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It is perhaps not surprising that the number of detainees who felt unsafe at Oakington had increased since the inspectorate’s previous visit, in view of the significant shift from holding individuals whose applications to remain in the UK were still under consideration to holding those who were about to be removed. I imagine that people who have travelled halfway around the world to start a new life in the UK are bound to feel uncertain about what their future holds when their
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applications to stay have failed and they are being sent back to their own countries.

It is of course disappointing for me, and for my officials, if the inspectorate found that detainees did not feel that they were treated with dignity and respect by staff. That is not the experience of the on-site UK Border Agency contract monitor and her staff, who recognise that the staff deal with some very difficult situations in a centre whose open layout means that particular skill and expertise are required for the maintaining of a safe and secure environment.

Ms Abbott: I met the contract manager during my visit, and it seemed to me that she was in collusion with the staff. It was “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil”.

Mr. Woolas: I am sorry if my hon. Friend believes that to be the case, but I think that my earlier observation is pertinent. As she acknowledged, the facility operates in difficult circumstances. However, I do not wish to deflect her criticism. I think that it is right that my hon. Friend raises her concerns, and I commend her for doing so. She said at the outset that there was no electoral advantage for her in doing so; she is doing the right thing and I accept the integrity with which she is doing it. That is why I take this Adjournment debate especially seriously, and I must measure the comments she and other Members have made against the advice I am given in forming judgments, particularly as to the future.

I think it is fair to say that the points that have been made not only in reports but more generally over the past months have been listened to carefully. I am thinking particularly of the report from the inspectorate, however. As a result, there have been a number of significant improvements at the centre. They include the introduction of a dedicated induction unit which allows all those who have just arrived to be located together while they settle into the routine of the centre; and the introduction of an information leaflet for detainees which is given to them on arrival. It is published in 11 languages and sets out expectations about why they are detained, the role of the local UKBA team and how to access its services, how to seek independent legal advice—I note my hon. Friend’s point on that, and I shall look into it—the role of the independent monitoring board and how to raise grievances and complaints.

Every detainee is seen on arrival by a team especially dedicated to that, and it is available thereafter upon request to answer questions about individual cases. That team is led by an experienced manager who has worked at the centre for a number of years. There has also been the introduction of regular surgery visits by the criminal casework directorate to accelerate the process of deporting ex-foreign national prisoners. There is also a revised and simpler complaints system with guidance to detainees on how to complain and how they can expect their grievances to be handled. A new library provides enhanced services in a far larger and more comfortable environment for residents. The relocation of the health care centre inside the perimeter makes it far more accessible to detainees. A far larger and better equipped fitness suite has also been provided.

I recognise that the continued uncertainty surrounding the future of Oakington may have left the inspectorate with the impression that the centre had “lost its way” and that it has not experienced the same levels of investment as other centres over the past few years.
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However, the UKBA has sought to resolve this matter and has been in discussion with the Homes and Communities Agency, Oakington’s landowner, for some time about its future in light of recent decisions to grant planning permission for a new centre at Bullingdon in Oxfordshire and at Bedford.

Following those discussions, a decision has recently been taken that Oakington will close within the next two years. The UKBA is currently considering a number of options in preparation for that closure, and a decision will be reached shortly as to when it is likely to occur. However, that will not stop the agency continuing to invest in the centre in the interests of maintaining a safe and secure environment for both detainees and staff.

In respect of that point, I thank my hon. Friend. When it is known that a centre is to shut, it is—perhaps—human nature to allow it to wind down. We will not allow that to happen; we will ensure as best we can that standards are maintained and resources are expended to ensure that. Improvements and upgrades in the services and facilities provided will continue throughout this year, which will directly benefit the detainees. They will include: refurbished sanitary ware; a larger and enhanced arts and craft room; an operating standard for welfare services; and more information for detainees to help prepare them for removal.

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To conclude, Oakington is not an easy centre to operate in view of both its layout—the original design—and, as I have acknowledged, the fact that it will close within the next two years. However, having looked at the report, the advice available to me and the correspondence from hon. Members, I am satisfied that it provides a satisfactory level of service to detainees, especially bearing in mind the response that the agency has had to the inspectorate’s report. The vast majority of detainees stay for only a matter of a few weeks. My hon. Friend spoke about speeding up the system. Of course, nobody knows better than I the desirability of that, but there is not the time to go into the legal reasons why delays occur. The level of care and commitment provided by the staff is high, as has been acknowledged by the independent monitoring board.

I give the commitment to the House to examine the additional specific points that my hon. Friend has raised from her visit and to ensure that Members are given the information that they desire to satisfy themselves that a proper process and proper facilities are available at Oakington and the UKBA’s other facilities—

10.46 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.9(7)).

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