Immigration watchdog sets out inspection plan as report calls barracks asylum housing 'dispiriting' and 'dirty'

Latest inspection report says Home Office was "too hands-off" in managing Napier and Penally accommodation
Photo: ICIBI/HMIP/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Border Force assurance, family visa processing and the deportation of foreign national offenders are among the areas of the Home Office’s work set to come under scrutiny from the new immigration inspector this year.

The topics are three of the 14 new inspections planned by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, who took up the post in March.

Neal’s inspection plan for 2021-22, published alongside his predecessor's inspection of the Napier and Penally barracks accommodation for asylum seekers, also sets out plans to inspect intelligence; a small airport; a small seaport; the Satellite Tracking Service Programme; Home Office reporting centres; the immigration system as it relates to the higher education sector; the UK Visas and Immigration chief caseworker unit; country information on Ethiopia, Iran and Zimbabwe; and country information on statelessness.

Neal will also lead another inspection of the EU settlement scheme – building on three previous inspections – and carry out the third annual inspection of adults at risk in immigration detention.

The inspectorate will also continue work on three inspections begun under Neal’s predecessor, David Bolt, covering UKVI’s front-end services; Border Force freight operations; and the use of contingency asylum accommodation.

The inspectorate will also conduct more reinspections and unannounced inspections, the timings and topics of which have yet to be agreed.

“As the year progresses, I will continue to refine the subjects under inspection as well as conduct short-notice inspections in response to intelligence and changing circumstances,” Neal said.

The inspector said he will also be commissioning an analysis after the summer to inform his strategic inspection programme for the next three to five years. The programme will be published next year and will “rebalance” scrutiny across different areas of the Home Office’s work: Border Force, immigration enforcement, asylum and protection and UKVI.

This year, Neal said he also intends to introduce different types of inspections to deliver a “flexible and relevant programme, with increased reach across the areas I am mandated to inspect”. Pilots for these changes will begin immediately.

The plan also noted that four inspection reports have been submitted to the Home Office by ICIBI, which have not yet been published. The reports cover ePassport gates; adults at risk in immigration detention; the EU Settlement Scheme; and asylum casework.

Napier and Penally 'dispiriting'

The most recent report to be published is an inspection carried out jointly by the inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Prisons, looking at conditions at Napier and Penally barracks.

The full report – which comes after initial findings from the inspection were shared in March – paints a picture of “dispiriting” conditions in which many residents felt unsafe and suffered poor mental health.

The inspection found the huts in which asylum seekers were held were “dispiriting and unsuitable for occupation day and night for many months”, with separate shower and toilet blocks presenting “particular difficulties during very cold weather, especially when residents needed to use the toilet at night”.

Toilets, washing and shower areas were "dirty and run down" and inspectors observed a poor standard of cleaning, they said, with only a "small minority" of residents saying they had enough soap and sanitiser to keep their hands clean. There was little privacy in many of the shower blocks.

In a survey by ICIBI and HMIP, 70% of asylum seekers living at Penally said they did not feel safe and 43% that they had experienced threats or intimidation from other residents. While staff had all undergone safeguarding training, the inspectorate found “not all vulnerable individuals were being identified, nor was prompt action always taken when vulnerability was identified”.

A third of residents said they had a mental health problem, and 90% said they had felt depressed while living at Penally. Only one resident said they had received help with these problems.

The report also noted residents were not given complaint forms or notices about how to make a complaint, and there were no one-to-one introductory meetings in which people could raise concerns.

The inspection – which came after the revelation that there had been a major Covid-19 outbreak at Napier, and that people had been forced to sleep in rooms of up to 20 at the height of the pandemic – found recommendations of Public Health Wales and other agencies to prevent the spread of the virus were not implemented before asylum seekers were moved into the camps.

And while residents were “notionally organised” into bubbles on the advice of PHW, this did not work in practice because the layout of the site “did not lend itself to keeping groups separate”, according to the report.

The report raised concerns about communication with other organisations – in particular, noting that the decision to use Penally Camp was “poorly communicated to key stakeholders, who had very limited time to establish services”.

‘Wholly inadequate’

In a letter accompanying the report, sent to the Home Office in March, Bolt wrote that 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.

He said “whatever assessments had been made of the physical and mental health of the men selected as suitable to be moved to Penally and Napier... were wholly inadequate”, with only a “tiny percentage” of those arriving at Penally having had a health assessment.

“At both camps, a number of men were identified as suffering from serious underlying physical and mental health conditions, including one case of active TB at Napier,” he said.

And in setting up the two facilities, he said, “the department’s failure to consult local stakeholders on whose services and support the camps would be reliant before taking the decision to proceed was a serious mistake and the need to move at speed is not a satisfactory excuse”.

He continued: “The fact that in both cases local stakeholders learned of the decision via rumours rather than from the Home Office made matters worse. Professional courtesies aside, it is hard to see how the Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes were able to make an accurate assessment of the risks and suitability of either site without input from these stakeholders. Was it known, for example, that two of the four GP practices in Folkestone had recently closed?”

But he said the inspection also raised questions about the wider asylum system. He said communication had been “extremely poorly managed” and demonstrated that – contrary to the Home Office’s pledge to see the “face behind the case” – people were being treated as “cases” not “faces”.

“While I am not arguing against these functions having been outsourced, I believe that the Home Office has been too ‘hands-off’ in the case of the camps and should have had a regular presence at both, as I mentioned to the permanent secretary back in January,” Bolt wrote.

“But it also raises questions about the asylum process itself. You will already know that what asylum seekers want to know more than anything is what is happening with their claim. Few understand that they should not expect to hear anything from the Home Office for months, until called forward for their substantive interview. Penally and Napier residents were/are no different, except for a feeling that their claims had been marked out as in some way inferior.”

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