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26 Jun 2002 : Column 290WH

Yarl's Wood

1 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the report recently published by Bedfordshire county council on the incident on 14 February at the Yarl's Wood detention centre. I welcome the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration to her new position. We have known each other for some time and I understand that she is in a difficult but interesting ministerial post. We all wish her well.

I have three aims in today's short debate—to call attention to the report, to highlight some of the outstanding issues and to call attention to the lack of interest from the Home Office, which is causing my constituents real anger and frustration. Shortly after the fire on 14 February at Yarl's Wood detention and removal centre, the county council, led by Councillor Philip Hendry, resolved to conduct its own inquiry. It had three guiding reasons for doing so: it recognised its position in giving leadership to the local community that felt most concerned about the construction, operation and destruction of Yarl's Wood; it wished to give the community a public voice; and it recognised the cost of the national policy to the whole of Bedfordshire. The council understood that the local position had national resonance.

The council has succeeded in its aims, and I pay tribute to Councillor Hendry, Councillor David Thompson who chaired the inquiry, the cross-party councillors who sat on it and the county council's administrative staff who worked over and above the call of duty to make it a success. The inquiry team publicly interviewed many witnesses ranging from Group 4 and the emergency services to community groups and refugee support workers. It has been thorough, and within the constraints imposed by concurrent police and Home Office inquiries—not to mention the possibilities of criminal or civil proceedings—it found its way to sound conclusions. The shadow of other inquiries is real—I shall return to the problem—as the spotlight now switches to the Government's response.

The product of seven hearings, other visits and deliberations was set out in a report published on 18 June,and a copy was dispatched to the Home Secretary forthwith. It raised considerable interest and attention in the county, and I am pleased to see in attendance this morning my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall).

The key recommendations of the report include the creation of an independent inspectorate for detention centres and similar establishments; the removal of both Crown immunity and the ability to use special planning procedures from Government developments, except those needed for defence or national security; and the engagement to a far greater extent of local communities in the planning process. Other recommendations include supporting the local police authority in its defence of the insurance claim brought against it by the insurers of those running Yarl's Wood; ensuring that no

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costs fall on the local community as a result of such actions; and reviewing the practice and policy of insuring this and similar establishments.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that Bedfordshire's council tax payers would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that they will not have to pay the costs of the Yarl's Wood fire through their council tax? Furthermore, the county would appreciate a reassurance that the Government will put in place measures to ensure that similar events centering on national facilities do not fall on the shoulders of local council tax payers.

Alistair Burt : My hon. Friend makes a firm point on behalf of his constituents and all people living in Bedfordshire. The Minister is likely to deal with the point. The insurance issue has yet to be resolved in the courts, but it has caused national concern. If my understanding is correct, the date to insure a variety of privately run facilities around the country is rapidly approaching. What is the current position? My hon. Friend is right to call for those assurances.

The fifth aim of the report is to ensure the use of sprinklers against fire and to improve fire drills and fire safety at detention centres and similar establishments. The sixth is to improve detainee access to third-party advice to resolve disputes, and to improve record keeping and back-up record keeping of detainee information. The last, but locally by no means least, aim is to establish an independent process to determine the need for alternative access to Yarl's Wood rather than having to use Twinwoods road alone. That would accommodate the interests of many local people, and it should be carried forward as a matter of urgency.

I endorse all those recommendations and will return later to one or two of the issues raised. The report also makes special mention of the extraordinary work of the emergency services, which I strongly endorse, and of Group 4 staff at the site, who were put under severe pressure. It also mentions the action of certain detainees who took effective action to secure their safety and that of their friends.

As I mentioned, the inquiry process raised issues that could not be resolved because of the limitations imposed by other inquiries. It is essential for the local community that the Minister addresses the problem of how these matters will finally be determined to public satisfaction. She should also reconsider the instruction, which must have been given by her Department, to tell Home Office official Stephen Moore of the Prison Service, who is conducting the inquiry, not to hold hearings in public. There is a stark contrast between the openness of the county council procedure and the closed nature of the Home Office's inquiry. That is not acceptable.

We should consider two issues that appear in the report. It is known that, contrary to the strong advice of Bedfordshire fire brigade, no fire sprinklers were in place at Yarl's Wood. Why was a substantial timber-framed building, which it was known would go up in flames quickly, allowed to be built as it was, to house 450 people being held against their will, several miles from a fire station and with fairly poor water supplies?

