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.
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