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10 Feb 2010 : Column 1005

Financial Services and Markets

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Future Relations between the EU and the Overseas Countries and Territories

Question agreed to.


Road Repairs (Northamptonshire)

5.52 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to present a public petition that should have been presented last night, but was not. That is entirely due to a mistake by me, and not in any way by the Table Office or the Chair. I apologise to the Chair for that.

Dr. Collier, one of my constituents, has single-handedly collected 1,000 signatures about the state of the roads in Rushden. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will read out the petition, because it entirely explains the situation. The petition states:


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Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Lyn Brown.)

5.54 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to raise matters relating to Yarl's Wood detention and removal centre. As I am sure the House is aware, it is the largest immigration detention centre for women and children in the United Kingdom and is located in my constituency.

I sought this debate before a protest began at Yarl's Wood last week, a hunger strike that became rather more serious on Monday. However, a number of the matters at the heart of the protest are pertinent to the remarks that I shall make. It is fortunate that we have a little more time than we normally would for an Adjournment debate, and I acknowledge the presence of the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), who has always taken a keen interest in the centre.

I shall briefly give some history of the centre, because it is pertinent. Some of the problems inherent at the outset of Yarl's Wood still bedevil it and the system that it symbolises. It was built on a deceit. Terrified by the rise in the number of asylum applications resulting from changes in policy in 1997, the Government needed to react to growing public concern prior to the general election of 2001. The then Home Secretary plucked a figure for removals out of the air, and Yarl's Wood was built to accommodate that fictitious figure and the attempts that followed to remove people from the UK as part of the process.

The centre was appallingly built, without adequate fire precautions, and on Valentine's day 2002, following a disturbance started by former prisoners who should not have been there, half the centre burned down, risking more than 300 lives. The insurance claim disgracefully launched against Bedfordshire police has not yet been settled, eight years after the event.

If the Minister or the House believe that I have made a somewhat prejudiced and partial opening, they should read the excellent report by Mr. Stephen Shaw, the then prisons ombudsman, following his inquiry into the circumstances of the fire. I doubt that he would take issue with anything that I have just said.

The relevance of that history today is that something built upon sand may never recover from its poor foundations. The problems of the backlog in the system that resulted from the early policy changes of the current Government have never been adequately dealt with, and they still bedevil the system today. Similarly, Yarl's Wood's reputation from its opening days has rather unfairly lasted to this day. Perhaps I can deal with that first, as there is much concern and some misunderstanding about what happens there among groups outside Yarl's Wood who care deeply about detainees.

In April 2007, Serco took over the contract to run Yarl's Wood from Group 4. Since then it has made a number of changes that have markedly improved the atmosphere at the centre. It can never be a happy place, as it contains women and children who have come to the end of their attempts to move to, and live in, the United Kingdom. The vast majority know that at some stage, they will be required to leave. Many do not wish to do so, and that understandably makes for a difficult atmosphere in the centre.

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However, Yarl's Wood is not a prison, and it is not run like one. The staff, a number of whom are my constituents, have to manage a balance between ensuring that the place is secure-people are there because there was a fear that they might abscond-and recognising that the majority have committed no criminal offence and should not be treated as prisoners.

The original Yarl's Wood regime tended more towards a prison regime, partly because of the haste in which the centre was built and the circumstances that I described earlier, and partly through a lack of thought as to what it was really about. However, through the patient work of both Group 4 and Serco, the atmosphere has changed. Internal doors have been taken down and there is much more free association among those who are detained. Facilities for education and recreation have steadily improved. The uniform of officers has changed, and the ratio of women to men officers has changed for the better and is more appropriate to the large number of women detainees. Internet access, for which I have repeatedly asked over the years, was finally installed in June 2007, and efforts have been made to improve access to external support organisations.

