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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for making a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity. Let me associate North-East Bedfordshire with his thanks to all who put their lives at risk in dealing with the criminal, deplorable and potentially lethal incident the other week, including my constituents who work at Yarl's Wood.
In view of what the Home Secretary said about insurance, is he not startled by the fact that the firm of loss adjusters Capita McLaren, acting for the insurance syndicate D.J. Pye, has been able to express its thanks to Bedfordshire police by announcing its intention to proceed against them to the tune of £43 million? Surely those who have had a facility like Yarl's Wood imposed on them with no opportunity to object should not run the further risk of having most of their police budget stripped away the following year? Will the Home Secretary go further than he did a moment ago, and condemn that sharp practice as deeply offensive? Will he ensure that it will not succeed in bankrupting Bedfordshire police or council tax payers?
Will the Home Secretary reconsider the timing of his visit to North-East Bedfordshire? Could he visit as soon as possible, in order to meet constituents who, through the Yarl's Wood liaison committee, worked hard and openly with the Home Office and Group 4 to ensure the success of Yarl's Wood? They had to endure the disruption caused by the building of the facility in a rural area, and they now feel rather slapped in the face by a situation which, it turns out, they predicted rather more accurately and confidently than those whose salaries they pay so that they can advise the nation.
Mr. Blunkett: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he dealt with and handled the situation before the events of 14 February and the way in which he has done so since. I will try to come to the area as quickly as possible. I take entirely his last point about drawing on the wisdom, knowledge and intelligence of those at local level and heeding it more closely.
I thought that I had gone quite a long way in relation to the insurers and their underwriters. All I can say is that I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's views about protecting the police and those whom they serve from the impact. Like him, I was astonished.
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I thank my right hon. Friend for the measured and positive attitude that he is adopting today and for his robust support for the excellent work of Bedfordshire police and fire services, which acted superbly under extremely difficult circumstances. It is important that we all adopt a measured and positive approach, because there is much anger, disbelief and concern across the country, including in the Bedford area, and because some people may have lost their livesalthough I am delighted to hear that that is unlikely.
May I ask my right hon. Friend to think again with regard to releasing the review documents? I would like the opportunity to see the experts' reasoned justification that led to the conclusion that sprinklers should not be installed. It is important that these matters be out in the open so that we can learn. That does not detract from his welcome and commonsense announcement regarding the installation of sprinklers as soon as possible at Yarl's Wood.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement that he will come to Bedfordshire to meet local people who have legitimate concerns about Yarl's Wood and indeed about the implementation of the Government's detention policy. I have also called for a public inquiry at the appropriate time so that all these matters can be examined in depth and public confidence can be restored.
Mr. Blunkett: I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and the way in which he has dealt with the situation since 14 February. I make it clear that restoring public confidence, particularly in the locality, is a priorityhence the wish to come to talk to local people and to ensure that we provide not just verbal reassurance, but visible reassurance of the changes and improvements that have been made and the lessons that have been learned.
I believe that the review that was initiated in spring last yearof fire safety and the role of sprinklersshould inform the overarching inquiry, and that we should publish the inquiry so that people can see the determination and the facts as they have been laid out. I would like to see how we can draw those various elements together before determining the form in which that should be done.
Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Does the Home Secretary accept that the preface to his statement has got to be right and commands support on both sides of the House? He referred to being in touch with the immigration and nationality directorate to speed up the process.
He will know that most people think that those processes take far too long and that lawyers do well out of them, but virtually nobody else does. What specific steps does he intend to take to speed the process up, bearing in mind the fact that the longer people are in the process and are detained, the more likely it is that there will be more disorder, regrettable though that would be?
Mr. Blunkett: Despite the fact that the process here is speedier than that in most other parts of Europe, I agree that most people expect it to be faster than it is at the moment. The comprehensive programme laid out in the White Paper three weeks ago is intended to make a contribution in that respect. The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the speed of operation within the removal centres, and again, that comes down to the avoidance not only of prevarication with administration and bureaucracy but of legal prevarication, which is why I doubt whether not the entitlement to claim bail, but the automatic right of lawyers to intervene at
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): First, I add my support to that of my fellow Bedfordshire Members for the police and fire services of BedfordshireI hold them in the highest regardbut my question is about sprinklers. It is an irony, or possibly a coincidence, that about three years ago the senior fire officers of Bedfordshire, who were seriously concerned, asked me to lobby the Government to press for sprinklers to be installed in public, commercial and industrial buildings throughout the country. I was one of the Members who lobbied Ministers at that time, and had action been taken then we might have saved millions of pounds at Yarl's Wood, and in other circumstances lives might have been saved. That is as may be, and perhaps we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. None the less, there are lessons for the future. Many other buildings in the private and public sectors throughout Britain need sprinklers, and I hope that the Government will give urgent consideration to what needs to be done. In my meeting with the fire officers three years ago, they made a specific point about the density of sprinklers. In some buildings, although sprinklers are fitted, there are too few of them to do the job properly. The fire officers emphasised strongly that for sprinklers to be effective, the density needs to be sufficient, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will take note of what they said.
Mr. Blunkett: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his foresight. However, an assessment is made for each particular facility not simply because of the cost of sprinklers but to determine their appropriateness. Obviously, where there is open accommodation and it is unlikely that people will deliberately commit arson, the need for a universal sprinkler system is reduced. I have acknowledged this afternoon that I believe that it was a mistake not to understand the nature of the secure removal centre facility, and the likelihood that people would behave as they did on 14 February, so the lesson has been well learned.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I echo the Home Secretary's congratulations to the public services involved in coping with the situation, and also his statement that the blame lies fairly and squarely with those who started the fire and behaved as they did. Nevertheless, the way in which he is operating his detention policy means that he is gathering together in one place several hundred people who are without hope, because they are at the end of the process. A high degree of volatility is built in; he is dealing with desperate people. I entirely understand and echo his wish that such centres should not be run as prisons, but given the nature of the population that they are holding, may I ask him to tell the House what the ratio of staff to prisoners is at