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Home Office evidence submitted to the inquiry through Paul Quibell, which appears on pages 208 and 209 of the transcripts, says that the costs of fitting sprinklers

However, I introduced in evidence a letter from Jeff Goddard, who was acting chief fire officer of Bedfordshire at the time of negotiations with the Home Office about sprinklers. He is now the CFO of Buckinghamshire and was prepared to state unequivocally:

That is a clear and serious contradiction, and I would have expected the Home Office inquiry to want to address it, but when I telephoned Mr. Goddard yesterday, I was astonished to learn that Stephen Moore had not contacted him. Why was he not contacted? Is Mr. Moore, a Home Office official, not hopelessly compromised in the search for the truth by his lack of independence?

Mr. Quibell went on to say that, because of conflicting advice, the Home Office commissioned a study before Yarl's Wood was built about the benefits of sprinklers. Beyond expressing incredulity that after years of experience the Home Office could need another study, I am stunned to read that that study's findings are still awaited—after one decision by a Home Secretary not to fit sprinklers and a subsequent one to reverse the policy. Both decisions were made without recourse to the policy advice—why? Mr. Moore was asked at the inquiry whether he intended to call Ministers; he answered, "No". Will the Minister ask him to reconsider and have hearings in public? Is not that small part of the jigsaw an illustration of appalling policy procedures and decisions?

Another crucial issue in the evidence is that of police access to the site during the incident. Shortly after 14 February, many reports indicated that the police had not gained access as soon as they arrived at Yarl's Wood, but were instead held outside for some hours. I am not aware that the police have denied those reports. The police were unable to give evidence to the county council inquiry for legal reasons that I understand and respect, but Group 4 did so through David Banks, the managing director of its custodial services. On page 230, he says:

That is a fundamental issue. How does the Minister intend to resolve it and how may the public see that that is done? After all the legal restrictions on the police are lifted, will she contemplate giving them a public opportunity to present their description of events on the night?

My constituents and I look to the Home Office or subsequent procedures to clarify other matters. For what was the Home Secretary apologising on his visit to the area in March when he referred to errors being made

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in terms of the people who were at Yarl's Wood? Which detainees were there inappropriately and why? Why did Group 4 not know? How were decisions made to build such a fire risk to house people who had nothing to lose? Why were no serious fire precautions taken, save for showing detainees a video on arrival?

How were the insurance arrangements made? A parliamentary answer tells me that the Home Office has an insurable interest in Yarl's Wood because it is Crown property. The insurers for its interest are the same as those for the contractors running the centre: Mr. D. J. Pye's Lloyd's syndicate, acting through Capita Maclaren loss adjusters. As we know, it has taken the smart but immoral decision to sue the local police for £100 million and rising under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886, but the Home Office is a party to that. What insurance details were considered at the time of placing the contract to run Yarl's Wood? Did anyone think to ask what would happen in the event of a riot? If so, what was the answer? If not, why not? What will happen now to lift the threat of that massive bill off local taxpayers?

There are many other questions, but time is short, so I shall touch only briefly on the role of Mr. Moore. I understand from his evidence that he intends to submit his report to the Home Secretary by the end of June—a week from now. How many people at Group 4 has Mr. Moore interviewed? How many witnesses has he interviewed independently, by which I mean not relying on statements made to others? Which Home Office Ministers or officials has he interviewed? Has he sought access to the records of every detainee at Yarl's Wood on 14 February who was subsequently deported? Why has he held no hearings in public?

What is Mr. Moore's, and the Minister's, view of commercial confidentiality? That has been used as a screen to prevent access to certain issues. My view and that of my constituents is that when safety advice has been rejected by those responsible for the lives and safety of people kept under lock and key, commercial confidentiality should go out the window. The public are entitled to every scrap of knowledge about cost, contract, and price arrangements for insurance, and the details of every piece of correspondence or meeting through which decisions were made. Does the Minister agree, given her need to satisfy a new audience who are concerned about the planned accommodation centres?

With regard to my constituents' concerns, I asked for this debate partly because of the Home Office's failure to live up to the expectations built up by the Home Secretary on his very welcome visit to my constituency in March. If the Minister has had a chance to read the transcripts of the inquiry—I do not blame her if she has not—she will have noticed a common complaint running through the comments of virtually all groups and individuals in my constituency that were involved with the Home Office at the decision-making and planning stage for the building, and in dealing with the vital issue of access to the site. That complaint is of the Home Office's lack of attention to any matter beyond the boundaries established by a rather successful liaison committee. I pay tribute to the local councillors and those of my constituents who gave up much time to serve on that committee month after month. It provided

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the Home Office with substantial support, recognising its responsibilities in the face of a very difficult national situation.

