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The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Sharman Report

37. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What proposals he has to request an increase in the budget of the National Audit Office to take account of the recommendations of the Sharman report. [34267]

Mr. Alan Williams (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission): The extent of any increase in the budget of the National Audit Office to take account of the Sharman report will depend on the Government's response to the recommendations. It is now 12 months since Lord Sharman reported. I understand that the Government have been in extensive discussions with the NAO about the practical arrangements that the Government believe are needed to accompany Lord Sharman's recommendations. Any cost implications will be reflected in the annual corporate plan that will be submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General in the summer. The Commission will consider that report before the summer recess.

Mr. Rendel: Does the Chairman agree with me that 12 months is an intolerably long time to wait for these recommendations to be put into place? They should have been put into place before now. What assurances does the right hon. Gentleman have that they will be put into place in the near future?

Mr. Williams: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that 12 months seems to be an abnormally long time. We must hope that it is justified by a favourable reception. If it is, we would want that accompanied by a guarantee of early implementation.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Does the Chairman agree that it is vital that the Government accept all the recommendations of the Sharman report? In particular, it is important that we make progress to ensure that the BBC comes under full audit by the House. After all, the BBC effectively imposes a poll tax on virtually every member of the population. The House should have the right to hold the BBC to account.

Mr. Williams: I agree with the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. There are many extremely important elements in the Sharman report, which would extend considerably Parliament's power of scrutiny. We want full implementation and early implementation. I hope that we may get a response from the Government in March.

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Yarl's Wood Fire

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the fire at Yarl's Wood removal centre.

Before setting out what happened on the night of Thursday 14 February, I want to make my position absolutely clear. I am not prepared to let Government policy be determined by those intent on creating disorder and destruction. Having removed asylum seekers from prison, we now find that our reward is the burning down of a substantial part of the facility. This is deplorable.

The new nationality, immigration and asylum policy, which I set out on 7 February, remains unchanged. In particular, I intend to press ahead with expanding the number of places in secure removal centres to 4,000. There will be no uncertainty and no misunderstanding. We will implement our comprehensive policy as set out to the House on 7 February.

I shall set out the facts as we know them. The unrest, involving a number of detainees, started on the evening of 14 February. At that stage the sequence of events is not entirely clear. However, it has been established that during the disturbance control of the centre was wrested from the staff, allowing detainees to gain keys providing access to restricted areas, including a property store. At the same time, damage was being caused inside the centre, including to the operation of CCTV. The detention contractors, Group 4, faced with substantial disorder, called for assistance from public services.

A number of detainees moved outside the accommodation blocks and a smaller number of these breached the perimeter security round the site. The earliest police units to arrive worked to restore perimeter security, and a number of detainees were apprehended at this stage. Further detainees were taken into custody later in the night in the Bedford area. Our latest estimate is that 22 remain at large.

An initial fire in the reception area was extinguished, but fires were started in separate blocks and in more than one location. The fire service was unable to tackle these blazes because detainees prevented it from gaining access to the buildings. By the time order had been restored on the compound, the fire had taken significant hold in one part of the centre and it proved impossible to save those buildings. I am pleased to tell the House that despite speculation to the contrary, we do not believe that there were any fatalities. However, I have authorised continuing investigation to be undertaken until we are absolutely certain that that is correct. I should tell the House that we still have dogs inside the site this afternoon.

In the appalling circumstances of that evening, the men and women of the Bedfordshire police and fire service acquitted themselves with dedication and courage. So too did members of the Prison Service and the Yarl's Wood operators. I know that the whole House will want to express its gratitude to them.

Since the events of 14 February, I have taken a number of immediate steps to strengthen security and protection in the service. First, I have sought advice from the chief inspector of fire services on safety at Yarl's Wood and other removal centres. Subject to immediate remedial

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action, the undamaged sections at Yarl's Wood have been declared safe. I therefore intend to continue their use. Similar advice has been given in respect of Harmondsworth, and other removal centres are also being assessed. Secondly, as a further precaution, detainees with a history of violent or criminal behaviour and those considered a danger to safety have been transferred to prison. Detailed contingency plans have been put in place should further disorder arise, and I have given direct instructions to improve both staffing and security.

Bedfordshire police and fire rescue services have begun investigations into the events of that night—they will take some weeks to complete—and Group 4 has instituted an internal investigation. I have also initiated a Home Office overarching investigation to inquire into the causes of the events and draw together the other reports, which will include recommendations on design and future fire and security measures. The investigation will, of course, be conducted in a manner that does not impede any criminal investigation. It will be headed by Stephen Moore, a senior and experienced Prison Service official. I would encourage hon. Members to make any observations directly to that inquiry.

