Home Office refused leave to appeal in prisoner abuse inquiry

The Home Office has failed in a bid to challenge a High Court ruling over the terms of an investigation into alleged abuse at a scandal-hit immigration detention centre.

Two former detainees at Brook House immigration removal centre, identified only as MA and BB, successfully argued that a full independent investigation into “systemic and institutional failures” was needed “to ensure fact-finding, accountability and lesson-learning”.

Their case followed a BBC Panorama programme, broadcast in September 2017, which featured undercover footage showing alleged assaults, humiliation and verbal abuse of detainees by officers at the G4S-run centre near Gatwick Airport.

The footage appears to show one detention custody officer holding MA down while whispering in his ear: “Don’t move you f***ing piece of shit. I’m going to put you to f***ing sleep.”

BB, who alleges that officers used excessive force on him after he threatened to kill himself, later claimed: “The abuse shown on Panorama wasn’t even half of what really went on.”

Fourteen members of G4S staff were dismissed or resigned following the broadcast, and the Home Office asked the prisons and probation ombudsman (PPO) to carry out an investigation.

In June, the High Court found that there was “a real risk amounting to an overwhelming probability that former G4S staff will not attend voluntarily to give evidence”, and ruled that “the PPO must have a power to compel witness attendance”.

Mrs Justice May held that “the egregious nature of the breaches”, which she said were “repeated events, in front of others, where the perpetrators were managers and trainers, as well as ordinary officers”, required the PPO to have such powers.

The judge also ruled that MA and BB were entitled to publicly-funded lawyers, saying: “When dignity and humanity has been stripped, one purpose of an effective investigation must be to restore what has been taken away through identifying and confronting those responsible, so far as it is possible.

“How is that to be done in any meaningful way here unless MA and BB, non-lawyers where English is not their first language, are enabled through representation to meet their (alleged) abusers on equal terms?”

On Thursday, MA and BB’s legal teams announced that the Court of Appeal had rejected the Home Office’s application to challenge Mrs Justice May’s ruling.

After considering the application without an oral hearing, Lord Justice Bean ruled: “I do not consider that there is any realistic prospect of success in the proposed appeal.”

The judge said it was “difficult to see how a satisfactory investigation could be carried out in the present case without the alleged perpetrators of the abuse being required to give evidence”.

He added: “The special investigation should be permitted to proceed without further delay.”

Following the High Court’s ruling in June, BB’s solicitor Joanna Thomson said in a statement: “The victims at Brook House suffered dreadful inhuman and degrading treatment.

“They have also suffered the injustice of the Government’s failure to hold an effective inquiry.

“This important judgment should now lead to an investigation that will uncover the truth so that there are no further abuse scandals in the UK’s immigration removal centres.”

MA’s solicitor, Lewis Kett of Duncan Lewis, said the June ruling “ensures that those officers can be held to account for their actions and that the PPO will be better equipped to get to the heart of why this happened and how to ensure it is never repeated”.

Last month, a National Audit Office investigation found G4S has made £14.3 million in profit from Brook House between 2012 and 2018.

Following the revelation, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, accused the Home Office of a “shockingly cavalier approach” to sensitive contracts.

Ms Cooper said the NAO’s findings raised “serious questions” about the Home Office’s handling of sensitive contracts and claimed its monitoring should have picked up problems sooner.

She said: “For G4S to be making up to 20% gross profits on the Brook House contract at the same time as such awful abuse by staff against detainees was taking place is extremely troubling.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We have noted the judgment and are considering next steps.”

Yarls Wood: “A Place of National Concern”

Yarls Wood
Yarls Wood

Controversial Immigration detention centre Yarl’s Wood has been labelled a “place of national concern” after a scathing report revealed conditions have deteriorated.

Inspectors found dozens of pregnant women have been held at the facility in Bedfordshire against Government policy, while some are being held for more than a year because of “unacceptable” delays in processing their cases.

In one case a woman had been held for 17 months.

The prisons watchdog also found the centre is understaffed and healthcare services have declined “severely”

Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, called for “decisive action” to ensure women are only detained as “a last resort”.

He said: “Yarl’s Wood is rightly a place of national concern. Other well-respected bodies have recently called for time limits on administrative detention, and the concerns we have identified provide strong support for these calls.”

Yarl’s Wood, which held 354 detainees at the time of inspections in April and May, has been beset by problems since it opened in 2001.

The last inspection in June 2013 concluded that the facility was improving, but Mr Hardwick said it has deteriorated.

The assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found:

:: There are too many men working at the centre, which holds mainly women.

:: Care planning for women with complex needs is so poor that it put them at risk and pharmacy services are “chaotic”.

:: Staff entered women’s rooms without knocking.

:: Violent incidents have increased, with the number of reported assaults trebling in a year.

:: Almost half of female detainees (45%) said they feel “unsafe” due to the uncertainty of their immigration status, poor healthcare and having too few visible staff.

:: Four women reported instances of sexually inappropriate comments from staff, one reported “sexual contact” and one reported comments, contact and abuse in a survey. However, in separate interviews, no women said they were aware of staff being involved in any illegal activity of sexual abuse. HMIP said it did not find evidence of widespread abuse.

