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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The House will miss the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) in many ways. His fearless championing of a variety of constituency causes has been accentuated by his ability to get up Ministers' noses from time to time, which is no bad thing for a Back Bencher. His regular participation in these debates has been a source of interest to us all. I am sure that we all wish him well when he retires on, I believe, 5 May, but perhaps the Minister might confirm that later.
I make no apology for returning to the disturbance and fire at Yarl's Wood removal and detention centre in my constituency on Valentine's day 2002. Just over four weeks ago on 16 November and two years and nine months after the incident, the report of the prisons ombudsman, Stephen Shawthe 450-page volume I have with mewas published by the Government. They chose to do so in a written ministerial statement, which I regard as inappropriate.
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I draw the issue to the House's attention to make more public the findings of Mr. Shaw's inquiry. It is an exceptional and thorough piece of work, and I pay tribute to him for that. I also ask the House whether it shares my view that the response from the Home Office so far has been less than adequate.
When I arrived at Yarl's Wood at 5 am that day, I, like everyone else, was stunned by the extent of the destruction and chaos. Half the largest and newest asylum detention facility in Europe had been destroyed by a fire less than three months after opening and following a major disturbance involving a number of detainees. I say "a number of detainees", because the Government, so the ombudsman found, did not actually know how many people were in their care in Yarl's Wood that night.
It would have been very easy and tempting for me that morning to blame the Government, but I did not. I supported their policy, recognising that a sensible asylum and immigration policy required facilities such as those at Yarl's Wood. I had raised issues with Ministers mostly quietly and privately, trying to help the new facility to find its feet and fully appreciating that, whether or not my constituents wanted the centre built, they had now gone along with it and with Group 4 and the immigration authorities to help to make it work.
I was determined to blame those who had been physically violent, had set fire to the place and had put scores of lives in danger rather than to score a political hit. I believe that I was right to do so. I was also right to praise those who had done so much to minimise the disaster, right to praise the bravery of Group 4 personnel caught up in the situation, right to praise individual detainees who had tried to help and right to praise the emergency servicesthe local police, ambulance and fire personnel for their braveryand those from the Prison Service in the area who had responded to the emergency calls for help.
"As soon as the power went off, this seemed to trigger the real trouble. The group outside . . . started ramming the door with something heavy and they were all screaming 'kill them, kill the bastards'. They punched a bigger hole in the window and through the table behind it, which they then began stuffing towels and blankets through. Then I saw one of them hold up a lit cigarette lighter and then shouting 'we're going to burn you' . . . By now I was absolutely terrified and honestly thought I was going to die."
"I left the building via Delta wing via smashing a window on the side where the road and crowd of detainees were. The reason for this was that the fire doors on the wing were all locked and because of the heat if we had not done this we would have been burnt alive."
On reading Mr. Shaw's report, I became aware of just how wrong I had been about the Government's position. It describes failure from start to finish in a key area of Government policy. It details a mixture of incompetence and deliberate calculation from No. 10 Downing street through the Home Office and its agencies, which led ultimately to a smoking ruin in north Bedfordshire. That contrasts completely with the rather self-serving written ministerial statement that put no blame on the Government.
I am also raising the matter because I know something about Government failures. Although I did not invent the Child Support Agency, I was the Minister
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who was first charged with the responsibility of managing it. I had to apologise for its failure from the Dispatch Box and went through two Select Committee inquiries to try to find out why the problems had occurred. I put it to the House that the Home Office should go though exactly the same process for Yarl's Wood.
The story, although shocking enough in itself, provides an apt description of how the Government work, and I shall make several allegations before illustrating each one with evidence from the inquiry. The Government are incompetent at handling a significant policy issue and they panic under pressure. They waste scarce resources on an epic scale. They are incompetent at managing their agencies. Their use of information for short-term political gain is less than trustworthy. They unfairly pressurise their civil servants and are careless about the lives and liberties of those whom they detain without trial or the committal of a crime.
