation.

A concession in the dispersal policy, where NASS departed from the policy of dispersal if a family had a child that had attended a particular school for a year, was part of this review. The concession, was designed to enable us to ensure that asylum seeker families in receipt of DWP benefits and who were transferring to NASS support, following receipt of a negative asylum decision—such cases are often referred to as disbenefited cases—could continue to be supported in the accommodation they had been living in while in receipt of benefits.

I agreed in August that this concession should be amended. In considering the change, regard was given to the need to balance disruption to the education of a child with the availability of suitable accommodation in non-dispersal areas. Consideration was also given to the number of families who remained in emergency accommodation—which is not intended for long-term occupation—in London and other areas for long periods of time.

The revised policy came into force on Friday 13 August 2004. The change in policy was announced by a letter dated 13 August, from the director of NASS to the membership of the National Asylum Support Forum, copied to LGA, ALG, COSLA and the Chief Asylum Support Adjudicator. A copy of the letter was placed on the Home Office website and NASS wrote to all families affected by this change.

Under the new policy, dispersal is temporarily deferred where an asylum seeker has a dependant child in their household who has started the final school or college year leading up to their GCSE, AS or A-level
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exams, or their equivalents. This is provided they have been enrolled at that school or college for a significant part of the previous school or college year.

However, families will not benefit from this concession if they have been unco-operative, for example, if they have failed to travel to dispersal accommodation without reasonable excuse or have switched the type of their NASS application without good reason, and this has resulted in their dispersal being delayed until their child is in the final school year leading to their GCSE, AS or A Level exam.

Families with children who are in the school year leading to Statutory Assessment Tasks (SATs) will not benefit from the concession.

If a family has a child with special educational needs who has gained entry to an appropriate school, dispersal will normally be postponed until arrangements are in place for the child to transfer to a suitable school in the dispersal area.

Cases that fall outside the revised criteria will be examined on their own merits, although the expectation is that dispersal will normally be appropriate. Families in emergency accommodation who applied for support before 13 August 2004—and whose dispersal may have been postponed as a result of the previous policy—have been reassessed under the new policy. This assessment took account of all known circumstances and consideration was given to whether dispersing the family would be reasonable. In order to minimise disruption to children and schools NASS aimed to arrange for a move to new accommodation to take place before the start of the new school year.

Disbenefited families supported by NASS prior to 13 August 2004, who met the terms of the concession in place before that date and where arrangements have been made with a local authority to pay their rent and utilities, will not be reassessed under the new policy, unless their accommodation becomes unsustainable for some reason.

We are considering other changes to the policy on dispersal and I may announce any further changes to the House when decisions have been taken.

PC Gerald Walker

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): On 25 March I placed in the House Library a copy of the report by Professor Rod Morgan which I and the Minister for Policing had commissioned into the circumstances leading up to and following the death of PC Gerald Walker as a consequence of the actions of David Parfitt, who was then unlawfully at large following the revocation of his licence and recall to prison. I also placed in the Library a copy of the action plan which I had agreed with the director general of national probation service representing the police, prison and probation services and which set out a clear plan for delivering changes to national policy and practice recommended by Professor Morgan in light of his inquiry findings.

The director general of the national probation service has now reported to me on the progress achieved in delivering the action plan and I am today placing a copy of that report in the House Library.
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I am very pleased that the director general is able to confirm that, of the 10 recommendations in Professor Morgan's report, two have already been met in full, a further four will be the subject of comprehensive advice which will be issued during November, and three other recommendations will result in guidance being issued before the end of December. Progress is being made to reach agreement with the employing authorities for probation staff on the final recommendation, which requires a change to the terms and conditions of some probation grades, but the director general is hopeful that there will be agreement in time for changes to be implemented early in 2005–06.

As I made clear in my written statement to the House on 25 March, PC Walker's death was an irreplaceable loss to the Nottinghamshire constabulary and to the community they serve, and a personal tragedy for his wife and two children. The changes to national practices that Professor Morgan recommended, and the action plan is delivering, cannot make up for that loss. Those changes will, however ensure that the legacy of PC Walker's sacrifice will be better supervision of offenders, more effective inter-agency working between the police and correctional services, and, by reducing the risk of similar events recurring, greater security to the public in future.

Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth Disturbances

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I am today publishing the report by the prisons and probation ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, of his investigation into the serious disturbance at Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre on 14 and 15 February 2002.

Immediately after the disturbance, Stephen Moore, a senior member of the Prison Service, was asked to conduct an investigation of what had happened. He made significant progress but was unable to have access to the information necessary to complete his investigation until associated court proceedings had been completed. On 19 June 2003, my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Citizenship and Immigration announced in a written statement that she had decided that Stephen Shaw, who had been providing an independent overview of the work done up to that point, should take overall responsibility for the investigation, in order to ensure that it was fully independent. As Mr. Shaw notes in his report, he had unfettered access to papers and staff. I am grateful to him for the care with which he has examined what was by any standards an extremely serious incident and for a very thorough report, and to Stephen Moore for the considerable effort he invested in the earlier stages of the investigation.