:: Most uses of force on detainees were “proportionate” but inspectors raised concerns about an incident in which an officer repeatedly struck at least two women with his shield as staff attempted to remove a detainee.

Inspectors raised particular concerns about the length of time some women were held for and the detention of vulnerable inmates “without clear reason”.

At the time of the inspection, 15 detainees had been held for between six months and a year, and four for more than a year.

Even though the Home Office’s own policy states that pregnant women should not normally be detained, 99 were held at Yarl’s Wood in 2014. Only nine were ultimately removed from the UK.

In the previous six months, 894 women were released back into the community – more than double the number (443) who were removed from the UK.

The report said this “raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place”.

There were some positive findings. HMIP said the facility was clean, most detainees said staff treated them with respect, while recreational facilities and access to the internet were good.

Mr Hardwick said most staff “work hard to mitigate the worst effects of detention”, adding: “We should not make the mistake of blaming this on the staff on the ground.”

Maurice Wren, chief executive of Refugee Council, called for Yarl’s Wood to be closed.

He added: “The fact that people fleeing war and persecution are being locked away indefinitely in a civilised country is an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our democracy.”

Serco, which has operated Yarl’s Wood since 2007, said it was “working very hard” to increase female staff numbers.

Julie Rogers, of Serco, which has operated Yarl’s Wood since 2007, added: “We are pleased that in (the report), they found that four out of five residents said that ‘staff treated them with respect’ and that they, ‘did not find evidence of a widespread abusive or hostile culture amongst staff’.”

John Shaw, of G4S, which provides health services, said the firm is “reconfiguring” the service to address a “growing number of more complex medical requirements” at the centre.

He said: “We have prioritised providing primary care and I am encouraged that inspectors have found that access to those services is good.

“There are now more GP hours delivered at the centre than ever before and no detainee waits more than three days for a non-emergency appointment.

“We are committed to working closely with the NHS to raise the standard of service at Yarl’s Wood and improve results for those who require medical care.”

An NHS England spokeswoman said it has been working closely with G4S to “ensure that rapid progress is made to achieve the high standards which we expect”.

She added they have “action plans” in place to address the concerns raised during a recent inspection and they will be reviewed in the light of the new report.

The NHS England spokeswoman added: “We are committed to ensuring patients can receive both the physical and mental health care they need when required at this centre.”

Yarls Wood high self harm

Yarls-Wood

Immigration detainees at the controversial Yarl’s Wood centre have required medical treatment after self-harming on average more than once a week in the last two years, official figures show.

The Home Office revealed that in 2014 there were 61 incidents of self-harm which required medical treatment, while in 2013 there were 74.

The revelation prompted warnings that immigration detention can cause mental illness and could lead to instances of self-harm among vulnerable inmates like survivors of torture or rape.

Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre near Bedford is run by Serco and houses nearly 400 detainees who are awaiting deportation, most of whom are women.

In March, Serco suspended two members of staff after a Channel 4 News investigation raised questions about standards of care at the centre, with one officer recorded saying “let them slash their wrists” and several others referring to detainees as “animals”.

The charity Medical Justice, which sends volunteer doctors to see immigration detainees and campaigns for the release of vulnerable people from detention, described the figures as “worrying”.

Emma Ginn, co-ordinator at Medical Justice, said: “These worrying statistics give an indication of how harmful indefinite immigration detention can be.

“Our volunteer doctors visit immigration detainees and have seen hundreds of cases of seriously inadequate healthcare.

“In many cases immigration detention exacerbates existing medical conditions and in some cases has been the cause of mental illness.

“There have been a number of fatalities including self-inflicted deaths and we fear that with no improvement in conditions there could be more.”

Tory MP for Bedford Richard Fuller said he wanted the Home Office to look at whether vulnerable asylum seekers who claim to have been tortured or abused should be housed in detention centres, even if they cannot prove their allegations.

He said: “It is fundamentally about whether places of detention are resulting in more instances of self-harm and whether there are alternatives that could be just as effective for removals but lead to less self-harm instances.

“Just because you cannot prove that you were a victim of torture or rape doesn’t mean it did not happen.

“This is an issue I would strongly urge the Home Office to look at.”

The figures were revealed by Home Office Minister Lord Bates in response to a written parliamentary question from crossbench peer Lord Hylton.

Lord Bates said: “Information is collated on the number of incidents of self-harm requiring medical treatment at Yarl’s Wood IRC. In 2013 there were 74 incidents and in 2014 there were 61.

“These are the number of incidents of self-harm requiring medical attention; they do not necessarily equate to the number of detainees requiring medical attention as one individual may have received medical attention on more than one occasion.”

Home Secretary Theresa May has ordered a review of detainees’ welfare, which is currently being conducted by the former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw and is due to report back in August.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said women who have been sexually abused, tortured or are pregnant should not be detained and called for an “urgent review” of Yarl’s Wood.

The Labour leadership contender said: “These figures are very disturbing and raise more serious concerns about the way Yarl’s Wood is being run. This follows allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, which have still not been investigated. The Government is overseeing the worst of all worlds in the asylum system – more people detained, and for longer, with fewer deportations. Too many women are left in a hellish limbo in detention centres.