A security guard at the gates of Yarl's Wood. Photo: Getty
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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
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.