I know that the House would want me to deal with the issue of the absence of sprinklers at Yarl's Wood. The decision not to fit sprinklers was informed by advice from a number of different expert sources. Sprinklers have not been used in other similar establishments, owing to operational and practical issues associated with managing sprinkler systems in such an environment. Nevertheless, a review into their use was already ongoing.

The review and recent events have led me to believe that increased precautionary measures are necessary. I have therefore taken a preliminary decision to install sprinklers in all new removal centres and will take the necessary steps to install them at Yarl's Wood, as well as Harmondsworth and other facilities.

It is now clear that a small number of people will take any step to prevent their removal from this country. We therefore have no option but to toughen the regime and instruct the immigration and nationality directorate further to speed up removal of those in the centres to their country of origin.

It would be unthinkable to allow violent and disruptive behaviour to put the safety of staff, other detainees or the public at risk. I shall also consider the criteria for allocating particular individuals to specific removal centres. That will entail considering different levels of security appropriate to the individuals who are held.

Although I take my obligations under the 1951 convention seriously, many claimants fail to meet the standards required. Those with no right to remain must be removed if our overall policy is to stand any chance of success. I therefore reiterate my determination to provide a coherent and seamless process in which rapid removal, and thereby prevention of absconding, must play an essential part.

The lessons of 14 February will be learned, but the message must also be clear. No one will be permitted to engage in behaviour that puts lives at risk and destroys first-class facilities, built at public expense and created as an alternative to prison. That is the message that I intend to convey this afternoon. I know that the House will back that stance.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for early notification of his statement.

25 Feb 2002 : Column 443

The event that we are considering is exceptionally serious, and the House's sympathy goes to those who were injured and to local residents who may be living in fear.

The event has an unhappy background. It occurred in a recess during which an appalling rise in street crime was announced and the Home Secretary's relationship with the police at all levels virtually collapsed.

I have repeatedly made it clear that I agree with the Home Secretary about the need for an asylum regime that is much more effective than the system that his predecessor, the current Foreign Secretary, bequeathed him. However, the disaster at Yarl's Wood raises fundamental questions about the effectiveness of the new strategy.

The new strategy contains three critical elements: reception centres, accommodation centres and removal centres. However, we must ask whether removal centres are being managed in a way that will make sense of the rest of the process. Questions fall into three straightforward categories: why, who and when?

Why were there no sprinklers? In the light of Lord Rooker's comment that their absence was extraordinary, and warnings by Labour Members 15 months ago, which experts, to whom the Home Secretary referred, disagreed with the Bedfordshire fire service? Why was there so little co-ordination with the police? Is it true that they had no immediate access when they arrived? Given the new tightening of security, which we welcome, why did the Home Secretary not authorise further tightening? Why did a break-out occur at Harmondsworth? Why was no heed paid to anxieties that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and unions raised about pressures and tensions in Yarl's Wood? Why was there no adequate response to rioting in Yarl's Wood?

Let us consider the "who" questions. Who was in Yarl's Wood? Were repeated reassurances to the local populace that everyone there was low risk correct? How many had exhausted the appeals process and were due to be removed? How many were still engaged in the appeals process? Were legal advisers and other facilities available for the latter? How many of those who remain at large were due for removal and how many were engaged in the appeals process? What are the Home Secretary's intentions for those who are apprehended?

Let us examine the "when" questions. How long was it taking to remove those who were due for removal from Yarl's Wood? Were there any whom it took more than a few days to remove once the appeals process had been exhausted? Was the local population misled about the average length of time people would stay? What was about to be done to enable an institution that turns out to be incapable of dealing appropriately with 380 inhabitants to deal appropriately with its full capacity of 900? Is the Home Secretary's policy of building a small number of large centres still the right one? When will Yarl's Wood be operational again? Has the Home Secretary now revised his target of 30,000 removals a year? If not, how is he going to achieve it with Yarl's Wood non-operational or partly non-operational?

Perhaps the Home Secretary—who is amazingly good at this task—will answer some of those questions today in the House. I cannot see, however, how even he can possibly be expected to answer them all in full today. It seems clear that only a proper, comprehensive, public inquiry can be expected to provide the answers that can

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teach us the comprehensive lessons that we will need to learn if there is to be any realistic chance of putting back together the pieces of the Home Secretary's removal policy. Will he now assure the House that he will hold such an inquiry without delay?

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