Home Office to use 'dispiriting and unsuitable' Napier Barracks to house asylum seekers until 2025

Priti Patel says continued use of the disused army buildings is "vital"
The reintroduction of sports and recreational activities will improve conditions at Napier Barracks for asylum seekers, Priti Patel said. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Home Office will keep using the controversial Napier Barracks to house asylum seekers for four more years, Priti Patel has revealed.

The department laid a special development order at the end of last month to allow it to continue using the disused army accommodation in Kent until 2025 – four years longer than originally planned – the home secretary said.

The buildings have been used as contingency accommodation to house asylum seekers during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Home Office only has planning approval under permitted development regulations to continue doing so until 21 September.

“Continued use of Napier, and the development of new accommodation models, are vital to our ability to continue to meet the ongoing demand to accommodate destitute asylum seekers,” Patel said in a letter to MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee.

She said the use of the barracks "may also form part of the Home Office’s longer-term plans to reform the asylum system", as set out in the department's New Plan for Immigration published in March.

The plan said the Home Office would stop using hotels to house asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK. The department will “bring forward plans to expand the government's asylum estate” to accommodate and process asylum seekers, including those whose applications have been rejected while they wait to be deported, according to the document.

Continued use of the Napier site “may enable the new processes to be tested and piloted, and so inform the final design of how accommodation centres will operate”, Patel said.

The barracks has been at the centre of a controversy since it emerged there had been a major Covid outbreak among refugees being held there during the pandemic. Initially, residents were forced to sleep in dormitories of up to 20, although these numbers were reduced after a few months.

A joint report by the chief inspector of borders and immigration and HM Inspectorate of Prisons described the huts in which asylum seekers were held as “dispiriting and unsuitable for occupation day and night for many months”, saying many residents felt unsafe and suffered poor mental health staying there.

Separate shower and toilet blocks presented “particular difficulties during very cold weather, especially when residents needed to use the toilet at night”, and toilets, washing and shower areas were "dirty and run down".

In a letter to the Home Office accompanying the report, the then-immigration inspector David Bolt said there were “clear lessons” about the need to consult with local organisations and services about potential asylum-seeker accommodation, and questions over whether the Home Office should do more to assess asylum seekers’ health and welfare needs.

In her letter to HASC, Patel said her department had “significantly improved Napier’s conditions” since February, when inspectors visited.

She said the Home Office had increased its engagement with contractors, stakeholders and site residents; put in place joint management tools with Public Health England and the accommodation operator Clearsprings Ready Homes; and restricted the length of stay for residents to between 60 and 90 days.

Her letter did not mention any improvements to the buildings or their upkeep so far, but said officials will be adding electrical sockets for each sleeping area and individual lights “to enable individuals to control the light around them at night”.

She said the Home Office will also improve conditions at the site by introducing sports and recreational activities; installing CCTV; adding outdoor seating and tables; and providing onsite dentistry services.

Non-governmental organisations will be allowed to provide activities, advice, and support onsite, and Home Office civil servants and the main subcontractor will hold weekly virtual meetings with residents to “identify and act on concerns”.

Officials have developed a joint general risk register and issues log, along with a business continuity plan and evacuation plan, “which has improved the operation of the site and confidence of the onsite teams”, the home secretary added. 

To manage the health risks of Covid-19, Patel said all residents will be offered vaccinations against the virus, that all residents will take lateral flow tests when they arrive and twice a week thereafter, and that residents will be given personal cleaning kits. According to the ICIBI and HMIP report, only a "small minority" of residents said they had enough soap and sanitiser to keep their hands clean when inspectors visited in February.

Special development orders are made by statutory instrument, where the secretary of state is allowed to act in a legislative capacity to grant planning permission for a specified development.

Patel said the intervention was necessary “to ensure that this much-needed facility continues to provide accommodation” for asylum seekers.

The building will be handed back to the Ministry of Defence in 2025 to be developed into housing the following year.

Between now and the, the Home Office will carry out works to “improve the accommodation and strengthen the available amenities”, Patel's letter, which was published yesterday, said.

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