Why has Serco been awarded the contract to continue running Yarl’s Wood?

The detention centre in Buckinghamshire, where 400 women await deportation, has been dogged by allegations of mistreatment - so why has the company which has run it for the last seven years been awarded a new contract?

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Why has Serco been awarded the contract to continue running Yarl’s Wood? Yarl’s Wood is the notorious immigration removal centre for women (mainly) in Bedfordshire; and in 2013, Serco was outed by The Guardian as “the company that is running Britain”. Increasingly, it seems to be running the world, employing 120,000 people in 30 countries, and providing services as diverse as driving tests in Canada, air traffic control in the United Arab Emirates, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the United States. With a portfolio like this, you might think that Serco is universally acclaimed as a first-rate provider. Yet the announcement of the renewal of the Yarl’s Wood contract was greeted by widespread disapproval. 

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, was quoted in The Independent expressing disappointment that the contract had been renewed before an independent inquiry into the running of Yarl’s Wood had taken place, pointing out that “too often, Serco’s Yarl’s Wood operation appears to have fallen below the high standards we would expect”. When I spoke to Harriet Wistrich, a solicitor who has represented several female detainees at Yarl’s Wood, her first reaction was: “What would they have to do to lose the contract, I wonder?” Louise King, a Labour Councillor for Bedford, replied to me with almost exactly the same words, and said it was “worrying” that Serco had “been given the opportunity again”. Natasha Walter, founder of the charity Women for Refugee Women, told me she was “really shocked and sad” that Serco had been reappointed. “It just seems extraordinary,” she told me.

So what’s been going on? Why should it be extraordinary that a company that is awarded new contracts at least every month should sign another one? The Mirror's data site Ampp3d puts it succinctly in an article from a few weeks ago:

Last year, the government called in City of London police to investigate claims of fraud involving a prisoner transfers contract. The investigation is still ongoing.

And last year [Serco] were also banned from tendering for government contracts for six months after it was revealed that they'd overcharged taxpayers by claiming it had tagged criminals who were actually dead or imprisoned.

AND YET, in spite of this, we are still using them for public services… WTF?

The contract renewal came only two weeks after an announcement that the National Audit Office, responsible for ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively, would be looking into Serco’s running of Yarl’s Wood amid allegations that the contractor had “inflated certain figures”. Despite this, the Home Office announced that Serco’s offer “was the best in meeting quality and cost criteria and providing value for money for the taxpayer”, resulting in their “emerging as preferred contractor” — an oddly passive way to describe a decision they themselves have made.

When I contacted Serco, they pointed me towards their statement in which they boast of  a proposed “series of improvements and innovations” that will be “facilitated by […] significant investment”. But Louise King points to recent service reductions Serco has made at Yarl’s Wood in order to save costs. “Anything that enhances the experience of someone who’s there seems to be being reduced over the last month,” she says, pointing out that “only a few weeks ago, Rupert Soames [Serco’s CEO] said they had underpriced their services; it’s odd to now claim they will be providing enhanced facilities”. On the other hand, the £70 million Yarl’s Wood contract more or less cancels out the £68.5 million Serco agreed to pay back to the Ministry of Justice after overcharging for electronic tags.

Harriet Wistrich laughs despairingly when I ask her what she thinks about Serco being re-awarded the Yarl’s Wood contract. “Just in relation to the cases that I dealt with, it’s quite clear that whether or not Serco have suddenly made a dramatic turnaround and put in place all sorts of guarantees for women detained there, it is an extremely unsafe place for women. There have been repeated allegations of guards having sexual relationships with or without ‘consent’, and in a culture in which that seemed to be able to exist in an alarming way.” 