"The targets underpinning the project were unachievable, the project was conducted under unreasonable time constraints, the design of the building was poor in terms both of construction materials and layout, speed of delivery was given undue prominence in the contract letting process, the contractors never looked likely to complete the construction within the agreed timescale, policies were ill-thought through and were inadequately consulted upon, and the incident that led to the disturbance was mishandled."
First, let me address the charge of incompetence and panic under pressure. Asylum applications were rising after 1997 and removals remained stubbornly low. There were about 80,000 applications in 2000, but the number of removals hovered between 7,500 and 8,500 in 1999 and 2000. The pressure on the Government to do something about the situation was considerable. Inside the Home Office in about 2000, a figure of 30,000 removals a year started to be spoken of, although that was far in advance of anything that had been achieved. However, Ministers signed up to the target.
A senior immigration and nationality directorate official who was cited by the ombudsman talked of the target being met with "shrieks of hollow laughter". When the director of detention in the IND took over in April 2001, he considered the target to be "laughable" and
However, on the basis of the figure, the detention estate in which people were held prior to removal had to be quickly increased. No. 10 Downing street, its delivery unit and the Prime Minister are now mentioned in that connection. Page 130 of the ombudsman's report says:
"The speed with which things started to go wrong suggests it was at best over-ambitious, and at worst wholly ill-conceived. This reflects well neither on the bidder nor on those who let the contract."
"The combination of design and materials resulted in a building that was not capable of withstanding the total loss of control and multiple firesetting that took place on 14 February 2002. The occupied portion of Yarl's Wood survived just three months. It is manifest that, in retrospect, it failed the test of fitness for purpose."
"My own view of the IND exercise is that if and when NAO . . . takes an interest they will have a 'field day' in value for money terms. They will surely compare construction costs with our own of £40m for Rye Hill and £69m for the extremely high quality construction at Dovegate for prisons which are considerably more substantial and secure than IDCs . . . IND will argue, however, that the asylum situation, in the run up to the election, was a political imperative demanding immediate remedial action, regardless of cost."
There are further examples of wasted resources, not least the failure to transfer risk, which has left a bill for £100 million for taxpayers. I shall invite the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office to reflect on the Prison Service's comments in the report.
The Government are incompetent at managing their agencies. Once the process had started, there was work to be done to ensure that the bidding process was right, that the contract was let properly, that the design and build were fit for their purpose, that those who were running the establishments knew what they were required to do and that the agencies closely involved with the contactors running Yarl's Wood, such as the IND, were taking decisions that were compatible with the work there. That was not the case, and one of the worst decisions made by the Home Office was that detainees would no longer be held in prisons. That was not a bad decision in itself, but no one spoke to the contractors about its likely impact on the rest of the estate. People with prison experience and those responsible for the Campsfield house disturbance were deliberately placed in Yarl's Wood, a low-level security establishment, with women and children. Everyone says that that also led to the build-up of tension and pressure that caused the riot.
The Government have been less than trustworthy. I cited the target of 30,000 removals, which seemed unachievable. A senior official is reported as apologising to Ministers in April 2000 that the figure had got into the public domain. That seems strange because one apologises only for something that one has got wrong, but in the House on 23 March 2001, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), announced that target some six weeks before the general election campaign. At some time between that point and the next Home Secretary taking office, the figure became unachievable because the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)
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was told that the target had become unachievable at a dinner. That had happened in a matter of weeks during an election; I rest my case.
"There was of course no excuse for the actions of those detainees involved in the disturbance and the suffering and damage they caused. I have concluded, however, that what occurred at Yarl's Wood was the result of a series of decisions taken over the previous three years."
There has been no apology from the Home Office since the report became public. There have been no expressions of regret, or any determination to come to the House to give an explanation. I put it to the House that the people who were disturbed at Yarl's Wood, those who had their lives threatened and the taxpayers who face a massive bill deserve nothing less than an apology and a full explanation of how the situation occurred.
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