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Why won’t the Home Office allow MPs – or journalists – into Yarl’s Wood

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My article, first published on The Justice Gap

As 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.

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.

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Catherine West MP

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