However, advice about construction and safety and public warnings about security breaches were not heeded, and questions raised on a variety of issues, from who would be in the centre to the treatment of detainees, were dealt with reassuringly. No one had any reason to doubt the accuracy or good faith of those replies until we had the evidence of our own eyes on 14 February. Since then, as I have said in the House before, that confidence has been extinguished as surely as the fire was that night. People began to remember the fob-offs and the less-than-full answers.

To put that right, the Home Secretary came in March to assure us that full answers would be given to concerns raised by those close to the site. Those concerns go far beyond their own property rights or safety. My constituents, including those on the liaison committee, have always played an active part in refugee and asylum seeker support groups. That is not always popular, but I pay tribute to them for their care and compassion. I have not dwelt on their concerns, but I have not forgotten them. Certain aspects of the detainee regime might be a key part of any findings of the Home Office inquiry.

I wrote to the Home Secretary to follow up the meeting, and suggested a way forward, particularly in relation to access issues which could be dealt with quickly before rebuilding commenced and while other issues were stalled or sub judice. I cannot stress enough how vital that is. There might be some conflicts of interest, but they can be resolved with good will and energy if the Home Office gets off its collective backside and goes out to talk to people, as I suggested in March. It has not done so, and people living on Twinwoods Road—the only route to the centre—have had their patience stretched near to breaking point. I am grateful for the efforts of the local councillors and the residents' leader for keeping tempers in check, even though the chairman of the liaison committee has not had her letter answered, nor has Oakley parish council.

I put some of that strongly, but with good reason. May I remind hon. Members, stripping all niceties away, what Yarl's Wood is about and why people are justifiably concerned? On the night of 14 February, 385 people were being held lawfully but against their will in my constituency. They were in a supposedly secure environment, in a timber-framed building known to be highly combustible but without water sprinklers, and had received nothing more than rudimentary fire safety instructions. They were miles from a fire station, and the local fire brigade had warned against the absence of sprinklers but had been rebutted by the Home Office, which took precautions against accidental fire but did not seem to appreciate the risk of deliberate fire. Due to criminal activity, for which the perpetrators when convicted deserve the severest punishment, potentially lethal fires were started, endangering detainees, those guarding them, my constituents and those in the emergency services who attended and performed bravely in the face of severe difficulties.

Residents nearby were largely unaware of the incident for many hours because no system existed to alert them, nor were they aware when the supposedly safe environment was breached. Police attempting to deal

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with the incident were denied access when they first needed it. The aftermath includes a destroyed centre, a £100 million insurance bill, no public access to the Home Office inquiry, no action by the Home Office on a series of concerns advanced by residents, and little evidence of understanding of the frustrations being expressed. I regret to place all this before the Minister, but it is my duty to do so. On behalf of my constituents, I call upon her to recognise the severity of the issues facing her Department and to grasp this golden opportunity to make a difference.

1.17 pm

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and to the Minister—

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Do you have the permission of the Minister?

Mr. Hall : I do. I thank the Minister and the hon. Gentleman for allowing me a couple of minutes to follow a measured and thoughtful contribution to the Yarl's Wood debate. I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman about the public's concerns, many of which are held by my constituents as well as his, and I add my appreciation of the task carried out so responsibly and thoroughly by Bedfordshire county council.

I want to emphasise three of the many issues that have been raised today and on other occasions by the hon. Gentleman and others, and by me. First, the purpose of Yarl's Wood must in future be absolutely clear. The fact that it was not used as was apparently originally intended, only for end-of-process asylum seekers, but that such people were mixed freely together with other applicants at the beginning of the process plus convicted criminals, must have contributed to the tensions that exploded on 14 February.

Secondly, Stephen Moore's Home Office inquiry needs to be published soon and must be as open as possible. Only information relating to the police criminal investigations should be withheld. Matters relating to the Home Office contract with Group 4 must be placed in the public domain.

Finally, regarding the disgraceful attempts by Group 4's insurers to send the bill for reconstruction to Bedfordshire police, the Government must ensure that contracting out public services to the private sector means that the contractor does not simply keep the profits when things go well, but that it carries the risk for when things go wrong.

Lessons must be learned from Yarl's Wood before something else happens to the detention estate. It is imperative that public confidence be restored.

1.19 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes) : I thank the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his kind welcome at the start of the debate. I also thank Bedfordshire county council for its report and for the work that it put into it. I endorse and associate myself with the hon.

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Gentleman's remarks about the excellent response by the emergency services and others at the time of the fire. I also thank him for his work and for the constructive way in which he has tried to find a way forward for his constituents. He recognises the need for centres such as Yarl's Wood, and has tried to find a way through the issues surrounding them.

