A security guard at the gates of Yarl's Wood. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The unacceptable situation at Yarl’s Wood calls for an independent inquiry

It is right that Labour has committed to hold an inquiry.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, is right to have pledged the next Labour government to hold an inquiry into allegations about events at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The allegations of sexual assault by male staff against the all-female detainees are very serious and there are strong inconsistencies between the responses of the private security firm Serco who run the facility and the Home Office regarding what has actually happened there.

What is certain is that the Home Office has recently reappointed Serco to operate, maintain and manage the centre for eight more years - a contract worth more than £70m. It is unacceptable that the continued holding of pregnant women, trafficking victims and people who may have been tortured continues indefinitely. An inquiry should have been held by the government into the situation before any contract was awarded. This is why the shadow home secretary has made a clear statement on how Labour will address these issues.

In the spring of this year, Rashida Manjoo the UN Special Rapporteur, was on a fact-finding mission into violence against women and girls. She was turned away at the gates of Yarl’s Wood. As she rightly said at the time: “If there was nothing to hide, I should have been given access.”

What goes on within the facility should be transparent and the scraps of information about reported incidents there are a cause for great concern.

These include:

  • Claims that a detainee who died last March had initially been denied medical assistance. There were further allegations that staff at the centre refused NHS offers to help other women distressed by the death.
     
  • The upholding in January 2011 by the High Court of claims by two families that they had been unlawfully detained.  The Judge at the time noted that “no one can seriously dispute that detention is capable of causing significant and in some instances long lasting harm to children.”
     
  • A hunger strike in 2010 when more than 50 women at the centre refused food in protest at their indefinite detention. Some of these women also claimed they had experienced racial and sexual abuse.
     
  • Allegations in 2013 that a photo suite within the facility’s Avocet accommodation wing had become a clandestine venue for sexual relations between officials and women residents. One detainee also claimed that many younger new female arrivals were targeted by male staff almost as soon as they arrived.
     
  • Staff were reportedly sacked for engaging in sexual activity with a detainee, while another staff member was allegedly sacked for not reporting the matter after they were informed about what had occurred.
     

The government had a responsibility to address and investigate these issues before awarding Serco a contract worth £70m.

Furthermore, we need to know why Serco and the Home Office differ so markedly on reports of the number of abuse cases which have occurred. Figures from Serco show that sexual contact complaints are almost eight times higher than the Home Office admitted in a freedom of information response dated 21 November. Serco also said it has received 31 complaints while the Home Office has indicated it is only aware of four.

The Home Office says that only one case has been substantiated, yet Serco says it has sacked 10 staff members over alleged inappropriate behaviour.

These are serious discrepancies and this presses the case for an open and transparent investigation to clarify the extent of alleged sexual misconduct inside Yarl's Wood.

I'm pleased the shadow home secretary has committed to finding out the truth. She has also pledged to use some of the additional 1,000 staff that she recently announced Labour would introduce to speed up the backlog of asylum claims which has risen by 70 per cent in the last year.

It is not acceptable that applicants are spending years in detention, wasting money and their own lives.

It is very difficult to understand why the Home Secretary has rewarded this contract to Serco. Theresa May had the opportunity to give Yarl’s Wood the fresh start that it needs, but failed to take it. It is ironic that a firm that overcharged the Justice Secretary by nearly £70m has been awarded a similar sized contract by his colleague.

The women who arrive at Yarl’s Wood deserve to be treated with the respect and courtesy that would be afforded to anybody else, not to be fearful of possible intimidation or sexual abuse. 

Action is needed at Yarl’s Wood. I’m sorry that the women currently there will have to wait for a Labour government in May for this to happen. The coalition has let them down, but Labour has now pledged that it won’t.

Vera Baird QC is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria  

Vera Baird QC MP is the Solicitor General
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.