A highly critical report into the use of “filthy” army barracks to house asylum seekers during the Covid-19 pandemic is “damning criticism of the leadership and culture of the Home Office”, according to Yvette Cooper.
The chair of the home affairs select committee said details of conditions at two sites, published in a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, “shows just how unsuitable, unsafe and inappropriate this accommodation was” during a pandemic.
Her questioning at a Commons session last month had already revealed 178 asylum seekers caught coronavirus in January while being held at Napier barracks in Kent, after they were forced to stay in dormitories of more than 20.
Home secretary Priti Patel said they had followed public health guidance at all times and instead blamed “mingling” by those being housed there while they waited for their case to be dealt with.
But the inspector report has rejected that suggestion. “Given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, once one person was infected a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable,” the report described.
It was damning about wider safety issues at Napier and at Penally Camp in Wales, which have housed hundreds of asylum seekers in the past year. Inspectors reported "many men who described feeling depressed and hopeless at their circumstances".
“In our resident survey, all of those who responded at Napier and the vast majority at Penally said they had felt depressed at some points," it continued.
“At both sites about a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal.” Inspectors said they had serious safeguarding concerns in relation to Napier, writing: "There was inadequate support for people who had self-harmed.
“People at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit ‘isolation block’ which we considered unfit for habitation.”
Serious concerns were also raised about the standard of accommodation when inspectors visited on 15 February. “The environment at both sites, especially Napier, was impoverished, run-down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation," they said.
"Cleanliness at both sites was variable at best and cleaning was made difficult by the age of the buildings. Some areas were filthy.”
The ICIBI and HMIP interim report also states:
- The Home Office gave its accommodation contractors less than two weeks to make each site operational, despite both sites presenting “substantial logistical and other challenges”.
- Local stakeholders who needed to set up essential services for residents, such as healthcare, were not consulted and were given insufficient time to prepare before the first asylum seekers arrived.
- Last autumn Public Health England advised the Home Office opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier was not supported by current guidance, but the site was opened before its recommendations had been actioned.
- Asylum seekers had “little to do to fill their time, a lack of privacy, a lack of control over their day-to-day lives, and limited information about what would happen to them”, which had a “corrosive effect on residents’ morale and mental health”.
- In response to the report, Cooper said: “This shocking report from the ICIBI shows just how unsuitable, unsafe and inappropriate this accommodation was for long term accommodation in a pandemic.
“Putting more than 20 people in crowded dormitories as Covid was spreading was highly irresponsible.
“The Home Office told the Home Affairs Committee that they were following public health advice at every stage of the process yet the ICIBI says that both sites were opened before public health recommendations had been actioned.
“How could the Home Office have allowed this to happen?”
Cooper said “clinically vulnerable people were put at risk” and the Home Office must explain why they told her committee they were operating in line with the guidance “when this report is clear that they weren’t”.
The Labour former cabinet minister added: “This report is also a damning criticism of the leadership and culture of the Home Office.
"At a time when the home secretary and permanent secretary have told us they are making major changes to improve the culture and the humanity of the department in response to the Wendy Williams Windrush review, this report shows they haven’t yet learnt the lessons.”
After a second inspection took place last week at Napier, inspectors will now produce a more detailed full report to be submitted to Patel.
A Home Office spokesperson said in response to today’s findings: “As the home secretary has set out, our asylum system is broken. That is why we will bring forward proposals which are fair but firm.
“During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.
“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.