Those efforts have been helped by the repeated work of many people. The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, has taken a particular interest in Yarl's Wood and her comments have helped to improve the situation. The Children's Commissioner has raised the issue. There has been sterling work by two local bodies, the independent monitoring board and the Yarl's Wood befrienders. I thank the chair of the independent monitoring board, Jane Leech, and all its members, for their work. Those volunteers are regularly at Yarl's Wood to observe what happens there and to be available to people. The befrienders are not a statutory body but often from a faith base, and they take care of detainees on a personal basis, particularly those who may have no one else to turn to. The involvement of both groups, which are staffed locally by volunteers from my constituency, is important and necessary. Yarl's Wood is not perfect, but not to recognise the efforts that have been made to improve the regime over the years would be unfair to those who work there, the Home Office, and others who try so hard to make things better in difficult circumstances.

However, last Thursday, a protest began at Yarl's Wood. It was partly about conditions, but more specifically about the asylum process and the length of time that some detainees are held. Over the weekend, the protest escalated, until on Monday, four detainees were isolated as alleged instigators. In response, a group of some 70 women peacefully occupied a corridor known as the avenue. At some stage in the afternoon, a group of women broke out of the corridor into a yard outside by climbing through windows.

I have spoken to Serco officials, the chair of the independent monitoring board, Jane Leech, and to Chief Constable Gillian Parker, who was kept abreast of the situation even though police did not need to enter the premises, for their accounts of the incident. I understand that Yarl's Wood staff contained the protest, both outside in the yard and in the corridor, and that it gradually came to a peaceful conclusion. That must be the first responsibility-the welfare and safety of detainees and staff. Women held in the corridor were not allowed
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access to food, water or toilet facilities during the protest. Those were available if they left the corridor and therefore the protest, but they were not allowed to rejoin.

I understand that there were no serious injuries, nor any serious physical confrontation between staff and detainees, but that account is not entirely accepted by some groups outside Yarl's Wood who supported the protest and the women involved, and who have e-mailed me. I should make it clear that I do not support hunger strikes, which damage the welfare of individual detainees, nor protests that risk the health and welfare of staff or detainees. Having said that, it is essential, for the integrity of the asylum and detention process, and for the staff and detainees involved, that what happens in such situations is verified, and that that verification is available externally.

Therefore, will the Minister confirm that CCTV coverage was available for all areas involved in the protest on Monday? Will there be an independent inquiry, or at least a report, into what happened and the circumstances, and how it was dealt with and contained, possibly through the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers? Will the CCTV coverage be available to her?

Can the Minister say what happened to the four women detainees who were allegedly held without access to facilities for most of the day, and who have now been dispersed to other centres? I understand that they were taken to the reception area and held there during the day, and that they were moved later, but what precisely was their condition during the day and who was looking after them? Were any injuries received by either staff or detainees? How were such injuries treated and were medical staff available at all times?

As I indicated, I sought this debate before that incident, and I want to cover some of the origins of the frustration that led to the protest.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): May I intervene before the hon. Gentleman moves on to the issues that he intended originally to raise. It is my understanding, like his, that the protest of recent days was directed principally at the nature of the detention system. This is not the occasion to address those matters. None the less, does he agree that they need to be carefully debated at some point?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman is right-the nature of the detention system and Yarl's Wood have a tangential relationship. From what I understand-I have not spoken to any detainees, although I have heard representations from those who have-the protest was directed partly at Yarl's Wood, but essentially at the asylum and detention process. However, we need to address some of those frustrations, because Yarl's Wood is the end of the process. As I have remarked frequently in debates such as this, the policy is decided by the Home Office and executed by the UK Border Agency, but the people left holding the parcel at the end are the staff at Yarl's Wood. They have to deal with any frustrations caused by the system, although they are not responsible for policy and cannot make many decisions about individual detainee cases. Therefore, when the frustrations boil over as they did in this instance-although fortunately not to any great extent-the staff have to deal with that. Addressing those frustrations will therefore, in time, ease the situation at Yarl's Wood.