She tells me about the second case of sexual misconduct she took on. “This particular detainee had ended up having sexual contact with three different male officers,” she says. It was “no surprise that this could be allowed to happen”. When I contacted Serco for comment, they released a statement in the name of Norman Abusin, Serco Contract Director at Yarl's Wood: “We take all allegations of sexual misconduct extremely seriously and they are always fully investigated. When an allegation was made in 2012, the Home Office was made aware and Serco decided that in addition to our normal internal investigations, it should be immediately reported to the Police who interviewed the resident.  The police have passed the file to the CPS who do not propose any prosecution against Serco.”

This differs slightly from Wistrich’s version of events: she tells me that “the police weren’t initially brought in to investigate”, and that they were only involved subsequently at her request “over nine months later”. They have since conducted “a very thorough investigation” and the matter currently rests with the CPS. Wistrich claims that it is “absolutely a prima facie case” of misconduct in public office.

Wistrich further points to a secret internal report into allegations of repeated sexual assault by one of Serco’s staff against Sana (not her real name), a female detainee at Yarl’s Wood. Serco was forced to release the report after a dogged pursuit by The Observer, and Wistrich says it is “a shockingly biased piece of investigation”. The report refers to a female detention officer who “appears to have believed the allegations without considering the possibility that they have been fabricated”; she was “given guidance and advice to assist her in being more objective in the future”.

The investigation seemed to start from the assumption that Sana was lying. The report suggested that she was being coached by her solicitor “in order to thwart her removal directions”, and that Sana may have “manipulated the situation in order to put [the alleged perpetrator] in a position where she could make an allegation”. Sana was not believable as a witness, being too “clinical”. She did not “appear distressed”. Furthermore, the alleged perpetrator was, the report said, a “family man with strong religious beliefs [who] would have a lot to lose” — as if any of those traits have ever stopped a sexual abuser. 

The report was not a surprise to those who regularly come into contact with Yarl’s Wood. Louise King, who is currently conducting an investigation as chair of the Yarl’s Wood Health Scrutiny Committee, tells me that “the culture of disbelief issue keeps coming up”. Her words echo those of Meltem Avcil, a former Yarl’s Wood inmate, who described Serco’s employees as having “disbelief” when I interviewed her some months ago. Their claims are corroborated by a former senior Serco official who worked at Yarl’s Wood and in May 2014 claimed that the centre was not fit for purpose. It operated, he said, within a “culture of disbelief”.

These allegations are rejected by both Serco (“We absolutely refute the suggestion that there is an endemic culture of disbelief towards the women in our care at Yarl's Wood”) and the Home Office (“Yarl’s Wood is inspected regularly by the Chief Inspector of Prisons as well as its independent monitoring board. Neither have found any evidence pointing towards a 'culture of disbelief' at the centre.”). 

And yet allegations continue to surface. In the first oral evidence session of the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention, Maimuna Jawo, an ex-detainee, said: “If you are sick, you are pretending. If you are pregnant, and you are in labour, you are pretending. If you have mental health, you are pretending. Any sickness that you have in detention they don’t look at it like a sickness, they just say that you are pretending.” She explains that she was given only paracetamol for a cut finger (she says she cut her vein). “I never had any other medication, even a plaster to put on my wound. All I was having was paracetamol which they would put in the water for you”.

Jawo’s mention of paracetamol is striking, because it is part of a running trend I have noticed: whenever I speak to ex-detainees about Yarl’s Wood, they always seem to mention paracetamol. “Every time you go [to the healthcare centre], no matter how ill you are, they just give you paracetamol and they send you back,” Meltem Avcil told me. In a recent "undercover tour" of Yarl’s Wood, the Independent's Carl Moreton recounts the story of “Anna, from Africa, [who] says that she suffered a stroke inside Yarl’s Wood that left her paralysed down one side, but was put to bed with just paracetamol”. When I ask Louise King about this reliance on paracetamol for all ailments, she tells me she thinks it is still the norm. Wistrich agrees: “they tend to answer with paracetamol for any complaint anyone has”. King adds, “I've also heard of Kalms (a herbal remedy) being offered to women in distress. One woman I myself was visiting had been prescribed anti-depressants before detention but was told ‘everyone is depressed here’ and therefore couldn't get a prescription”.

