Yarlswood 1As a new Member of Parliament, I contacted the Immigration Minister in all good faith last summer to request a visit to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre. My north London constituency is a diverse one and at that time, only a few short weeks after my election, I’d already had residents with immigration and asylum casework turn up at my advice surgery desperately needing help. One constituent told me she’d spent four months in Yarl’s Wood and spoke in vivid detail about how appalling the conditions there were.

It’s absolutely absurd that the Home Office should refuse a request of this kind when it is clearly in the public interest for this information to be available. The defence of commercial interest can never been used when there are important issues of policy that should be in the public domain.
Keith Vaz, Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee

I didn’t think for a minute that as an elected Member of Parliament, whose job is to scrutinize, my request would be turned down. But after two months ‘careful consideration’ it was – apparently to protect the ‘privacy and dignity’ of the women held there.

Anyone who has read the independent inspection report where the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, described Yarl’s Wood as ‘a place of national concern’ will understand why I believe it’s essential these places are open to scrutiny.

I am astonished that the Government thinks a supervised visit by an elected Member of Parliament is a threat to ‘privacy and dignity’, in an environment where, according to powerful research by the charity Women for Refugee Women , 45 per cent of the women detained said they feel unsafe.  Many spoke of male staff barging into their rooms without knocking or male staff watching them be rub-down searched.  Some of the most vulnerable women on suicide watch spoke of sexual harassment as male guards watched them sleeping, using the toilet or showering.  One ex-detainee told of a bladder problem she ended up with because she didn’t want to have to use a toilet in front of a man.

Surely a much greater cause of concern is the lack of ‘privacy and dignity’ the conditions of detention affords to these women?

Serco, the company that runs Yarl’s Wood, launched their own investigation following last year’s distressing undercover Channel 4 documentary that revealed numerous incidents of self-harm and alleged that Serco employees verbally abused detainees. Led by the former barrister Kate Lampard, their investigation report published in January 2016 highlighted ‘serious concerns including capacity, training and an inadequate proportion of female officers to care for women at the centre’.

It was a welcome and much-needed investigation, but it shouldn’t have been Serco launching their own review. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has a duty to make sure people are being treated humanely in Government detention centres. She should have called for an official review when allegations were first made and she certainly shouldn’t have renewed Serco’s contract before a full investigation was carried out. With so many concerns being raised about immigration detention centres, there needs to be a proper assessment of the whole system – not simply isolated investigations of particular incidents.

There also needs to be much better scrutiny because the public has a right to know what is happening to detainees in our name.

Yet immigration centres, like prisons, are almost entirely closed off from public scrutiny by journalists – and now seemingly even by elected politicians. Where is the accountability? With such secrecy and a refusal to allow public scrutiny, I don’t feel confident that anything has changed since the issues highlighted in the Channel 4 documentary.

I also wonder why in 2016 we are even continuing to use prolonged detention. My constituent spent four months in Yarl’s Wood and was then released to continue her claim in the community. Her example isn’t unusual, the same thing happened to two-thirds of the women held there. If they can continue their claims in the community, it doesn’t make any sense to lock them up in the first place Such a system is expensive, at around £40,000 per year per person, and that doesn’t even begin to count the cost to already vulnerable people’s mental health.

The Shaw Report recommended an immediate end to the detention of pregnant women and a 28 day limited for all immigration detention – two things I fully support. The UK is now the only country in the European Union not to have an upper time limit on detention and some people are held for months or years without knowing when they are likely to be released.

Women at Yarl’s Wood have spoken of how being locked up forces them to relive the trauma they thought they’d escaped and the recent inspection report revealed that levels of self-harm have almost tripled since the last inspection in 2013, with 72 instances in six months.

Yet the Government has refused to introduce a time limit, saying in answer to a reason Parliamentary question that it wouldn’t be ‘appropriate’. They also shamefully rejected a House of Lords amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have ended the detention of pregnant women.

I may not yet have passed through the doors of Yarl’s Wood, but I will continue to use my voice to speak out for the women who are held there and who deserve to be treated with dignity, decency and respect.
Find out more about the Women for Refugee Campaign on women asylum seekers locked up in the UK (here).


Profile photo of Catherine West About Catherine West
Catherine West is the Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green

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  • Martin Wright June 13, 2016 2:38 pm

    I believe that diocesan bishops have the right of unannounced visits to prisons, but I don’t know if they ever use it, or if they can only visit in their own diocese. It would be interesting to try this out. The current Bishop to Prisons is the Right Rev. James Langstaff, bishop of Rochester (and he has a seat in the House of Lords, so might raise issues there). I would have thought that prejudicing the commercial interests of those running the centre was exactly what was required! as well as not accepting tenders for government contracts from any company currently under investigation for malpractice.

  • noel June 13, 2016 3:42 pm

    In response to the independent news artical dated 13th june 2016.

    I am not suprised about the home office response, however very suprised the home office are prepared to protect so called damage to reputation of private businesses, if public documents are disclosed.

    What about damage to vulnerable patients who have been subjected to abuse, the trauma that will never leave their memory, are they not valued, like the value businesses have for its shareholders.

    What are these shareholders thinking of, is it the love of money over human life, that only matters to them now.

    It would seem now, that this present government are happy to be on the dog lead of private businesses, told what to do and now are protecting the private businesses over public scrutiny and opinion. Lets not forget we are paying for these businesses to manage public institution, we all have a stake and we are all accountable.

    The government have now crossed the line allowing other disfunctional businesses to think they are also protected and that wrong doing will be covered up, carrying on business as usual.

    This odd approach about damage to reputation to private business , Surely the wider landscape is the reputation of the abused. Surly the reputation to the tax payers would be first in the thoughts of Theresa May.

    Surly the voting public have something to say about vulnerable patients who are getting raped and abused. It would seem these institution and private businesses are intertwined with shareholders who are also members of parliament.

    Noel finn

    Whistleblower yarlswood detention 2012 2013

  • trevor June 13, 2016 6:41 pm

    I’m glad you have drawn this to the public attention,
    because I think it reveals a culture of double standards within government and I’ll explain why.
    I’m sure you are aware of the BHS scandal and Sir Phillip Green’s complaint against the select committee
    and in particular Labour MP Frank Field,
    because he feels that he won’t get a fair hearing if he attends this week.
    the committee and especially Frank Field has made his feelings clear about the way BHS was allowed to be brought to ruin
    leaving the 11,000 staff without a job and pension.
    but you are an MP showing concern for the feelings of your constituents
    and yet the government won’t allow you to enter Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Center
    even if you are supervised?
    does that not reveal Double standards in the way Government deals with complaints about people who are being ill treated exploited and neglected while being held in a detention center?
    its OK for MP’s to question business men about the way they run their business and treat their staff,
    but when a single Female MP wants to investigate the way Female’s are treated in a certain detention center,
    all of a sudden the shutters go down and arms are crossed.
    and yet all you are doing is what Frank Field is doing…putting the interests of the people first.
    I think If I were an MP and was treated this way I’d be feeling pretty frustrated.
    But I encourage you to keep pushing Catherine…keep knocking…no matter how long it takes
    eventually the barrier will be removed and the door opened
    and the interests of the women in question will be dealt with.
    but in the mean time Forgive me but I say shame on the government for being so unfair.
    and the longer they continue being unfair the more it will destroy public confidence.
    because they are regularly Told that Britain is a nation ruled by law
    and yet when an MP is told that Female detainees are being treated in unlawful ways,
    the Government turns its back on you.

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