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There is much frustration about the failures of the asylum process to deal speedily and effectively with cases. Only yesterday the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, reported on the UK Border Agency, as I am sure the House already knows. Among other things, she said that the agency still has a "long way to go" to ensure that its administration, complaints-handling procedures and remedy mechanisms are adequate. She spoke of the hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases not yet dealt with. She said that there was a risk for the agency of

I am sure that many hon. Members could give examples of long-running asylum cases. I had two new cases in the last week, one involving a Zimbabwean woman who applied in 2002 and still, eight years later, has not had a determination. The House will be aware that those who have been turned down for asylum face many restrictions on working and benefit claims. These are not just statistics. They represent people who are trying to get on with their lives while the process of determining their status goes on. Length of time does not give them any greater right in theory, but it makes a profound difference to the life that they want-and are trying-to live.

Some of the women detained at Yarl's Wood lived in their communities for many years before being taken to the centre for removal. They have effectively become settled in the UK. It is not that they have acquired a right to remain here: it is that the delay in the process makes the process of deportation so much harder, difficult to enforce and potentially unjust. They have relationships and jobs and, above all, a fear of a country that they may have left many years before in difficult circumstances. They now have to face the prospect of returning to it. When does the Minister believe that her Department will properly get a grip on the backlog of cases and deal with some of the frustrations so evident at Yarl's Wood?

In a statement on the events of the weekend and on the situation in general, Caroline Slocock, the chief executive of Refugee and Migrant Justice, said:

The most recent figures for detention that I have are from the independent monitoring board's report from last year, and they are the figures for 2008. They show that 347 women were detained for between 30 and 59 days, 137 for between 60 and 89 days, 75 for between 90 and 119 days, 121 for between 120 and 364 days and eight for more than a year. I remind the House that Yarl's Wood is a short-term centre. It is designed for people to be there for a short period of time before they are deported. It was not designed to have a substantial number of women there for much longer than three to six months.

I am aware that there are many reasons why detainees will be at Yarl's Wood longer than anticipated, and some are beyond the ability of the Department to deal with-such as when a country refuses to accept a national back-but this poses a question. How long should women be detained if there is no certainty of their being deported? How long can an order be granted again and again to hold someone in such uncertain circumstances?
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If there is no prospect of returning someone rapidly, why is there not an alternative system of reporting and being handled, as opposed to being deprived of liberty?

Those circumstances are even more serious when it comes to children. I note that one or two other colleagues have just entered the Chamber. The situation of children in detention has exercised the House on more than one occasion-hon. Members hold strong feelings about that issue. The 2009 IMB report gives the figures for 2008: a total of 1,271 children left detention that year, of whom 262 were detained for between eight and 14 days; 87 for between 15 and 21 days; 74 for between 22 and 28 days; and 232 for more than 28 days. The Children's Society says that the children they tend to be involved with experience an average stay of about six weeks.

Given that I am talking about figures, I should say in passing that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) sent me a copy of the Home Affairs Committee's report on the detention of children in the immigration system. I have just given the Minister the statistics for 2008, but the right hon. Gentleman wrote:

I leave that with the Minister. Many people have been exercised by the process.

Patrick Hall: The hon. Gentleman will have seen, therefore, that the Home Affairs Committee said, among a number of other comments and recommendations, that it regards detention as the final step in the process and that it should not be indeterminate pending legal proceedings. Does he agree that detainees will do all that they can to remain, including using the legal process, and that sometimes they themselves lengthen the period of their detention by seeking legal process? Should we not, therefore, be looking for means of dealing with people going through the legal processes outside detention and in the community, and only detain when the legal processes are truly concluded?

Alistair Burt: Yes, there is much in what the hon. Gentleman says. First, of course those detained will often do everything that they can to seek to remain, and if they have families with them, inevitably that will lengthen their time in a detention centre. Secondly, as he said, alternatives might therefore be sought. However, I will come to that later. I know that alternatives have been piloted and that there is much to be done there.

I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman would share with me the central principle that was well put in a briefing from the Refugee Council, with which I did a session on this issue during the party conference last year. It produced two relevant quotes about the detention of children. First, in December 2009, a briefing paper entitled "Significant Harm", which was published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, recommended that the practice of detaining children cease "without delay".

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Anne Owers, in her February 2008 inspection report, wrote:

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