I also thank local people for the way in which they have responded. I have spoken to some of them today. I accept that the issue is difficult overall, and I perfectly understand how disturbing the incident at Yarl's Wood would be for ordinary local people. I can imagine myself in those circumstances, and I share and acknowledge their feelings. I understand that their trust must inevitably have been challenged by the events of 14 and 15 February, regardless of whether that feeling is completely justified or whether some of the hon. Gentleman's points about who was in the centre and so on were accurate.

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions, and he will understand that I cannot give a simple answer to some of them. He will also understand that I cannot discuss the report and the recommendations that will inform Stephen Moore's overarching inquiry, except where the Government have already said that they have made decisions. Before I deal with some of the hon. Gentleman's more general but none the less important points about the nature of Stephen Moore's inquiry and about consulting and involving local people, let me deal with some of his specific points.

Sprinklers are clearly a critical matter. I understand the keen interest in why there were none at Yarl's Wood. All that I can say at this stage is that the then Home Secretary decided not to fit them on the basis of a range of advice from different sources. However, the current Home Secretary has undertaken that sprinklers will be fitted in the remaining accommodation at Yarl's Wood, at Harmondsworth, and at future immigration removal centres, and we have begun consultation work on that matter. The hon. Gentleman also referred to a review on the use of sprinklers, but its scope is more general, and includes several different types of estate within the Home Office. It will be concluded shortly.

The hon. Gentleman asked why events took the course that they did, notwithstanding the range of advice available to the Home Secretary. Such questions are important, and the inquiry will have to deal with them. He also mentioned inspection. He will know that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 gave Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons the statutory power and responsibility to visit all immigration removal centres and detainees. Before taking on my present responsibilities, I was Minister with responsibility for prisons and I worked closely with the chief inspector. I took a keen interest in and have some knowledge of her work and I am perfectly happy with it. She is the person to inspect the custodial environment in the centres, just as she does in prisons. She takes an holistic approach, and I think I am right in saying that she intends to write a thematic report on the immigration estate, as part of her work programme. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about inspection, which is important, but the chief inspector of prisons is the right person to carry that out.

All three hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in the debate raised the question of insurance. I echo the comments made by the Home Secretary on 25 February

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about the implications of the Riot (Damages) Act. I cannot say more on that now because the matter is subject to continuing negotiations between the insurers for Group 4 and Bedfordshire police authority, but I reiterate the Home Secretary's comment that we recognise that the claim made by the insurers is unquestionably beyond the resources of Bedfordshire police. We will take whatever advice is necessary and work with the police authority to protect its interests and those of the council tax payers whom it serves. We shall certainly want to ensure that the police are not burdened with the bill.

We are carefully considering the more general question of the implications of the incident for future insurance. That is a big question which we must sort out, because we cannot continue to provide significant establishments, for which insurance is necessary, without ensuring that the insurers will deliver when an incident occurs.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire raised several issues about the Stephen Moore report. He mentioned June in connection with the time scale, but I understand that Stephen Moore has said that he will try to deliver the report to the Home Secretary by September, because he must wait for other investigations and reports to be concluded before he can complete his report.

Alistair Burt : I mentioned June because that is what Mr. Moore said when he gave evidence to the Bedfordshire county council inquiry.

Beverley Hughes : My information is different, but I shall certainly investigate that. I want to ensure that the scope of the inquiry is as comprehensive as possible in terms of those from whom evidence is sought, and that it covers the hon. Gentleman's questions. We do not

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want the validity and credibility of the final report to be open to challenge because people believe that not all the available evidence was sought. There will not be a public meeting of the sort requested by the hon. Gentleman, but it will be open to everyone to contribute to the inquiry process. The hon. Gentleman asked many questions that are germane to the inquiry, and I want to satisfy myself about the way in which it will be conducted and about its scope. Its terms of reference are the fire itself, but I hope that the inquiry will be comprehensive, so that it is not open to challenge.

The hon. Gentleman also raised several important points about consultation, which I discussed with residents before the debate. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and through him to his constituents, that we must get this right. As I said earlier to his constituents, they and my officials may have different expectations about the process of communication, and we need to bring the two sets of expectations closer together. I understand if some of my officials think that there is nothing much to say at the moment. That is true, because we are working hard considering the options. Inquiries are taking place, and we cannot make any definitive judgments until we have considered the results. Equally, I understand that, even if there is nothing to say, local people can be reassured in this interim period by being told that we are still here and are still interested. I give my commitment to try to ensure that that happens.

I am not going to apologise for the fact that we have a removals centre. I cannot do that because we need the facilities. I know that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. Wherever we site them, there will always be difficulties, but I accept that that puts the onus on Government and officials to try to ensure that we minimise the inherent difficulties as much as possible, and to work as co-operatively and openly as we can—although there are some limitations on that—with local people.

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