The report criticises the handling by the contractor Group 4 of the incident which gave rise to the disturbances. It identifies weaknesses in design and materials which it attributes to the time constraints under which the centre was built, and which, in Mr. Shaw's view, rendered it unfit for purpose and unable to withstand the assault on it that occurred on 14 and 15 February 2002. It finds that "the operation that ended the disturbance seems to have worked well", but that there was a lack of clarity as to who was in charge and the command structure. It notes the lack of
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information held centrally at that time on detainees, of the kind that would have supported a more effective risk assessment of the detained population.

Stephen Shaw pays tribute, as I do, to the bravery shown by individual members of the Prison Service and Group 4 staff, by members of the emergency services and those detainees who rescued staff who were trapped. As he says, there was no loss of life, but the disturbance and fire were traumatic events for those involved.

It is important to remember the context in 2000 and 2001, when the Yarl's Wood and Harmondsworth removal centres were built. Asylum applications had risen significantly in 1999 and remained at high levels. All those involved—Ministers and officials alike—were rightly convinced that part of the solution was the creation of significantly more detention accommodation than had previously existed to support the removal of failed asylum seekers. In that context, the creation of such additional accommodation was understandably seen as an urgent priority. It is easy to be wise with hindsight, but I readily acknowledge that the weaknesses in design and materials identified by Stephen Shaw existed and made the centre more vulnerable to a disturbance than it would otherwise have been.

The important thing is that there were clear lessons to be learned, and they were. As the report notes, the Colnbrook removal centre, which opened recently, was built to a much more robust design. The Harmondsworth centre, originally built to the same design as Yarl's Wood, was extensively refurbished, with the installation of sprinklers and the strengthening of parts of the infrastructure, as was the surviving part of Yarl's Wood. The command structure in the event of a disturbance was clarified and improved, and effort invested in staff training.

I am also publishing today the report of an investigation of the more recent disturbance at Harmondsworth on 19 July this year by Sue McAllister, the head of the security group in the Prison Service. I am grateful also to Ms. McAllister for her work. This has been a more limited investigation, because a number of those involved in the disturbance still face criminal proceedings. It is, however, clear from the report that, as a result of the refurbishments I have described, Harmondsworth was significantly more able to withstand a serious disturbance than would otherwise have been the case. Damage was limited, the command arrangements for responding to the incident generally worked well, and the restoration of order was, in Ms McAllister's words, "a successful operation" in which Prison Service, police and other staff acquitted themselves well. There were no injuries to either staff or detainees and there were no escapes from the centre. The centre was up and running again within three months of the incident. The inherent weaknesses in the design were, however, a factor in the extent to which the disturbance spread throughout the centre, and fire safety requirements limited the measures that could be taken to control detainees, including preventing their confinement to their rooms. Officials have been addressing urgently with the contractor and fire authorities what more can be done to improve control without jeopardising fire safety.

Ms McAllister comments on the lack of systems for assessing the suitability of detainees for the open regime at Harmondsworth, and recommends a more strategic approach to the management of disruptive individuals. It is important to recognise that the expansion of the
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immigration removal estate was in part a result of the decision to end the practice of detaining immigration offenders in prisons. Since the Yarl's Wood disturbance, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has strengthened arrangements for assessing the risk which individual detainees represent and for considering the case for moving disruptive detainees elsewhere in the estate or into prison accommodation. These arrangements are however being reviewed again in the light of experience at Harmondsworth and Ms. McAllister's comments, and there are plans to enhance the assessment process. Perhaps the most significant development is that the new centre at Colnbrook, built to a more robust design, provides an option for managing the more difficult detainees short of transfer to the prison estate—an option which did not previously exist.

These two reports highlight the challenge which the management of immigration detainees now represents. Detainees are not convicted criminals. As Stephen Shaw notes, one of the factors in the design of Harmondsworth and Yarl's Wood was the aim to create an environment which, while secure, was not a prison environment; these events have shown the tension between this aim and the need to maintain control and security. As Stephen Shaw notes in his report, as the effectiveness of the removals process increases, detainees are now spending, on average, much shorter periods in detention. This is, in itself, welcome, but it tends to raise levels of tension among the detained population, and limits the scope for constructive activities of the kind that longer-term custodial institutions provide. That said, we have to ensure within the detention estate a humane regime that provides purposeful activities and is strong on contact between staff and detainees. That, rather than the structure of the buildings (important as that is), is the surest means by which the risk of disaffection and disturbance can be kept to the minimum. I have already accepted Stephen Shaw's recommendation (number 60) that a forum comprising officials, contractors and relevant interest groups be set up to consider provision of purposeful activity in removal centres. The forum will be chaired by the senior director, operations in IND, and the Chief Inspector of Prisons will be invited to be represented.

Stephen Shaw's report makes a large number of other recommendations, many of which have already been acted on, while others will now be considered carefully and progressed, along with relevant conclusions of Sue McAllister's report. I have asked IND senior management to draw up an action plan based on these for publication in early 2005.

There have been many improvements to the management of the detention system—indeed of IND as a whole—since these events took place but I am determined that we should learn any further lessons of these very serious events, and do everything we can to prevent a recurrence.

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