While such a cavalier approach sounds shocking, the statement is not far off the truth: many detainees at Yarl's Wood are depressed. A report by Women For Refugee Women (WFRW) found that “93 per cent [of the women in Yarl’s Wood] felt depressed, 85 per cent felt scared, and more than half thought about killing themselves. Ten women, more than one in five, had tried to kill themselves. One third had been on suicide watch in detention.” One of the women WFRW interviewed said: “Living is not worthwhile any more. Being dead would be much better.” It should come as a shock to no one that vulnerable women, up to 85 per cent of whom have been raped or tortured - often in a detention setting - should find being imprisoned and guarded by mainly male guards traumatic. Indeed, 70 per cent of the women interviewed by WFRW said that male guards made them uncomfortable. 

In the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry, Jawo said: “Anybody who is suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.”. Alice, an ex-detainee from Cameroon, agreed. “Yes, it’s true what Maimuna said about the guards. I didn’t want to talk about it because I feel a little bit ashamed talking about it in front of you. Yes, it’s true sometimes when you are washing, you need to remove something or, even if you need to go to the toilet, the guard will stay. After they are staying they are laughing and they are saying 'she have big boobs', 'She have big breasts'. They are just laughing between themselves, they are just looking at you. I didn’t want to say that before because I feel a little bit ashamed to talk about it.”

Later on the the transcript, Dr Katy Robjant reveals that a University of Surrey study she conducted found that there were “significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder [and] anxiety in those who were detained, compared to the asylum seekers who were living in the community, despite comparable levels of pre-migration trauma”. She also pointed to research from around the world, saying that all the studies she looked at “showed that detainees had very high rates of mental health problems”, and that the impact was long-term. “Longer detention has been shown time and time again to produce worse outcomes in terms of mental health.”

In 2013, the Chief Inspector of Prisons conducted an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood, and “identified a number of women who had been detained for very long periods – one for almost four years”. They also found that “several obviously mentally ill women had been detained before being sectioned and released to a more appropriate medical facility”, noting that “it was difficult to understand why they had been detained in the first place”. They also found that pregnant women had been detained without evidence of the "exceptional circumstances required to justify this”, one of whom “had been hospitalised twice because of pregnancy related complications”, and that detainees “who had clear trafficking indicators – such as one woman who had been picked up in a brothel – had not been referred to the national trafficking referral mechanism as required”.

This is all going on despite the UK having signed up to the United Nations Commission On Human Rights' Guidelines, which in section 9.1 states that “victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence need special attention and should generally not be detained”. Readers might remember that in April 2014, the UN special reporter on violence against women was denied entry to Yarl’s Wood.

Of course, detentions and removals don’t fall within Serco’s remit — although at least one witness to an alleged sexual assault by a Serco employee has since been deported. “The problem with Yarl’s Wood goes beyond the behaviour of one company,” says Natasha Walter. “It’s the failure of government policy that women who come to this country seeking refuge from persecution are locked up for long periods unnecessarily. The Home Office doesn’t seem to know or care much what’s going on in Yarl’s Wood.” Louise King agrees: “I wouldn’t have any greater confidence in the Home Office being able to run the service.” The findings of the committee she chairs are making it “clear that it isn’t possible to deliver good mental health care within a detention setting. The two are not compatible.”

There are serious questions over Serco's handling of the Yarl's Wood contract. However, the more fundamental question is this: why we are locking vulnerable people up in the first place? Not only is it psychologically traumatising for the detainees, it is not cost-effective, with WFRW estimating it costs nearly £30,000 more per year to detain an asylum seeker than to support her in the community. And of course, for some women, the nightmare never ends. As one of the women quoted in Women for Refugee Women’s report, Detained, says, When I left detention, Yarl’s Wood followed me to Manchester. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a trance, I feel I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys. Even though I’m out of detention, I’m not really out - I still have those dreams.”

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, The Other Half, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.